The following is a response to a couple questions from a my Education's Digital Future class. The prompt was as follows:
I'm going to grossly oversimplify the history of modern social science by saying it all goes back, methodologically at least, to Marxist critique, and thereby to Hegelian dialectic. In short, Marx offers social scientists a fundamentally dialectical way to look at the world and perform critical analysis. The essence of dialectic is inequality: a thesis and an oppositional antithesis collide and are thereby synthesized into a new thesis (which in turn leads to a new antithesis and ever onward unto perfection). Hegel reified dialectic as a way of doing phenomenological philosophy, and offers in his "Phenomenology of the Spirit" no less than an account of the whole of human history through the lens of dialectic. Later Marx took that critical, and somewhat intangible, methodology and applied it to the material and economic world (hence "dialectical materialism").
There are more steps both forward and backward in the history, here, but the inception of dialectic is particularly relevant to any discussion of equality. As Mitchell said in class, "If you had to sum up the entirety of Sociology in one word, it would be 'inequality.'" We might also say that Sociology, as a critical discipline, is a dialectical discipline. It is concerned with what the theses of the society are, and what antitheses such theses presuppose, create, and negate. What inequalities, that is, are the necessary result of social orders? The remediation of these inequalities is also dialectical - synthetic - but necessarily leads to other inequalities. What is interesting, however, is not that we proceed in a never-ending dialectical spiral, but that we are particularly bothered by certain types of inequalities whilst being nonplussed by, or even supportive of, others.
Almost by definition no two things in the world are entirely equal. Certainly even identical twins or two copies of a book are not materially (atomically) equal. Equality, thus, is a concept we engage necessarily at levels of abstraction. If it is not in the atoms of our being or the atoms of our possessions that we are equal, it might be in the way that our beings are allowed to interact with others or in the social value given to our possessions. This may seem numbingly simplistic: of course we're not really equal... But it's too easy to forget that what we mean by equality is not actually all that clear. Even mathematical equality contains abstraction. A = B, B = C, therefore A = C. This is only true if we accept certain abstracted rules and social norms. Clearly A and C, on a basic level, are different, as they appear different. It is the rules that make them the same.
Equality is socially constructed, I argue, and can only exist when things are unequal to begin with. Said another way, equality is a special way of describing two unequal things. In particular, I'd argue that we apply equality to two unequal things when we feel as though they are not worth placing in dialectical opposition to each other for the sake of synthesis (or remediation). I am "equal" to another middle class white male not because we are the same, but because while we are different, we don't need - "according to whom?," is an interesting question - to be intellectually (or phenomenologically, or materially) reconciled. I am "unequal" with my Hawaiian students because the differences between us are at the right level of abstraction to have more social, economic, and academic importance, and thus we might use (or argue about why we should or should not use) some process to remediate those differences.
In short, we have to live with inequality everywhere. The question, to me, is better phrased as a question of justice. The how-to of justice is no simpler than the how-to of equality. And "what is justice?" is, if anything, a more complicated question than "what is equality?" But at least the question "how much injustice should we tolerate?" seems intuitively easier to answer.