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Jo Boyden recommends the best books on

Children

We all know how children should be brought up, and rarely question the cultural norms that underly that certainty. But what does that mean for the policies we try to impose on the developing world? Jo Boyden, professor of international development at Oxford University and director of its Young Lives study, picks books that question our assumptions about how to successfully raise a child.

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    1

    Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children
    by Viviana A Zelizer

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    2

    Social Development
    by H. Rudolph Schaffer

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    The Roads of Chinese Childhood
    by Charles Stafford

  • the child in the city

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    The Child in the City
    by Colin Ward

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    5

    The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger
    by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

Jo Boyden

Jo Boyden is Professor of International Development at Oxford University and the Director of Young Lives.

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Jo Boyden

Jo Boyden is Professor of International Development at Oxford University and the Director of Young Lives.

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What are these books about?

What runs across the whole selection is how different ways of thinking about children—different values and different practices of child rearing—influence the way children learn, how they think, how they cope with difficult situations or address life more generally. My interest is in the way environments shape the human beings that we become.

Human beings are biologically driven to be social animals, so environment is incredibly important to human development processes. Human development is also extremely complex. I’ve learned that from working with children in very, very challenging environments. I’ve been astonished at the levels of resilience shown, for example, by children in Cambodia, following the Pol Pot regime: how they adjusted to life without their parents. All the local leaders had been slaughtered and they had to do their own learning. I became very interested—through the work that I did on children affected by armed conflict—in the extraordinary capacity of children to nurture themselves. When you think about some of the big global challenges today, like HIV and AIDS which in some communities has almost taken out a whole generation, you’ve got children raising their siblings in sibling groups and taking enormous responsibility in the absence of adults. I wanted to understand what it is that gives us those social, emotional, and cognitive skills that we need in order to be an active participant in our societies.

You’re an anthropologist, how did you end up working specifically on children in vulnerable situations?

I did my fieldwork as an anthropologist in Peru. I was working on very different issues at that time, but I made an observation which stuck in my mind. I’d always been taught that in order for a child to walk successfully, they had to go through a crawling phase. Crawling was considered part of a fixed developmental path. But in this village in the Andes, I used to watch children being carried on their mothers’ backs, with very little verbal interaction taking place, and with very little physical effort because they were nearly always sitting in what they call a ‘manta.’ I was asked to look after a child, and I’ve never forgotten it. I sat her in the middle of the room and I found some things for her to play with. I tried to encourage her to come and crawl towards me, and she couldn’t. She didn’t know how to. Children went straight to walking many, many miles—at very young ages—without going through that crawling phase. That alerted me to the idea things are not done the same way across all cultural contexts. They can be done very differently, often with similarly successful outcomes.

Then, when I came back to the UK, Oxfam was looking for somebody to produce a book for their field directors at the country level. The book was meant to cover all aspects of international development that fieldworkers were likely to be responsible for—from technical things like digging a bore well, right the way through to the softer stuff of popular education and so on. Children were an obvious priority group for any of their interventions. I looked around, and it was easy to find educationalists, or paediatricians or child psychologists or social workers. But I couldn’t find anybody who thought about the whole child. I found myself—by accident and not by design—writing a piece based on doing my own desk research.

“All the local leaders had been slaughtered and they had to do their own learning.”

I then went to the Save the Children Fund. They were a natural place to go, in those days, because they were the main UK-based child-focused agency. The thing that struck me—and led me into this work for the rest of my career—was that in the UK, they had a program working with children that was very innovative. It was all about community outreach, working with children who’d been excluded from schools etc. It all looked to be really right-on, radical stuff. Then I looked at some of their files for their overseas work and was shocked to find they were running children’s villages, custodial care for orphanages for children. It was the complete opposite. It seemed to me extraordinary that one organization could have such fundamental contradictions.

I went from there into doing applied research, which was intended to inform policy and practice. I was commissioned by different organizations that were doing work with children in different ways, often focusing on children in especially difficult situations, in exploitative and dangerous work, or children affected by armed conflict. I was working using evidence as the basis for planning policy and practice — rather than just using random ideas that come out of a set of normative assumptions that people may have grown up with or borrowed from somewhere. I felt it was really important to get good evidence on the specific circumstances of particular groups of children.

“Adults don’t necessarily bother to listen to children or don’t take children’s accounts seriously.”

It was important not to assume that adults always know best, and to actually listen to children and get their perspectives on their circumstances. That led me to a lot of child-focused research, which often was very enlightening. Adults don’t necessarily bother to listen to children or don’t take children’s accounts seriously. In these very difficult situations, children often actually had ideas about solutions to the problems they faced that made a lot of sense. It was about developing a respect for children and for their perspectives. Not to assume that they always know best: It is not about mindlessly privileging the child over the adult, but rather a recognition that they have legitimate views and concerns, often at an incredibly young age, far younger ages that we realize in the West.

In the West, we have a very sentimentalized view of children. We usually discover their competences well after they have already developed them, because we work on the assumption that they don’t know things or shouldn’t know things. We try to protect them all the time, rather than enabling and empowering them. That’s when I also developed an interest in children’s rights.

Can you give me a specific example of children helping find a solution?

A big challenge that we face in developing countries is around the relationship between children’s work and their education. Some time ago, some colleagues and I wrote a book called What Works for Working Children. We were trying to understand what children were getting from school education and what they were getting from their work. In the world of policy, education is seen to be a good thing for children, and work is seen to be a bad thing. It is often assumed that, because children are working in many places in the world—because their parents need them to work because of poverty and so on—that this is bad for the children’s education. They don’t attend all the time, they can’t concentrate in school because they are tired etc. So many people in the world of policy want to prevent all work below a certain age — 14 or so.

But if you talk to children, they give you a very different perspective on this. Many children who leave school early or don’t attend do so because of shortcomings in school systems. They might have experienced bullying by other pupils, or violence by teachers. In some countries, teacher salaries are so low they put the children to work to supplement their salaries. In our Young Lives study in Ethiopia, we did an observation at a school in a rural community and a significant proportion of the teachers just didn’t show up. By listening to children, you find out that going to school barefoot, in some contexts in Africa, means they get chiggers in their feet. Or that the school building has holes in the roof and they get rained on. Or that girls are embarrassed during their periods because the latrines are public and they don’t have any privacy and so they stop going to school at this time.

“In some countries, teacher salaries are so low they put the children to work to supplement their salaries.”

On balance, what I came away thinking was ‘Yes, children are put to work by their families. Yes, work sometimes detracts from their education.’ But actually it’s often what’s wrong with the school system that is causing them to work. Also, a lot of the children work in order to pay for the cost of going to school: uniforms, utensils, informal fees paid to teachers. In other words, the story that is out there in the world of policy is not the lived reality that children are experiencing. If you want to get more children to school, it is no good just banning their work. What will that ban mean for their families? Will it just increase their poverty? If you are trying to attract them into school, make school more attractive: make teachers go and use less violence. It’s kind of obvious but it’s extraordinary how little account is taken of that in the policy world.

The whole purpose of Young Lives, which is my current role, is to follow children’s lives longitudinally in four countries: Ethiopia, India, Vietnam, and Peru. The idea behind it is to look at what’s happening in children’s lives, how things are changing for them as they grow older, and how this evidence can feed directly into policy and change the way policy is thought about and implemented across different country contexts.

I think we’d better get going with your books. Shall we start with Pricing the Priceless Child (1985) by Princeton sociologist Viviana Zelizer?

When I started working on children’s issues, I kept thinking about the very contrasting cultural ideas that we have about children: the assumptions that we make in the West about what is good for children, what’s bad for children, how we should and shouldn’t be rearing them. Think of all the trade books there are on raising children. I was a ‘Truby King baby’ and raised by a strict regime. I don’t know who the guru is now, but there is always a guru, and parents are always following them.

This is a beautifully written book. It’s a really easy read. What it does is articulate how incredibly powerful our normative ideas are around children. She traces the history of thinking about children in the United States, based on documentary evidence like changing laws on child labor. She charts this dramatic transition from a time when children were useful, contributing members of households, earning income, all the way to now, when they’ve become emotionally priceless. They no longer contribute or add economic value. They’re entirely dependent on their families. They’ve become absolutely priceless and useless at the same time. In the West, this transition happened between the 1870s and the 1930s. We take for granted that children have always been the way we think of them now, but they absolutely weren’t.

“They’ve become absolutely priceless and useless at the same time.”

David Rosen has done similar work, tracing the role of child soldiers. Historically, they were heroes. Now it’s been prohibited through international treaties. To recruit children into combat is considered to be one of the biggest crimes that can be committed.

These massive transformations are actually now taking place in developing countries. What was happening historically in the United States, is now beginning to take place, particularly amongst the middle classes in developing countries. But along the way, it is very, very complicated because children are increasingly emotionally invested and priceless, but, at the same time, they still do need to play economic roles. They do need to contribute to their families because there isn’t the same welfare state in most contexts. You can’t afford to have members of a family who are just depending on you.

Attitudes to children do seem to change a lot. You hear about how, at some points in the past, parents thought it was bad to give their children too much affection. Nowadays we can’t give too much affection. It’s a bit confusing, isn’t it? How do we know that what we’re doing now is the right thing?

That’s exactly my point. We are now seeing rising rates of mental illness among young people, attempted and actual suicides and eating disorders. In places like Korea and Japan, we are seeing pathologies in children that would historically only ever have been associated with adults: high blood pressure, hair loss related to stress. Expectations of children, the pressures on them to perform well in school are so high, in many cultures, that we are introducing all kinds of social problems that didn’t exist historically. We’ve got these very powerful assumptions now. We really believe we’re right — to the point where we have an instrument, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which, although it is very broad and quite generalized, is actually being interpreted in particular ways by people who really feel they have some kind of cultural superiority in relation to other groups.

I like this book because it reminds us that we, too, came from somewhere else in our thinking. Presumably, historically, we thought we got it right. We now think we’ve got it right, but actually we’ve got children and babies in advertisements, we’ve got baby fashion, fashion shows and competitions, girls wearing high heels, having pierced ears and wearing make up at the ages of 6 and 7. We’ve got toys that are outrageously expensive. Toys, in themselves, ought to be questioned. That’s the whole point of the Colin Ward book: children don’t need toys.

Toys aren’t good?

It’s not that they’re not good, it’s that they’re not necessary. They’re a cultural product. We think they are necessary. So many of the things we think of as being necessary for children are just to do with our particular set of normative assumptions. That’s the argument, which is what this book makes in a really nice way. It was very influential.

Let’s go on to book number 2 on you list, which is Social Development (1996) by the eminent psychologist Rudolph Schaffer. How does this book fit in?

This is a textbook. I’ve never read it from cover to cover and I don’t imagine most people would. It’s particularly compelling for somebody who doesn’t have the training and background in the complexity of child development.

Schaffer was from a Jewish family and one of the children on the Kindertransport. His parents got him onto the train to England and, sadly, he never saw them again. This book reflects, firstly, a deep humanity — which I feel is a very important value to have in studying children. Secondly, the importance of relationships, of the social environment for children as they grow up — as you would expect of somebody whose relationships had been severed. He was a brilliant man, a powerful teacher, and a wonderful human being.

“Children who are not able to form attachments, for whatever reason, will flounder in their relationships”

The book focuses on the social aspect of development. So much modern thinking focuses on cognition. All modern education systems, for example, are focused on cognition. The route to success is understood to be a route through education that supports cognitive development. This book is much more focused on the importance of social relationships: of connections and attachments to others and how children build themselves through these social and emotional attachments.

It is a very, very comprehensive read across different aspects of children’s development: the biological imperatives in social interactions, how they are mentored, how they learn from others. It’s an important reference book that I go back to again and again and again in many of the areas that I’m working on.

One of the areas he focuses on is attachment and loss. Can you tell me a bit about that?

There is a sense that children who are not able to form attachments, for whatever reason, will flounder in their relationships, and therefore also in their growing sense of identity and belonging in life. There are different theories of attachment. The one some feminists have disputed is a theory of attachment which says that the sole primary attachment is to the mother. If that, for any reason, doesn’t develop, then the child is very likely to go off course, to display pathology in their behavior or in their development. That’s been quite heavily challenged, including by anthropologists who’ve worked in cultural contexts where the care-giving is not necessarily given by the mother. There might be multiple caregivers. Babies may be breastfed by more than one woman. Where you have multiple caregivers, you may have multiple attachments. But the point is that human beings have a fundamental need for attachment of some kind.

This is a book to come back to when you are looking at things like resilience, or the role of school education or work in children’s lives. For children growing up without mentors and caregivers, what would be the sort of faculties and attributes that they would bring to bear? What resources could they use in the absence of some of those relationships?

Does that have a specific effect on policies in a development context?

From a policy point of view, it has a lot of different implications. For example, there is a whole raft of research which has been done with children in war zones. It has been argued—quite authoritatively—that evacuating children from war zones, which historically has been quite a common practice, actually does more damage to the children than remaining with their families. That’s a really hard one to argue because Schaffer himself wouldn’t have survived: his parents died in German concentration camps. But there is quite a lot of evidence that the separation from the family is so disorientating, so damaging to children, that a policy of evacuation is now entered into much more carefully and cautiously. There will be far more efforts made, in conflict zones, to ensure families are not separated, sometimes even if it means staying in quite difficult situations.

But it’s worth adding that even that is culturally defined. For example, one Canadian psychologist compared refugee children who’d entered Canada from the Horn of Africa with those from Central America. They were all children who came on their own to Canada. What she found was that the Central American children were in real trouble emotionally, and the East African children adjusted much better. What she established, through her research, was that for boys in East Africa, going out and herding animals on your own is a rite of passage into adulthood. If you can live on your own in the bush for weeks on end, without the support of an adult, that’s a sign that you are now moving into manhood. In Central America, connections with family are fundamental to everything. There’s nothing positive about being separated from your family. Separation has different implications, depending on whether it is celebrated or not. Even attachments are shaped, to some degree, by the different contexts children live in. It’s extraordinary.

We are so sure of ourselves, but the more you look into childhoods across many contexts, the more you realize how little we actually do know. That then enables you to think differently about raising your own children. It’s brought me to think very differently. I’m not sure I got it right, but it makes you ask questions of your own approach.

There seem to have been a spate of popular books in recent years about child rearing in different cultural contexts. There was Bringing Up Bébé about French babies, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother about Chinese-style parenthood. People are aware that there are different ways of doing things, and are somewhat intrigued.

People are very intrigued. We’ve all been children. It is the one subject we all think we have some expertise in — until we have children of our own. Then we realize how little expertise we have, which is when parents so often reach out for these books, about different ways of doing things, or they get the advice of others. Unfortunately, we are very influenced by our peers, to the point where we uncritically accept things. The best example I can give of that is my own experience of raising children in Oxford. Knowing all the research that tells you clearly that, in the UK, your children are far more likely to be abused, or experience violence, at the hands of people they know well; that stranger-danger is statistically insignificant, I still found myself, when they got to their teens, terrified when they came home late at night. Emotionally I was thinking one way, while rationally I knew that the evidence pointed in completely the opposite direction. Of course, there are risks. Some children are abducted and murdered, but compared to the number who are abused within the family circle…

That’s a very powerful example of a mother who’s done the research and who doesn’t actually abide by the research because she lives in a particular culture and environment, where we assume things are done in a particular way.

I’ve lived in China with my kids, I’ve lived in Italy with my kids. There are certain things I would do in those countries which I wouldn’t here in the UK, just because I’d be out of step with everyone else.

Absolutely. You worry about the shame and the embarrassment, the kids coming back and saying to you, “So and so’s Mummy does this…” You are being compared. It feeds into all your insecurities. Parents go to crazy lengths, sometimes. That’s why I resort to science — and, yet, the science is very complex in this field too, and full of contradictions. Some of the best scientists are themselves bearers of enormous assumptions and norms. It is complicated and that’s what makes it a very interesting area to research.

What do you think about people in Oxford spending vast amounts—parents having to work in banking or other highly lucrative but all-consuming fields—in order to be able to send their children to private schools?

That’s a good example. Somewhere in their minds, they’ve been told that paying fees for school means they are buying a better education for their children. In some cases, they may be. There are factors which probably make private education better. If you believe that small class sizes guarantee a better education, private schooling probably does have smaller class size, which means that children get more individual attention. But, at the end of the day, what you are really buying is the social connections. You are giving your children a lift up in the world. Most jobs are assigned to people on the basis of somebody who’s in the know or has some kind of a connection.

At Oxford, we really struggle to get state school children into the university. All the children who apply excel academically — whether they’re from a private school or a state school. But the private schools coach children in all kinds of ways that the state schools just don’t have the resources to do. It’s incredibly hard for a child from a state school to compete on an even playing field with a child from a private school who has been coached, maybe for two years, before university entry.

“A child who excels in a state school is going to excel more at university than a child who has been cosseted in a private school.”

But state school kids in many universities actually do better than the private school kids — precisely because they have not been coached. Going to a private school gives you the entry advantage, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to do better at the end of the day. On average, you will not do as well. A child who excels in a state school is going to excel more at university than a child who has been cosseted in a private school. If you’re not part of the rough and tumble of life, if you’re not living in a socially, ethnically, religiously diverse community, life is going to be tougher in the real world.

There are also other issues. For example, the hothouse effect of raising children in private schools. Also, the thing about these jobs that parents have, where they’re working all hours of the day, is that they’re not with their children much of the time. That’s the downside. The investment that you put into paying for the fees is a cost to children, because you’re not with them.

Let’s go on to you third book choice. This is The Roads of Chinese Childhood (1995), which is about a Taiwanese village.

This is a book that I’ve gone back to again and again over the years. Charles Stafford is trying to give you a sense of the ordinary, everyday processes of learning in a fishing village in Taiwan, so at a very localized level. The everyday practices are very focused on building a sense of filial responsibility and duty towards your family, about reciprocal roles and obligations. That’s how you become a moral person. It’s not done through explicit teaching, it’s done through ‘ostensive learning.’ Cultural acquisition through everyday interactions is key. As a route to adulthood, he contrasts that ordinary knowledge with the explicit knowledge that’s taught, in a much more organized fashion, in school contexts — where they’re trying to teach children to be a part of a nation.

For me, this shows, again, how agile children are from a very young age. They’re integrating the very formalized way of doing things at school with this much more informal process — and there are tensions between the two. They’re not necessarily proposing the same moral values. This is a feature of so many children’s lives in the modern world. Education is increasingly based on academic accomplishment, globalized measures are being used to measure children’s attainment at school. That’s very different from what is valued and reinforced, informally, at home.

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The book is a real micro study. It involves intricate observation and is very much in the anthropological tradition. I wanted to have, as one of these books, at least one ethnography which shows, at the grassroots level, how children learn to become moral beings in their society. Just seeing things done in certain ways, teaches you how you ought to be. Which is very different from the world of policy which comes in with ideas, often imported from overseas, imposed by governments from above, which then have an enormous impact on children’s lives. The children’s rights discourse, which effectively came out of the West, became globalized through the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In the Young Lives study, we’re seeing what happens when you have a set of values that are imposed from above and another set of values which bubble up from the grassroots. The two come together, and one child may be faced with both sets of values.

And then what happens?

In Ethiopia, for example, children are getting teachers to intervene in family life when the parents say that it’s time for a girl to get married. Girls will tell the teacher they want to stay in school, and the teacher will tell parents, ‘It’s illegal for a girl under the age of 18 to be married.’ That’s in line with national legislation in Ethiopia, and in line with international guidelines, but absolutely not in line with traditional values.

Intervention can bring about positive change for children. However, when things are imposed they often have unintended adverse consequences, which is what I like people to be more aware of when they’re trying to impose globalized values. This book isn’t showing an inherent contradiction between school education and informal learning, but it does show you the ambiguities and the tensions, the different modes of childhood, in a small village, and gives you a sense of the complexity of lived reality for children.

We’ve now reached your fourth book choice, which is Colin’s Ward’s Child in the City (1978).

This is a very old book. It’s a photographic essay of all the extraordinary urban environments that children inhabit in cities across the world. Its visual impact is enormous. It really makes you think about how children interact with their physical environments.

Colin Ward was a lifelong anarchist and maverick and a great believer in self-learning, self-expression and self-organization. He was also an architect. A lot of what he was writing about in this book is about how children—whether they’re given permission by adults or not—will colonize all the spaces in a city and use them creatively for learning. So it’s another book about informal processes of learning, about the implicit and explicit learning that can take place in very diverse contexts. Cities offer all these incredible, informal learning opportunities. At the same time, many cities are quite hostile to children. He has children sleeping on the streets, and begging and so on. Historically, many streets were play spaces for children, where they would interact with other children. Nowadays, cars are more and more dominant. Increasingly, children are confined into playgrounds, into explicitly child-focused spaces.

It’s almost an ambivalent book. He’s asking, do we need to invite children in because they’re going to be there anyway? Should we be thinking more thoughtfully about these built environments so they are more conducive to children and their use of space? He wanted to design worlds that respond to children’s own perception of how they want their worlds to be, and their own perception of how they would use that world, which isn’t necessarily what you get when someone designs an adventure playground.

What was his view of playgrounds, then?

He was not very keen, because they are an artificial reproduction. It’s an adult model, which is trying to ape what children do with their spaces anyway. This was an incredibly influential book which was taken up by a lot of educationalists and psychologists. It’s extraordinary how children experience their environments in ways that we would never begin to imagine. We’ve become so addicted to formal, school education and formal learning processes. This book offers up a very different way of thinking about child development.

How does it tie in with our fear, if we do live in a city, about letting our children out at all these days without supervision?

I’d love to know, if he was writing the book now, what it would look like. It would look very different. The Department of Transport in the UK has done regular surveys—every 10 years or so—about children going to school. It’s really sad. It’s gone from groups of children meeting each other at the corner and trailing along together—that’s what the lollipop lady was all about—to children mainly being dropped off by car. If Colin Ward were to look now, he’d probably be absolutely horrified.

So we’ve got to your final book, which is The Spirit Level (2009) by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson.

This is a big ideas book — probably one of the biggest ideas for the 21st century. I’d be very surprised if other people haven’t recommended it on Five Books before. It had the most amazing impact. It was published in 2009 but the number of citations is already well into the thousands. It’s not about children, but from my perspective, it’s important for anybody studying children and childhood, because it’s about the kind of society you want your children to grow up in, how you ensure their future and their wellbeing.

What the book documents is a process of unbelievable, uncontrolled inequality on a global scale. I don’t know a country in the world which isn’t becoming more unequal. In the short life of the Young Lives study—we went into the field in 2002—the levels of inequality in the four countries we’re studying have grown astronomically. This book focuses on industrial countries, where the data is better, but the arguments apply increasingly across the board.

The focus of the international community is very much on absolute poverty. Many of the ills of modern society are more prevalent amongst the world’s poorest populations — whether it’s mental health, suicide rates, violence, poor education outcomes. The mechanism for lifting the poor out of poverty is assumed to be economic growth. It’s the obsession in this country, with this current government, for example. If you have growth, then so long as you have a good fiscal regime that ensures the rich pay their taxes, you will be able to provide a safety net for people living in absolute poverty.

“Inequality is damaging for everyone, and not just the poorest”

What the authors are arguing is very different. They say that within society, inequality—in other words, relative poverty—is far more damaging for everyone, and not just the poorest. The rich people also fare less well than those in more equal societies. There’s more anxiety, more stress, there are more social problems generally. In other words, we’re all impacted adversely by inequality. It’s devastating and damaging for everybody. It produces societies that are dysfunctional. This one single phenomenon underlies many of the problems we’re trying to tackle in society today. We’re tackling them all individually, but they’re all, in effect, outcomes of the fundamental problem of inequality.

They also make it clear that growth is finite, because of the environment. To continue to encourage growth to lift people out of poverty is not the way forward. Rather, you have to be much more serious about addressing inequality. It’s really disturbing that this argument, which has impacted a lot of people’s thinking, is not being translated into political action in many countries. They’re not focusing the attention where it needs to go. The processes of accumulation that are experienced by a tiny minority of people within countries or even globally are rampant and out of control, because they’re not being legislated for in most countries. That’s why four members of the family that control Walmart own the equivalent wealth to 40% of the American population.

The book is very much data driven, is that right?

Yes, it’s using big statistical datasets to make comparisons. They’re saying, ‘Let’s stop just focusing on safety nets and growth, let’s actually look at how we can deal with redistribution in a much more fundamental way.’ And it provides the data, the evidence, at the macro level. All the books I’ve chosen are very data driven, but with very different kinds of data and operating at very different levels. But often adding up to very similar conclusions, about everyday human processes of learning and development, what’s good for our well being, what’s bad for our wellbeing, how we grow strong, how we become vulnerable — the kind of values we’re living in in society. But The Spirit Level book is very much at the national level — comparing Scandinavian countries, countries considered to be enlightened, with countries that have much bigger social problems.

The authors are British but they’re focusing on US data?

Yes, the US data is good because you can differentiate between the states. That tells you about specific impacts of inequality within a particular country, and the inequalities in the US are really dramatic. They’re dramatic here too, but slightly less so, because you do have a welfare state, such as a free health service. We do have certain safety nets that are a consequence of redistribution. There isn’t that level of redistribution in the US because, ultimately, the government is not so pervasive in people’s lives. Even, as in the case of Obamacare, when there have been attempts to create a redistributive safety net effect, there’s been resistance, including from the very people who would most benefit. That’s a really perverse context, America. That’s, in large part, because many Americans have a historical resistance to intervention by the state. That’s to do with the fact that many left Europe, where they faced religious persecution, in search of individual autonomy and freedom from interference by outsiders.

Interview by Sophie Roell

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