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Cumulative inequality theory

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Cumulative inequality theory is the systematic explanation of how inequalities develop and influence the quality of life of societies, cohorts, and individuals. The theory [WL1] is principally a social scientific explanation of phenomena but with links to biological and health factors, personal adjustment, and well-being. A central premise is that “social systems generate inequality, which is manifested over the life course via demographic and developmental processes.” [S1]


Development and application

The ideas were developed by Kenneth Ferraro and colleagues as an integrative or middle-range theory [S2]. Originally specified in five axioms and nineteen propositions, cumulative inequality theory incorporates elements from the following theories and perspectives, several of which are related to the study of aging [WL2]:

  • Robert Merton [WL3] articulated the Matthew effect to explain accumulating advantage [S3]
  • Glen Elder’s life course perspective[S4, S5]
  • Cumulative advantage/disadvantage theory [S6] [S7]
  • Stress process theory [S8]
  • Age stratification theory [S9].
  • In recent years, Ferraro and his colleagues have been testing and elaborating elements of the theory in studies on a variety of topics. Examples include how early misfortune affects personal adjustment [S10] and health [S11, S12] and the health consequences of women’s occupational experiences [S13]. Others have applied the theory to the study of long-term consequences of early adult overweight for midlife health and socioeconomic attainment [S14], the effect of childhood socioeconomic context on adult depression [S15], cumulative exposure to neighborhood context on health [S16], and social factors associated with inflammation in later life [S17].

    Core ideas

    According to Ferraro and Shippee [1], there are five main ideas in cumulative inequality.

  • “Axiom 1: Social systems generate inequality, which is manifested over the life course through demographic and developmental processes.
  • Axiom 2: Disadvantage increases exposure to risk, but advantage increases exposure to opportunity.
  • Axiom 3: Life course trajectories are shaped by the accumulation of risk, available resources, and human agency.
  • Axiom 4: The perception of life trajectories influences subsequent trajectories
  • Axiom 5: Cumulative inequality may lead to premature mortality; therefore, nonrandom selection may give the appearance of decreasing inequality in later life.”
  • References

    Cumulative inequality theory Wikipedia

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