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Lecture Series to Study Why Spread of Democracy Coinciding with Rising Economic Inequality

By James Devitt

Columbia will launch a 10-lecture seminar that explores why the spread of democracy has coincided with rising economic inequality. The seminar, "Democracy and Inequality," was developed by the Center for Historical Social Science and begins in September.

The lecture series is part of the Sawyer Seminars, a program of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

"With the demise of the Soviet Union and its control over Eastern Europe, and the fall of various authoritarian regimes in Latin America and Africa, the 'third wave' of transitions to democracy has gained tidal proportions," said Center co-director Anthony Marx, a Columbia political science professor. "While there is indeed much to celebrate in the spread of democracy, this change has not diminished poverty or reduced inequality. In the United States during the past two decades, after-inflation income of the poorest 20 percent of households has declined while the income of the richest 1 percent has more than doubled. In Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America, income inequality has increased similarly."

This Sawyer Seminar, part of a program named after former Mellon Foundation President John E. Sawyer, is designed to address this fundamental question: Why has democracy failed to bring greater equality? Scholarship on democratic governments has found that although the majority of a nation's population remains socio-economically underprivileged, this majority has not used its democratic rights to elect representatives who will enact greater redistribution of wealth.

"Our intention is to help redirect the study of democracy from its previous focus on transitions out of authoritarianism, to a focus on social outcomes, such as economic status," added Marx. "To accomplish these goals, we will examine political systems in several nations, including the United States, India and South Africa."

In addressing this issue, the seminar will also consider political theory, globalization and political participation. Funding will provide support to graduate students, a post-doctoral researcher and 10 speakers, who include Robert Dahl, a Sterling Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Yale, Dani Rodrik, a professor of political economy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and Neville Alexander, a program director in the School of Education at the University of Cape Town who was imprisoned alongside Nelson Mandela for more than a decade.

In addition to fellowships and teaching, the Center for Historical Social Science will build further upon the work of the seminar in the 2002-03 academic year. The Center will also fund and house fellows engaged in a follow-up workshop to develop and explore proposals for reforms of democratic structures designed to bring greater redress of inequality.

The Center for Historical Social Sciences was founded in 2000 within Columbia's Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy. The Center's fellowships and programs are designed to bring together scholars from Columbia and elsewhere who share an interdisciplinary interest in history and the social sciences. The Center's other co-director is Columbia Sociology Professor Karen Barkey.

Published: Jul 10, 2001
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002

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