Lasting legacy of Sir Tony Atkinson, pioneer in economic inequality research

James Wickham05/01/2017

The death has been announced of Sir Anthony (‘Tony’) Atkinson. For us at TASC Professor Atkinson was one of the most significant contemporary social scientists. Over several decades his work documented the extent of economic inequality in advanced societies. For us it was important that he was able to address TASC’s 2015 conference.

Tony Atkinson stood in that tradition of British social thinkers who linked social science, social policy and social justice, a tradition which stretches with fellow poverty researchers such as Peter Townsend back to economic historians such as R.H. Tawney. For them social science was ethical, empirical, and in the best sense of the word, reformist.

This focus on inequality – and above all economic inequality – filled a gap that grew within social science during Atkinson’s professional life as both economics and sociology became less and less concerned with inequality. Notorioiusly conventional economics has at best a moral acceptance of inequality. For Atkinson by contrast it was an ethical imperative to understand something that was morally wrong.

Photo: Sir Tony Atkinson addressing TASC-FEPS Annual Conference in June 2015

Economic inequality not inevitable
Atkinson’s main work sought to document and explain inequality and poverty, initially within the UK and then especially within Europe. Until recently economic inequality was off the agenda of social scientists.

For neo-classical economics the issue was of course uninteresting. However, this silence was compounded by much of conventional sociology’s collapse into identity studies. While the two main social sciences thus ignored economic inequality, Atkinson insisted on its importance, indeed centrality, to any understanding of society. He showed how economic inequality had been rising; he argued that this primarily the result of institutions and policy choices rather than inevitable market processes; he developed new indicators to guage the extent and above all the form of inequality and poverty.

Analysing inequality requires data that enables comparisons across time and space. Atkinson was the founder of the Luxembourg Income Study which has created an international repository of datasets that has become the primary resource for all inequality researchers.

Finally, Atkinson was always concerned to contribute to policy and to social change. His last book, appropriately enough, is entitled Inequality: What Can Be Done? and puts forward concrete proposals to tackle inequality. Hopefully his memorial will be the reversal of the growth in inequality within developed societies.

Professor Sir Anthony Atkinson, died 1 January 2017.

Watch Prof Atkinson's address at the TASC-FEPS Annual Conference 2015

Professor James Wickham

James Wickham

James Wickham was Jean Monnet Professor of European Labour Market Studies and Professor in Sociology at Trinity College Dublin. He has published widely on employment, transport and migration in Ireland and Europe; he is the author of Gridlock: Dublin’s Transport Crisis and the Future of the City and co-author of New Mobilities in Europe: Polish Migration to Ireland post-2004.  His book Unequal Europe: Social divisions and social cohesion in an old continent analysed the collapse of the European Social Model; his new text book European Societies (Routledge 2020) examines the structures of inequality in contemporary Europe.  He is a former director of TASC. 



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