Kuznets Curve Research Paper Starter

Kuznets Curve

(Research Starters)

This article discusses global stratification and global systems of stratification such as slavery, the caste system and class system, and their relationship to the Kuznets Curve and its prediction for the future stratification of the world's countries. Also discussed is the Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC) which economic environmentalists use to measure the relationship between the wealth of a country's citizenry and the level of pollution in that country. The article defines global stratification, and sociological perspectives including the Modernization, Dependency and International Division of Labor theories. The article goes on to discuss global wealth and how it is determined and distributed, along with the differences between absolute, relative and subjective poverty. The Kuznets Curve is defined and discussed, as it relates to how technological advances lead to less inequality during industrialization.

Global Stratification


The Kuznets hypothesis, developed by Simon Kuznets in 1955 and introduced in his presidential address to the American Economic Association, states that throughout history, the technological advances of a country cause social inequality, or stratification, to increase and then decrease again over time. In other words, income inequality increases in the early stages of industrialization, then later reverses itself. Then, in a post-industrial era, the trend reverses once again (Keutsch & Silber, 2004). According to Kuznets, in agrarian societies, greater levels of inequality contribute to the smooth operation of the social system, but when a country industrializes, equality of life chances is more beneficial (Kuznets, 1955). The Kuznets curve, shown in Figure 1, is a graphic representation of this relationship, with the intensity of social stratification on the y-axis. This intensity is shown increasing from hunting-and-gathering societies through horticultural/pastoral to agrarian, decreasing with industrialization, and actually increasing again during a post-industrial period (Macionis, 2007).

There are other indicators besides economic wealth that must be taken into consideration when discussing the Kuznets curve and the relationship between advanced technology and inequality. Ethnic discrimination in both the political and the economic realms contributes to income inequality. Industrialization does create an inverted U-shaped progression of higher and then lower inequality, but while the influx of foreign capital into a country should foster economic growth and thus lower income inequality, it in fact does just the opposite and causes more income inequality (Kassebaum & Jenkins, 2003).

Kuznets Curve & Population Composition

Inequality can often be related to social situations where a group of people remain unequal, whether they belong to a class, caste, or slavery system, because of ascribed characteristics: those attributes that one cannot change, such as sex, race, ethnicity, and age. Therefore, researchers have determined that by using the Kuznets curve, it is possible to see that low-income countries are often more heterogeneous in their composition and that they become more homogenous as a country industrializes. Following the Kuznets hypothesis that the future is open ended but expected to reverse the curve's trend, post-industrial societies necessarily return to their ethnically diverse origins. This heterogeneity allows for cultural diversity, thus offering, from an economic standpoint, new markets for products and services, as well as new policies regarding common goals and even infra-structure development (Tiemann, Das, & DiRienzo, 2006).

To begin a discussion of the Kuznets curve, which postulates that the technological advances of a country cause social inequality, or stratification, to increase and then decrease over time (Kuznets, 1955), it is necessary to define global stratification. Briefly discussed are major theories hat provide a background for the relationship between global stratification and technological advancements.

Further Insights

What Is Global Stratification?

Global stratification is similar to social stratification: a top-down arrangement of social groups, the positions of which are determined by the amount of control these groups have over resources such as food, clothing, shelter, education, and health care. Global stratification is a similar pattern of hierarchical inequality that spans not only the groups in one country but all countries throughout the world.

Global stratification measures a country's social system and the level of that system's openness. There are three basic social systems in use throughout the world:

* The class system

* Slavery

* The caste system

Each of these systems, according to the Kuznets hypothesis, is subject to erosion as technology and industrialization become central to a country's economy.

The Class System

The class system is the most open, allowing people in each class to have social mobility: the opportunity to move to a higher class or even, with downward mobility, a lower class. The class a person occupies determines his or her life chances, or ability to receive various resources from the system. The Kuznets hypothesis argues that within the class system, inequality among classes would diminish with increased industrialization but then would level off and even begin to increase during a post-industrial phase. This could be caused by the plethora of service-related employment, which takes the place of manufacturing jobs and often pays much less.


Two closed systems of stratification are slavery and the caste system. Both should begin to erode with the advent of industrialization. Slavery involves the ownership of some people by other people. Slaves are considered property, and so they have little or no control over their own lives or the lives of their offspring. Historically, there have been only five slave societies: ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, the United States, the Caribbean, and Brazil (Engerman, 1995).

The Caste System

Another closed system is the caste system, whereby social status is decided at birth, usually because of the parents' status. For example, in India, some people are placed in a caste based on the type of work they do. But India is also an example of a country where the caste system is slowly dissolving as education and employment become more universal. The caste system in South Africa, which is also slowly being dismantled with the advent of industrialization, is based on race.

Global Wealth & Poverty

Just as one country can have wealthy pockets of population as well as those living in abject poverty, so too can whole countries find themselves stratified based on wealth or lack thereof. There are three different global economies identified by social scientists: low-income, middle-income, and high-income countries. According to the Kuznets hypothesis, countries that adopt an industrial economy would begin to manifest a higher degree of equality and democracy. But there are questions about how a low-income country can become a high-income country when it has become dependent on foreign aid and other external sources of money as part of its economy.

The gap between the richest and poorest countries in the world has grown in the past half century. In 2011, the countries with the highest human development had over twenty-four times the per capita income of those with the lowest, as calculated in terms of purchasing power parity (UN Development Programme, 2013).

Low-Income Countries

Low-income countries often rely on an agrarian economic system that offers little in the way of national or personal wealth. Some 12 percent of the world's population lives in thirty-six countries that have been identified as low income (World Bank, 2013)....

(The entire section is 3516 words.)