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What is Social Equality?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Social equality is a concept seldom fully achieved, whereby all members of a society have completely equal treatment, opportunity and access to resources. There would be few separating strata, such as differentiations between genders, races, religious groups, or income that give some people more opportunities than others. This is different than socialism, where everyone has approximately the same amount of resources. Instead, true social equality means that no matter what society members have or who they are, they are treated equally and have equal opportunities.

The idea of social equality is often intimately tied to concepts of egalitarianism in both of its forms. This concept either represents the sense, from a political standpoint, that all people deserve equal rights and treatment, or it is a movement that proposes a society should specifically direct its resources toward promoting equality of wealth. The latter stance is more of a socialistic approach, and the former is something adopted by many countries. It’s argued that the two definitions are related, because in so many societies, wealth confers additional power, and without addressing income inequities, there can be no true social equality.

Many sociologists suggest that few societies achieve total social equality because there are so many ways that societies separate into different groups. Income level is a dividing factor, but other things that create some form of social inequality include discrimination against gender, race, religion, or ethnicity. Some governments actively promote social equality by guaranteeing basic rights to all citizens, such as rights to free speech, to vote, to jury trial, and to freedom from discrimination. Even with these guarantees, all members of a society may not be equal. Inequities such as quality of education, even if public and free, can create differences in how much citizens are able to avail themselves of basic rights.

As mentioned, economic standing represents a huge dividing factor in a variety of societies. Many countries work hard to correct this inequity to a degree by providing financial support to those citizens most in need. This isn’t always enough and may keep people in a cycle of poverty, instead of giving them ways to move up through society’s strata.

An example of social inequality, in countries like the US, occurs when people are charged with a serious crime. Impoverished defendants are given legal representation by public defenders, who are often struggling to provide support to many clients and may not have adequate time to prepare a case. The person with wealth can simply hire a criminal defense attorney. The latter defendant has a better chance of defeating a charge or getting a reduced sentence level, and also is more likely to successfully defend against a charge if they're Caucasian. The large numbers of African American prisoners as opposed to Caucasians in US jails points to a possible social inequality that has not yet been remedied, suggesting that both race and monetary standing lead to unequal treatment in a system that is supposed to be fully fair.

The most pessimistic reviewers of human society call social equality a myth, something that can never be truly achieved, no matter the intent of a society’s government, framers, or participants. Others take a more optimistic view, and suggest that while full equality isn’t always possible, societies can still chip away at the inequities. A committed society can continue to work at all times to create more equitable circumstances for all of its citizens.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Historical Index contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon321507 — On Feb 22, 2013

With equal rights, guaranteed by civilized social laws, no person is to bow to another. Respect for talent can be conveyed by other means than by kowtowing to anyone. -- James M., Ontario, Canada.

By anon268245 — On May 13, 2012

This makes me think of more questions. We are not separated by race, gender, religion, but wealth and the means to maintain it as a society?

Has education become a form of currency?

It costs a fair bit to gain any knowledge these days. The internet, computers, effective schooling. Does this prove the wealthy maintain there status?

Should the intelligent be treated equally to the ignorant?

By SauteePan — On Sep 30, 2010

GreenWeaver-I saw that movie and it really moved me. I think that he now gives financial advice to others and is seen as a true inspiration because he changed the course of his life with his drive and determination.

If you see the movie you will see the constant struggles that he had to endure in order to get to where he is now. It really makes you think what possible potential is locked inside all of us.

I don't think that any social equality party could have gotten him those results. The determination one has often supersedes one's current social state. Your social economic background does not have to be a factor in your success.

By GreenWeaver — On Sep 30, 2010

Cupcake15-I agree that anyone that wants to succeed can. Some people do have advantages over others, but that should not matter.

For example there are some people that come from wealthy families and will have an advantage over people who do not have the same means.

That doesn't mean that the poorer student is not going to be successful, on the contrary people that have to struggle to become successful become even more successful and appreciate their success more as a result of the struggle.

Look at the movie, the Pursuit of Happyness which was based on a true story of a homeless man that overcame his homelessness and became a successful investment advisor.

By cupcake15 — On Sep 30, 2010

BrickBack-I think that social equality per se occurs in United States.

This is why many people immigrate to the United States to start a new life. They see the potential that the United States offers people that work hard.

This country is very different than any other country in that it does offer widespread opportunities for those seeking the opportunities. We all suffer from one disadvantage or another, but if we dwell on those disadvantages we will never succeed in life.

Discrimination will exist everywhere,we need to move past it and prove those naysayers wrong. So I don't think there should be a focus on social equality.

You can never equalize things because people are individuals and they are different and they come from different places and they have different work ethics and different ideas of success.

I think in many aspects the United States offers many educational opportunities for people that are financially disadvantaged. They offer government grants and stipends for those that have proven themselves academically and have the financial need.

By BrickBack — On Sep 30, 2010

Moldova-Although there are problems in our system, I'd rather have the American justice system than any other.

People don't realize when you go into other countries you may not have a jury trial. Some countries have a trial by judge and the judge determines your fate.

So although there are problems and no system can ever be perfect, I still would much prefer to have our system of justice that that of any other country.

People should really get a political education and study the judicial system of many countries around the world and you would be surprised at what is offered to you at a trial if anything.

By Moldova — On Sep 30, 2010

Oasis11-In some situations innocent people have been convicted of crimes and sometimes you wonder what the social effects are.

We often hear of many celebrities that commit crimes and receive a slap on the wrist. An average citizen that commits the same crime would actually face stiffer penalties.

The economics of social justice are very clear. The more money you have the better outcome you receive. Unfortunately the way the system is set up it's very difficult for an indigent defendant to have an advantage over a wealthy defendant.

The amount of workload that public defender has far exceeds the advantages of a private attorney.

By oasis11 — On Sep 30, 2010

I agree that there will be social factors that may contribute to the wealthy defendant having a significant advantage over indigent defendants.

A wealthy defendant has the means to hire as many lawyers as he wants therefore having a better chance of an acquittal. An indigent defendant has to rely on the public defender that is already overworked which may lead to mistakes in his case due to the excessive workload. These are th social effects of legal equality versus social reality.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Historical Index contributor, Tricia...
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