Reflections on Inequality and large cities

Interesting article on megacities and inequality entitled “Do cities widen the gap between rich and poor?” By Kristian Behrens and Frédéric Robert-Nicoud in World Economic Forum 

Yet one pattern has gone largely unnoticed: inequality is especially strong in large cities. At least one-quarter of the increase in earnings inequality in the US during 1979-2007 is explained by the high growth of earnings inequality in large urban areas (Baum-Snow and Pavan 2013).

According to this research “Large cities are more unequal than the nations that host them

In it, several magnific research questions aroused:

Are big cities merely the locus where income inequality is starkest, or are they host to economic mechanisms that explain (at least partly) that inequality?

How can we then explain the size-inequality nexus? Two main explanations are posed by the authors.

One seems to attribute the variations to the different industrial structure:

First, large cities may differ systematically in their industrial structure and the functions they perform. Large cities host, for example, more business services and the higher-order functions of finance and research and development (R&D), whereas small and medium-size cities host larger shares of lower-order services and manufacturing.

Another to the better access to public transportation:

large cities attract a disproportionate fraction of households at the bottom and at the top of the income distribution (Eeckhout et al 2014). Central cities of US MSAs attract, for example, poor households because they offer better access to public transportation (Glaeser et al. 2008)…

…Actually, Harvard economist Edward Glaeser claims that the large poverty rates of central cities are a testimony of their success, not their failure: they attract poor households by catering better to their needs (Glaeser 2011)

And this is the authors’ theory on this phenomena. They attribute inequality to both greater incentives and risk of failure:

…larger cities provide incentives for the most able to self-select into activities that offer high payoffs to the successful. However, the risk of failure associated with those activities also increases because workers in larger cities compete against more and better rivals.

Disproportionate rewards for the most skilled – and failure for the less skilled – then drives income inequality.

All reasons are truly insightful. However, I’d like to remark two things. First, more attention should be paid to the origin of new-residents. Are such issues as land use conflicts, forced displacement beneath this phenomena? See bellow map.

Secondly, none of them seems to pay special attention to the symbolic and dramaturgical nature of many of the human behaviours (Erving Goffman would agree). To what extent is material success the reason to emigrate to large cities? The place we live is probably the most determinant factor of our individual identity. The prestige of living in a large cities for many rural-side newcomers could be an important factor and that, perhaps, the higher inequality (and all problems around it) is seen as the price to be paid. Furthermore, the opportunities in terms of individual emancipation may be seen as the real incentive beyond economic factors. Specifically, the fact of being seen as urban citizen from the original rural community members could be the emigration underlying reason. One may prefer live anonymously and walking free in the city than keep belonging to rural communities or Gemeinschaft in terms of Ferdinand Tönnies. This is especially important in developing countries. We shouldn’t forget that most of them are eminently rural countries getting rapidly urbanized.

In two word, (and as said in previous posts) we can’t understand such processes as rapid urbanization from an exclusive “economicist” point of view. Those processes “ involve social control”, as Piketty has recently suggested.


Dramaturgical perspective: understanding everyday life

Erving GoffmanThe term dramaturgical perspective was first adapted into sociology from the theatre by Erving Goffman, who developed most of the related terminology and ideas in his 1959 book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Together with ethnomethodology and symbolic interactionism, is one of the most relevant perspectives in the field of qualitative research.

Before providing further explanations, read the following passage wrote by Orwell (1961) about his experiences when washing dishes in a Paris restaurant:

As soon crosses the door, a sudden change ensues. The set of his shoulders is modified, all dirt, desire and irritation are gone in an instant. It glides smoothly over the carpet with a solemn, almost priestly. Remember our maitre d’hotel assistant, a fiery Italian, pausing at the door of the room to address an apprentice who had broken a bottle of wine, shaking his fist above his head, screamed loudly (happily the door was more or less soundproof):

“Tu fais me – you are called waiter, you, a young bastard? Thou waiter! You are not up to standard to scrub the floors in the burdel where your mother comes from. Marquereau!

Then he entered the dining room and sailed crossing with plate in hand, graceful as a swan. Ten seconds later bowed reverentially to a client. And I could not help but think, as soon as she saw him bend over and smile, smile with that blessed trained waiter, that the customer was about to be embarrassed to have such aristocrat to serve him. (Orwell, 1961, p. 68-69)

Which are the theoretical assumptions of dramaturgical perspective? Life is like a theatrical performance. We humans adapt to the roles we play. But also, we try to convince others that we are the people we represent, like maitre d’hotel assistant in Orwell´s passage. And that´s why Clinton denies a couple times his sexual relationship with a scholar or, more related to our everyday life behavior, why many of us quickly get ready when having an unforeseen visit at home in the very morning, why we wear our best dress in a job interview, or why we try to make the best impression on our CEO when he/she drops by the office.

What does this perspective imply for a market researcher? A businessman buys good suits to make a good impression on customers. People buy the latest iPhone model to show that they are up to date with new technologies or acquire certain brands to show their commitment to the values ​​they represent. An environmentalist likely refrains from acquire a brand which does not show any sensitivity with global warm. In short, we buy things to play certain roles, as well as to convince others we are the people we want to be. Can your company help people on this venture? So by mean qualitative research you may know what roles your target wants to play in life. This information may be crucial for a successful marketing strategy.


Craig J. Calhoun, Donald Light, Suzanne Infeld Keller. Sociology. McGraw-Hill, 2000.
Flick, U. (2009). An introduction to qualitative research. Sage Publications Limited
Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life.
Orwell, G. (1961). The Orwell reader: fiction, essays, and reportage. Mariner Books.

Research perspective in the field of qualitative research

TsmyaA simple glance on the cartoon does not leave room for doubt. Whatever your perspective, whatever your research´s results. In the field of qualitative research there are several approaches. These are different in their theoretical assumptions, in the way we understand the object of study.  There are three mainstreams: symbolic interactionism, ethnomethodology, dramaturgical perspective. They will explain in detail in following posts. Suffice to say here what their essence is:

1. Symbolic interactionism. How individuals interact with each other and within society by mean symbols. In other words, what such gestures as shaking hands or leaning ahead mean for us and for other cultures? (See further details here)

2. Ethnomethodology. How people make sense of their lives? The order and harmony of our lives depends on simple but very rooted behaviors. (See Harold Garfinkel)

3. Dramaturgical perspective. What sort of person is behind the role we play? Your professor, your boss, your employee? Are they as they seem to be? This perspective assumes that our role depends on the context and the people we are talking to. (See Erving Goffman)


Craig J. Calhoun, Donald Light, Suzanne Infeld Keller. Sociology. McGraw-Hill, 2000.

Flick, U. (2009). An introduction to qualitative research. Sage Publications Limited