Statement on the Study of Political Inequality

Social scientists have long argued that political power is a key dimension of stratification (Weber 1946; Lenski 1966; Dahl 2006), yet few empirically analyze political inequality (Winters and Page 2009).   Although attention to global inequality has increased in the social stratification literature, most examine income (Firebaugh 1999; Milanovic 2002; Neckerman and Torche 2007), some examine health (Goselin and Firebaugh 2004), and almost none examine political influence (Anderson and Beramendi 2008).  Most discussions of political inequality consist of philosophical debates over whether political equality is possible, or even necessary (Verba 2006; Bohman 1999; Dahl 2006; Ware 1981).  The few empirical discussions neither explicitly discuss the methodological implications of their measures of political inequality nor discuss how they can be applied cross-nationally (Winters and Page 2009; Anderson and Beramendi 2008).  This is a huge gap in our knowledge of how modern societies work.

This brief statement has three parts.  First, I present many definitions of political inequality, and argue each implies a distinct empirical measure.  Second, I suggest some empirical measures of political inequality.  Third, I offer a sketch of the field of political inequality.

Definitions of Political Inequality

Although much discussed, few explicitly define political inequality. In all conceptualizations, no matter how vague, political inequality is a matter of who makes the decisions in decision-making bodies.  At root, all conceptions reflect the well-established finding that position within the social structure impacts individual and group political influence (Verba et al 1978; APSA 2004). 

Consider three definitions.  One is by Sorokin (1959 [1927]): political inequality is the existence of authority divisions.  This rather broad definition implies that political inequality is the existence of two or more groups with unequal political input into the decisions that affect them. If existence of authority divisions is the form political inequality takes, then the verticality of the authority structure, i.e the distance between the masses and the decision makers, is its magnitude: the more layers of authority between the citizen and the decision, the greater the political inequality.  There are two main problems with operationalizing this definition.  First, it assumes the theoretical existence of a situation that never was: a totally flattened authority structure, i.e. no authority divisions whatsoever, where all groups would have equal say in legislation and policy. Second, to measure political inequality in this way, we would need to interpret and compare the organizational charts of governments around the world, a daunting and potentially fruitless task.

[Footnote: Sorokin refers to political inequality as “political stratification.”  Sorokin is among the first, if not the first, scholar to suggest that political inequality is a distinct dimension of social stratification.]

Another and more plausible definition is the political resource approach: political inequality is structured differences in the distribution and acquisition of political resources.  Here, political resources are said to be similar to other stratification resources, such as economic or status, and that one group has more or less of these resources than another group (see also Ware 1981: 393).  See also the discussion on Winters & Page (2009).

However, the political resource approach is problematic for a few reasons.  Dahl (2006) argues that cross-national measure of political inequality is impossible: “…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” (78).  This is based on the assumption that political inequality must be understood as unequal distribution in political resources. A political resource is potentially anything that is applied in a political situation in the process of influencing a decision: it can be a social thing — material, ideational, a personal attribute, a group level attribute, an authority position, a network connection — or an action, such as political participation.  If anything can be used as a political resource, it is problematic to find a measure of political resources that conforms to all contexts and is functionally equivalent across nations. 

[Footnote:  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.  This is akin to power resource approach: “from this perspective, power resources are the attributes or things that one actor can use to coerce or induce another actor… almost everyone has something that can be used to influence somebody” (Piven and Cloward 2005: 37).]

A third approach is adapted from Piven and Cloward’s (2005) interdependency approach to power relations.  It argues that political inequality is the extent to which groups within society differ in their influence over government decisions.  In this approach, political influence is understood as the range of actions an actor can take within a political interaction.  Actions used to influence governments are context dependent: they must be appropriate to the task at hand.  The characteristics of the relationship between the interacting groups reveal possible (political power) actions.  For example, in communist-era Poland, political connections were more formidable resources than money in influencing political officials.  The protest tactics of the non-violent Solidarity movement was able to influence government in a way that, at that point, an assault with conventional weapons could not.  Unlike the previous two approaches, where it can be imagined that one group can possess all of the “political resources,” manifesting as a dichotomy where 1= political influence, and 0 = no political influence, in this third definition groups are defined by their extent of political influence. 

In my view, political inequality cannot be defined by the mere existence of disadvantage in the political sphere.  Rather, the focus must be on the political influence gap, or distance, between groups.  To note that those with low amounts of economic resources tend not to participate is not enough.  We need to know how the gap between rich and poor impacts the size of the gap between the politically powerful and the politically less powerful.

Measures of Political Inequality

Previous empirical studies have measured political inequality in three ways, each with shortcomings.  The first is in terms of social concentrations occupying strategic political positions where some groups are on the winning side of political competitions more often than others.  This “concentrations” conception of political inequality has been measured as concentration of power (Acemoglu et al 2007) and descriptive representation (Griffin and Keane 2006).  There are two problems.  First, political concentration measures underestimate the degree of influence ordinary citizens have (Piven and Cloward 2005).  Second, descriptive representation measures in and of themselves fail to account for whether descriptive representatives are actually concerned with acting in accordance with their role (Dubrow 2006). 

The second is in terms of actions individuals and groups take to achieve political decisions favorable to them.  Previous “actions” measures include, less directly, psychological engagement with politics (Solt 2008) and, more directly, voter turnout (Anderson and Beramendi 2008).  This, too, has problems.  Psychological engagement such as knowledge and attitudes toward politics are preconditions for political action, but attitudinal measures are not substitutes for measures of citizen behavior.  Voter turnout is an important aspect, but there are four problems with using it in and of itself as a measure of political inequality.  First, influence of voting on government decisions depends on the choices offered in the political market:  If voters are faced with parties and candidates who have little interest in reducing inequalities, then voting itself will not make change.  Second, voter turnout assumes that all people vote.  In reality, the advantaged tend to vote more than the disadvantaged.  Third, those who cannot vote, i.e. the disenfranchised, are not accounted for.  Voting is often over-reported in surveys, making them somewhat unreliable guides for the extent of citizen engagement.  Even when official statistics are used, voting in Europe is such a common occurrence with little effort – in some places mandatory — and indirect consequence that it over-estimates the degree of political equality in citizen voice. 

The third type is an accounting of which groups tend to have more political decisions that are favorable to them.  “Outcomes” measures are rare. Bartels’ (2002) study of public opinion and roll-call voting that suggests that government is more responsive to higher level income groups is remarkable in this regard (see also Gilens 2005). While outcome measures are potentially the best, complexity in policy outcomes can be hard to handle; who the winning group(s) are in policy decisions is often not clear, forcing some contestable decisions on the part of the researcher.

There are two key issues in measuring political inequality.  The first is how to measure influence.  Political influence is notoriously difficult to measure as it is an interaction process that is more inferred from conditions, actions and outcomes than directly observed (see Dahl 2006: Chapter 6).  The second is that inequality must be understood as the distance between two groups, i.e. “to distinguish perfect equality from a state of inequality” (Allison 1979: 865).  To address these issues, a contrast with income inequality is useful.  Income inequality is often measured by the extent of the distance between those with a lot of income and those with less.  Here, political inequality is the extent of the distance between those with a lot of potential influence and those with less.  Unlike income, we do not actually see the influence, and we can only infer it from its outcome.  In cross-national perspective, this is further complicated by needing a measure that is functionally equivalent across nations.   
The APSA Task Force in 2004 identified three interrelated conceptual foci around which political inequality revolves: citizen voice, government responsiveness, and patterns of public policy making. Citizen voice refers to the representation of social groups in governance bodies and their political participation; government responsiveness includes the extent to which governance bodies listen and react to citizen voice; public policy making is manifest in the thought and deeds (e.g. legislation) of the government. The upshot is that the disadvantaged are less involved in political participation, government officials are less inclined to be responsive to the preferences of the disadvantaged and public policy fails to address the needs of the disadvantaged. 

Useful measures of political inequality can be based on the concept of citizen voice, i.e. conventional political participation. Conventional political participation refers here to the lawful activities citizens do to influence government decisions in legislation and policy.  Political participation arose out of the relationship between state and masses, where masses attempt to be heard in ways that are not directly accessible to them.  In his 1996 APSA presidential address, Lijphart warned that “unequal participation spells unequal influence . . . the inequality in representation and influence are not randomly distributed but systematically biased in favor of more privileged citizens” (1997: 1).  If political participation influences government decisions, then legislation and policy tend to reflect the interests of those who are the most active. 

One way to measure political inequality is by a simple percentage of those who participate and those who do not.  This is a measure of the spread of political influence over the entire population: a large proportion of political participation would mean that political influence is more widespread, a smaller one the opposite.

While this measure does address some aspect of political inequality, ultimately it fails to account for how political inequality of voice often functions in modern societies: political inequality is largely based on the connection between socioeconomic resources and political participation.  Classic and contemporary theories suggest that political influence is intertwined with economic privilege (Lenski 1966; Weber 1946).  Weber argued that political power stemmed from the organization of interests into parties.  This political organizational aspect of social life called “parties” consists of class or status situations, and thus products of the economic and social orders, respectively.  As party composition is determined by the structure of domination within the community, in modern capitalist societies, where the economic situation is dominant, parties are intimately connected to the economic order.  Borrowing from Weber, Lenski (1966: 318) argued that political regimes have the ability to influence the distribution of scarce and valued resources, along with the outcomes of this struggle.  Modern industrial society has lower inequality because democracy distributes power more equitably.  In market societies, according to Lenski, political power is a function of wealth (229).  The most consistent finding in the political participation literature is that the economically advantaged, more privileged members of society tend to participate more than the disadvantaged (Verba et al 1978; see also Gallego 2008). Thus, in Europe conventional political participation and economic resources can be combined to form a valid measure of political influence.  It is expected that countries differ in the way they combine political with socioeconomic resources, with some countries having a stronger economic tie to political participation than others.  Yet, we should allow for the distinctions between economic and political resources; for example, gender and politics is not always about economics, but rather the enduring and unequal status distinctions between men and women manifested in societies dating back to antiquity.

The Field of Political Inequality: A Sketch with Possibilities

I now offer a brief sketch of the field of political inequality.  Most of this is speculation: to date, there is no defined field of political inequality; rather, there exists a disorganized collection of theoretical and empirical studies where the term “political inequality” or, at least, its spirit, is invoked.  My thoughts on what unites political inequality as a field of study are still forming.  I am hoping that the discussions in the “Political Inequality in Cross-National Perspective” sessions of the 2010 International Sociological Association meetings in Sweden will help me, and others, think more systematically and coherently about what the field of political inequality is, and could be.

I would like to reiterate what I (briefly) wrote about this matter in the guest editor’s introduction to the 2008 International Journal of Sociology special issue, “Causes and Consequences of Political Inequality in Cross-National Perspective.”

Although political inequality has been at the center of generations of social science research, key issues remain that have not been satisfactorily addressed. One reason for this is that political inequality lacks coherence as a field of study. Contrast it with voting behavior, income inequality, and social movements, all of which have a long literature and well-developed measures and theories; political inequality has the unenviable task of uniting all of these elements into coherent models that explain its causes and consequences. The APSA Task Force has helped to define the field of political inequality by providing a vocabulary (voice, responsiveness, and policy) and some suggestions for building empirically testable theoretical models.

The challenge of building a field of political inequality is to unite the vast knowledge we have about social stratification – its theories, its empirical research, its methodology – with the vast knowledge we have about politics found in political science and political sociology. 

To do this, as Sorokin (1959 [1927]) suggested, we must first recognize that political inequality is a distinct dimension of stratification (at this point, I am not making use of the difference between inequality and stratification).  This means that in theory or in operationalization of its concepts, political inequality cannot be reduced to economic or status inequalities.  It cannot be reduced to gender, race and ethnic, or class inequalities.  Empirical research should treat political inequality as an analytically distinct form of stratification, and push those analyses as far as they will go.  For example, instead of assuming that economic resources equal political resources, we should try to understand the extent to which they are separate, and in what contexts their differences and similarities are most prominent. In sum, the way we approach economic inequality, or status inequality, should be the same way we approach political inequality.  Find the boundaries, and we find the field of political inequality.

Next, the more difficult step is to synthesize theories and empirical research of what many call, in an unsystematic fashion, political inequality.  Political inequality is just one of many, conceptually related fields that would benefit from some coherence.  In their 2010 Annual Review of Political Science article, Jacobs and Soss argue that the understanding of the relationship between democracy and economic systems should fall under a coherent study of “political economy.”  Their first two paragraphs under the subheading “Toward a Coherent Research Agenda on the Politics of Inequality,” though focused on the American case, could be applied here (though I take exception to the implications of that subheading, which implies that what they are studying is political inequality, as even they clearly state that their topic of interest is limited to the relationship between polity and economy) (Jacobs and Soss 2010: 358). 

Next, there is a need to mobilize and organize scholars interested in political inequality.  Besides the 2008 IJS issue, the 2010 ISA political inequality sessions are an attempt to do just that.  Even the few papers I received thus far are indicative of a heavily fragmented field.  While it is good to celebrate the virtues of fragmentation – diversity of thought produces useful knowledge, eventually – we should also appreciate the need for coherence. 


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