Cumulative inequality theory

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Cumulative inequality theory is the systematic explanation of how inequalities develop and influence the quality of life of societies, cohorts, and individuals. The theory is principally a social scientific explanation of phenomena but with links to biological and health factors, personal adjustment, and well-being. A central premise is that “social systems generate inequality, which is manifested over the life course via demographic and developmental processes.”[1]

Development and application[edit]

The ideas were developed by Kenneth Ferraro and colleagues as an integrative or middle-range theory. Originally specified in five axioms and nineteen propositions, cumulative inequality theory incorporates elements from the following theories and perspectives, several of which are related to the study of aging:

In recent years, Ferraro and his colleagues have been testing and elaborating elements of the theory in studies on a variety of topics. Examples include how early misfortune affects personal adjustment and health and the health consequences of women’s occupational experiences. Others[Like whom?] have applied the theory to the study of long-term consequences of early adult overweight for midlife health and socioeconomic attainment, the effect of childhood socioeconomic context on adult depression, cumulative exposure to neighborhood context on health, and social factors associated with inflammation in later life.

Core ideas[edit]

According to Ferraro and Shippee, there are five main ideas in cumulative inequality, which include:[1]

  • “Axiom 1: Social systems generate inequality, which is manifested over the life course through demographic and developmental processes.
  • Axiom 2: Disadvantage increases exposure to risk, but advantage increases exposure to opportunity.
  • Axiom 3: Life course trajectories are shaped by the accumulation of risk, available resources, and human agency.
  • Axiom 4: The perception of life trajectories influences subsequent trajectories
  • Axiom 5: Cumulative inequality may lead to premature mortality; therefore, nonrandom selection may give the appearance of decreasing inequality in later life.”[1]

Axiom 1[edit]

What this axiom signifies is that inequality is not a randomly determined misfortune, but rather a predestined state that one is born into. Although it is possible for inequality to come from an individual's own actions consequences, that is not always true. One's childhood experiences and conditions should also be taken into consideration since these experiences help mold a young individual into an adult.

Axiom 2[edit]

This axiom explains a well known concept that those with advantages, whether they are achieved or born into, have a higher rate of opportunity. Likewise, those without many advantages are more susceptible to risks throughout their life. For example, one who is born into the majority race with well-educated parents in a developed area will have more exposure to opportunity, whether it be getting a job through one of their parents' college friends or going to a highly rated high school and then being able to get into a highly accredited college. But, on the contrary, one who is born into a minority race with parents who may not have finished high school and live in the ghettos of the roughest town in the city may, not only have less exposure to opportunities, but more exposure to risks such as violence and crime.

Axiom 3[edit]

Axiom 3 tells readers that even though previous life events are important, the overall quality of life is determined by frequently changing trajectories, or the long-term changes in life stability, which are created by an individual's resources, risks, and human agencies. Human agencies simply refer to an individuals own ability to act and think on their own based on their own morals and beliefs.

Axiom 4[edit]

How one views their situation and their success in the world is more influential than their actual life status when it comes to their subsequent actions. How people view their lives play a huge role into how they continue their life along with the decisions they make and the activities they chose to partake in. With this theory, those who possess a more positive and optimistic outlook on life typically are more satisfied with their life course.

Axiom 5[edit]

This axiom may seem hard to understand at first but the overall meaning is that the accumulation of disadvantages can lead to premature mortality, or in simpler terms, younger death. Take for example the amount of young people deaths in areas with high crime and violence. These individuals are not exposed to many advancing opportunities so they fall victim of the cumulative inequality theory. The nonrandom selection component of the axiom signifies how older populations age in a manner that is not totally random, but rather as a result of the advantages and disadvantages that they have gathered throughout their life such as exceptional health care throughout life which prolonged their lifespan, or, on the contrary, prolonged exposure to toxic chemicals as a result of working in dangerous environments.


  1. ^ a b c Ferraro, Kenneth F.; Shippee, Tetyana Pylypiv (2009). "Aging and Cumulative Inequality: How Does Inequality Get Under the Skin?". The Gerontologist. 49 (3): 333–343. doi:10.1093/geront/gnp034. PMC 2721665Freely accessible. PMID 19377044. 

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11. Morton, P. M., Schafer, M. H., & Ferraro, K. F. (2012). Does childhood misfortune increase cancer risk in adulthood? Journal of Aging and Health, 24(6), 948-984.

12. Morton, P. M., Mustillo, S. A., & Ferraro, K. F. (2014). Does childhood misfortune raise the risk of acute myocardial infarction in adulthood? Social Science & Medicine, 104, 133-141.

13. Shippee, T. P., Rinaldo, L. A., & Ferraro, K. F. (2012). Mortality risk among Black and White working women: The role of perceived work trajectories. Journal of Aging and Health, 24(1), 141-167.

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16. Clarke, P., Morenoff, J., Debbink, M., Golberstein, E., Elliott, M. R., & Lantz, P. M. (2014). Cumulative Exposure to Neighborhood Context Consequences for Health Transitions over the Adult Life Course. Research on Aging, 36(1), 115-142.

17. McDade, T. W., Lindau, S. T., & Wroblewski, K. (2011). Predictors of C-reactive protein in the national social life, health, and aging project. Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, 66(1), 129-136.