New Inequalities in the Welfare State

The Political Order of Social Vulnerability and Precarious Affluence

Social science literature published since the 1990s on the welfare state, its problematic current status, and uncertain future reveals a changing perspective on the structural fabric of society. The dichotomous image of an "inside-outside" division of society has gradually replaced the earlier notion of a layered, middle class society that was characteristic of the old West German Federal Republic at the same time it belies the assertion that the social structures and milieus of postmodern society are becoming more and more liquid. Since this shift, exclusion and inclusion, marginalization and embedding, the superfluous and the integrated individual are all terms heard with rising frequency in sociology and social politics.

This new tack taken in sociological deliberations on inequality is, no doubt, productive and has yielded a broader understanding of current developments in society, but not without exacting a certain price. There is a tendency in these discussions to lose sight of the cohesive forces and processes that knit together "inside" and "outside", the "center" and the "periphery". Moreover, the image of an "inside-outside" division suggests the existence of a stabile and homogenous center of society, beyond which lies the excluded periphery. And finally, the dichotomy of "inside" and "outside" directs attention mainly towards the vanishing points of exclusion processes: growing poverty and permanent unemployment. Although this shift of attention has been motivated by good empirical reasons, analysis of the development of social inequality cannot limit itself to merely referring to society's expanding and increasingly isolated periphery. Sociologists' interest must also focus on occupational and social positions of endangered prosperity, without losing sight of material poverty and social marginalization. When economic structural change has impacts on core areas of working life, when family structures and the relations between generations are affected, when readjustment of the welfare state's policies increasingly targets mainstream society, and when formerly stable positions defined by status and financial prosperity become fragile as a result, then it is essential that empirical approaches and socio-analytical perspective are broadened accordingly.

The aim of this project is to apply the concepts of "social vulnerability" and "precarious prosperity" to the theory of social inequality and to empirical social structure analysis. Both concepts mark a fragile, materially and socially instable zone. In this zone, poverty, unemployment, and marginalization are not yet the issue, but one's standard of living, social, and occupational position are no longer secure; fears in this zone center on the probabilities of slipping down the ladder, rather than the certainties of being excluded. This new manifestation of social inequality is a challenge for empirical research on social structures and for the social theory of contemporary society, as well. On a conceptual level, therefore, the project will aim to link recent discussions about new designs for the welfare state and principles of state order currently taking place in law and political sciences with social structure analysis' focus on new forms of social inequality. For decades, the "welfare state arrangement" was a reliable guarantee of collective social status and upward mobility; today, the dismantling of social status safeguards is becoming a central element of the new architecture of state functions. Consequently, analysis of the fundamental changes in the normative coordinates defining the welfare state's policies and of the influence of these changes on the structural framework of social inequality will form the centerpiece of this research project.