Beteille (1983) made a useful distinction between two aspects of inequality – the relational and the distributional aspects. The sociologist is mostly concerned with the first kind, whereas the economist is with the second. In the first case, inequalities are seen as built into the social structure in the form of relations of superordination and subordination, i.e. the patterns of rights and obligations. The economist, on the other hand, sees inequality in the distribution of wealth or income, or, following Sen, in the distribution of certain ‘outcome indicator’ like health or educational status. Why has the economist been rather less concerned about inequality across racial, ethnic or caste groups? The answer probably lies in the methodological preference of the economist for a depersonalised agent as the unit of analysis. The agent acts independently to choose the best course of action given the opportunities. This way of thinking has definitely been fruitful in illuminating a variety of problems. It cannot, however, fully capture the ways intergroup inequality persists over time. There is no point in denying that one’s location within the network of social affiliations substantially affects one’s access to resources.
At some point in the past, even some sociologists – mainly of the Parsonian persuasion – assumed that inequalities of race, gender and even class background were all forms of ascription that would go away with the development of impersonal market forces. They