Defining and Measuring Political Resources

What is the definition of political resources?

The definition and measurement of political inequality requires a definition of political resources.  Let’s start with a definition of political inequality. Political inequality is structured differences in political influence over government decisions, and the outcomes of those decisions.

There are two main points about political resources:

  • In the study of political inequality, political resources are viewed as a dimension of social stratification, including the ability to influence both governance processes and public policy.
  • Like economic goods and services, political resources are scarce, valued, and fought for.

Are political resources different from power resources

Let’s be a bit simple at first and say there are two perspectives from Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward (2005). Click here for a more in-depth discussion of Piven and Cloward (2005).

(a) Distributional

Political resources are anything that can be used to influence a political outcome.  Resources are distributed unequally.  Political resources are resources used in political decision-making, or for all areas of social-life that are make claims toward a legislative/decision-making body (from school-boards to national government). In this definition, political inequality refers to structured differences in the distribution and acquisition of political resources.

“Power resources” is a much broader term: it is used to describe any resources used in the exercise of power. The term “power resources” is misleading, as it suggests that power itself can be distributed. Most distributional theorists argue that power is relational.  For example, one actor’s political resource is only a resource if it is perceived as a resource by the other actor. People use resources, but resources are not power itself. Power is an attribute of people, organizations, and other social things and is a relationship.

Thus, a better approach for the study of political resources is the interdependency approach.

(b)  Interdependency

In the interdependency approach, resources can take the form of anything actors can do within an interaction.  Thus: Resources are actions available to the participants in the interaction

These resources matter because they are an integral part of the interdependent relationship.  The nature of the interdependent relationship reveals the types of actions (resources) available to each participant. 

This approach correctly treats power as a relationship.

For example, in capitalist economies, ownership of land and wealth is a valid resource.  Employers have power over their employees because the employees are dependent on the employer for their economic livelihood.  Power is an attribute only of relationships, not people themselves.

What are the differences between the distributional and interdependency approaches to political resources?

The interdependency approach is different from the distributional approach because it assumes that each actor in the interaction has equal power resources.  For example, employers can only make employees work because employees agree to work.  If employees decided not to work, such as in a work-strike, then the employees could be said “to have power over” the employers.  However, this approach does not adequately account for “force,” or physical coercion.

Resources are political when they enable claims-making toward a legislative/decision-making body.  For example, romantic relationships have elements of power, where each participant has a range of actions or range of resources at their disposal to get what they want despite the resistance of the other.  But this behavior is not political.

How can we measure political inequality with political resources?

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If political inequality is the unequal distribution of political resources, then the measurement of political inequality is dependent on the measurement of political resources. 

Dahl: Anything Can Be Political Resources

But, how can we measure “anything?”  Dahl (1996) defines political resources as “almost anything “– including money, reputation, legal status, social capital and knowledge, to name a few — that has value and can be used to achieve political ends.  If we want to answer the question, “how much political inequality is there?” “anything” is too vague a measure of political resources and too context dependent. 

This led Dahl (2006) to doubt that we can actually measure political resources, let alone political inequality:

According to Dahl, in On Political Equality (p. 78)

“Achieving truly well-grounded judgments about the future of political equality in the united states probably exceeds our capacities.  One reason is that, unlike income or wealth, or even health, longevity, and other possible ends, to estimate gains and losses in political equality we lack cardinal measures that would allow us to say, for example, that “political equality is twice as great in country X as in country Y.”  At best we must rely on ordinal measures based on judgments about ‘more,’ ‘less,’ ‘about the same,’ and the like.” 

Dahl goes on to say that we might be able to develop ordinal measures by qualified observers to ascertain measures of more, less, or about the same.

Sorokin: Authority and Prestige are Political Resources

Sorokin (1959 [1927]) defines political stratification this way: 

“If the social ranks within a group are hierarchically superimposed with respect to their authority and prestige, their honors and titles; if there are rulers and the ruled, then whatever are their names (monarchs, executives, masters, bosses), these things mean that the group is politically stratified, regardless of what is written in its constitution or proclaimed in its declarations” (11). 

To Sorokin, authority, prestige, honors and titles are political resources.  Authority position is the main determinant of who has power and who does not.

Political Participation as a Political Resource

Some have measured political inequality in terms of political participation, specifically “voter turnout.”  There is political inequality if there are divisions in who votes and who doesn’t.  Some go broader and define political inequality in terms of the level of democratization.  Measuring political inequality with level of democracy assumes that the introduction of political rights and civil liberties leads directly to reduction of inequalities. 

But, as Verba et al (1978) point out, for democracy to reduce inequality, rights and liberties are not enough; citizens must also be engaged in political participation (see also APSA 2004). 

Thus, it is not democracy alone that matters, but what citizens do with the rights and liberties allowed by democracy.  Democracy cannot be a measure of political inequality or political resources. 

What would be a measure of political resources? 

Is there a core set of “political resources” that can be used in every political situation?  One plausible measure of political resources is experience in political affairs, which is obtained through political participation. 

Democracy as a measure of political inequality does not shed much light on the link between economic and political inequality.  Democracy does have a relationship to economic outcomes, but it is not equivalent to political inequality.

The relationship between participation and redistributive policies is further complicated by within-nation social stratification.  Political participation is stratified, such that the advantaged tend to participate more than the disadvantaged.  Economic distributive policy reflects the interests of the advantaged precisely because the advantaged are more politically active.  Political non-participation of the disadvantaged leads to an increase in economic inequality, or maintains its status quo. 

References

Piven, Frances Fox and Richard A. Cloward.  2005.  “Rule Making, Rule Breaking, and Power” pp. 33 – 53 in The Handbook of Political Sociology: States, Civil Societies, and Globalization edited by Thomas Janoski, Robert Alford, Alexander Hicks, and Mildred A. Schwartz.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Verba, Stanley, N.H. Nie and J. Kim. 1978. Participation and Political Equality: A Seven-Nation Comparison. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

What is Power? What is a Power Structure? by Joshua Dubrow, The Sociology Place

The Interactionist View of Power and Inequality by Joshua Dubrow, The Sociology Place

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