Skip to main content

Poverty and Inequality

This page accompanies four sessions discussing different disciplinary approaches to poverty and inequality. These will run in the Autumn Term of 2016 and are designed as a discussion forum for incoming History MA and Phd students.


The aim of this series of discussion groups is to examine different disciplinary approaches to the understanding of poverty and inequality. Which matters most, and why? How should we understand poverty – as an absolute or a relative assessment? And in what ways does inequality matter – Is it a positive sum-game that serves to create more wealth and thereby to reduce the chances of poverty? Is it a zero-sum game in which the wealthy gain at the expense of the poor – thereby generating poverty. Or is poverty a question of status and standing – and thereby inherently linked to degrees of inequality? And what do (and what should) historians bring to the table in thinking about poverty and inequality?

The discussion group will meet on four occasions in the first term of 2016-17. For each meeting, readings will be assigned, and the session will start with a brief introduction to the topic and the disciplinary perspective that is being taken. The first session, looking at perspectives from Economics will be a longer 2hr session. The subsequent three sessions will run from 1.00-2.00. All in the graduate space 4th floor, humanities.

October 17, 2016: Session 1 12.00-2.00 graduate space 4th floor humanities
Poverty and inequality from the perspective of Economists.

This session will be introduced by Dr Natalie Quinn, research fellow in Economics at the University of Oxford. See here for powerpoint presentation.

There is a longer bibliography here, of varying degres of technical complexity, but students should at least look at some of the digital resources listed below:

Charles Booth’s maps of poverty in London in 1898/99 have been digitised and can be browsed at the Charles Booth Online Archive at htto:// (follow link Browse and use the slightly cumbersome tools at the left to navigate the map).

Wikipedia may be the best accessible introduction for measurement of inequality:

see: and

Introduction to the World Bank’s approach (3-minute video):

Introduction to the OPHI/UNDP multidimensional approach (Global MPI):

Latest estimates of global poverty (and other MDGs, Global MPI, inequality) from the World Bank: (Read the Overview and skim through Chapter 1)

Branko Milanovic on global inequality (20-minute video): (See also his very interesting blog at

Piketty TED talk:

October 31, 2016: Session 2: 1.00-2.00
Anthropology and poverty: Mark Philp

Oscar Lewis and Culture of poverty see Discussion

Marshall Salins, 'The Original Affluent Society' - ch 1 of Stone Age Economics

James Ferguson, Give a Man a Fish chapter 3

November 14, 2016: Session 3: 1.00-2.00
Poverty and Inequality in Political Philosophy: Mark Philp

Tim Scanlon, 'The diversity of objections to inequality'

Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice chap 1

Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia opening section ch 8

(see also

November 28, 2016: Session 4 1.00-2.00
Historians: Poverty and Inequality with Julia McClure

The history of poverty and inequality

* What is the historical difference between poverty and inequality?

* What is the relationship between poverty and charity? What does this tell us about the meaning and place of poverty in a society?

* Is there a global concept of poverty? Of Charity?

* What does the history of poverty contribute to our understanding of poverty and inequality?

* Do narratives of poverty change over time?

* What roles has poverty played in the formation of economic systems?

Key readings

Bonner, Michael, ‘Poverty and Economics in the Qur’an’, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 35, No. 3 (2005),

Brown, Peter, ‘Remembering the Poor and the Aesthetic of Society’, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 35, No. 3 (2005), pp. 513-522.

Cohen, Mark R., ‘Introduction: Poverty and Charity in Past Times, Journal of Interdisciplinary History Vol. 35, No. 3, 347-360.

Further Readings

For an overview of the social history of poverty see Bronislaw Geremek, Poverty, A History (Oxford, 1994).

For the debate on the relationship between history and economics: Geoffrey M. Hodgson, How Economics Forgot History, the problem of historical specificity in social science (Abingdon, 2001).

See also



Songs of poverty and inequality: In the course of the term we aim to collect various popular songs of the last 3-400 years dealing with themes of poverty and inequality. For example:

Poor Law Bastile

See also The Times