What Is Political Inequality and How Unequal Are We?

by Joshua K. Dubrow, Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, Polish Academy of Sciences

We Know a lot about Economic Inequality

When the Occupy Wall Street movement reached its heyday in the Autumn of 2011, spreading to cities all over the world, the protesters’ rallying cry was, “We are the 99 percent.” They hoped for political change, among other things, but “99” was mainly understood as a statement about economic inequality.

If you want to know how much economic inequality there is in your country, and whether this inequality been rising, falling, or staying the same, you can turn to the terabytes worth of publicly available economic data and grind them through the many inequality equations to derive a multitude of statistics. With decades of innovations in the study of economics and inequality, led by the disciplines of sociology and economics, we can, at least, have a debate over economic inequality and its dynamics over time.

We Need More Eyes on the Problem 

Political inequality is a distinct form of inequality but has yet to attract sustained, systematic scholarly attention in the same way as its sibling inequalities. Although political equality is a foundation of modern democracy, we do not know how far from equality we are. Even the news media rarely addresses political inequality. We need more eyes on the problem.

Popular Definitions

The work of social scientists, philosophers and other scholars offer many definitions of political inequality. Political inequality’s conceptual roots are temporally deep and spread-out in many disciplines. Read together, they point to the idea that political inequality is at once a dimension of democracy and a dimension of stratification.

Continue reading “What Is Political Inequality and How Unequal Are We?”

Do Newspapers Write about Democracy and Equality?

Political inequality is both unequal influence over decisions made by political bodies and the unequal outcomes of those decisions. Political equality is “a fundamental premise of democracy” (quoting celebrated political theorist Robert Dahl).

The news media has long reflected and shaped modern societies. In their pages we should expect that they present the news about democracy and equality and, in doing so, help shape national conversations about these issues.

Do they, much?

I observed how often news items about democracy and equality appear in six English language newspapers in the UK, USA and Canada from 1988 to 2013 (methodology) The newspapers are: The Times, The Guardian, The New York Times, USA Today, the Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail.

Here’s what I found:

  • Small: Overall, the level of coverage is small, especially the combination of democracy and equality, of which one can say that it hardly ever appears in major Western newspapers.
  • Inconsistent: Democracy and equality each have their different trends. Democracy coverage rises and falls by major world event: after the Fall of Communism in Eastern Europe (1989 – 1991) and in the beginning of the Iraq War (2003 – 2005).
  • Very recent equality upswing: After the global economic crisis of 2008, there has been an upswing in equality coverage.
  • Weak connection: Since 2008, in three major newspapers (one each for the UK, US and Canada) there has been a marginal yet visible upswing in news media interest in how democracy connects with equality.

What is more fundamental to democracy than political equality? To help educate citizens, the news media should promote national conversations about democracy and equality.

Imagine if every major newspaper in the world devoted a couple of columns every week to discussions about the connection between democracy and equality.  Imagine the good this would do.

New Book by the Working Group: Political Inequality in an Age of Democracy

Political Inequality Routledge Book Cover 2014
Political Inequality in an Age of Democracy: Cross-national Perspectives

Political Inequality in an Age of Democracy: Cross-national Perspectives

Edited by Joshua Kjerulf Dubrow

Routledge – 2014 – 154 pages

Series: Routledge Advances in Sociology

The world has witnessed the creation of new democracies and the maturing of old ones. Yet, everywhere there is democracy, there is also political inequality. Voices of everyday folk struggle to be heard; often, they keep silent. Governments respond mostly to the influential and the already privileged. Our age of democracy, then, is the old age of inequality. This book builds on U.S. scholarship on the topic of political inequality to understand its forms, causes and consequences around the world.

Comprised of nine theoretical, methodological and empirical chapters, this path-creating edited collection contains original works by both established and young, up-and-coming social scientists, including those from Latin America, Eastern Europe, Greece and the U.S. Political Inequality in an Age of Democracy addresses the present and future of the concept of political inequality from multi-disciplinary and cross-national perspectives.

For more, please visit this book’s webpage.

Democracy, Global Governance, and Political Inequality: A Special Issue of Sociologias and the International Journal of Sociology

Members of the Working Group on Political inequality —  Joshua Kjerulf Dubrow and Soraya Vargas Cortes — have guest edited special issues on the the topic of, “Democracy, Global Governance, and Political Inequality.”  The table of context for each issue is here.

The first, “Desigualdade Política, Democracia e Governança Global,” is published in Sociologias, Brazil’s leading sociology journal in Spring 2013.  Articles are in Portuguese.

The second, “Democracy, Global Governance, and Political Inequality,” was published by the International Journal of Sociology in Summer 2013.  Articles are in English, including a new article by Chase-Dunn and colleagues, and a translation of John Markoff’s Sociologias article.  For a limited time, the issue is open access.

Abstract for IJS:  “This issue connects and extends recent international and sociological discussions begun at the latest World Congress of the International Sociological Association (2010) on democratic global governance, two recent issues of the International Journal of Sociology (Winter 2007-8 and Summer 2011) on the topic of political inequality, and a new issue of the Brazilian journal Sociologias on democracy, global governance, and political inequality, in which two articles being published here will appear in Portuguese.”

Abstract for Sociologias:  “Sociologias em seu trigésimo segundo número aborda o tema “Desigualdade Política, Democracia e GovernançaGlobal”. Ao examinar como a democracia e a governança global estão relacionadas às desigualdades políticas, o dossiê conecta as duas discussões – a que trata da‘democracia’ e ‘governança global’ e a que aborda ‘desigualdades políticas’ – no esforço de avançar o debate sobre as temáticas tanto isoladamente como no que se refere às suas conexões. A discussão apresentada no dossiê dá continuidade, por um lado, ao diálogo iniciado no Congresso Mundial da International Sociological Association (ISA), em Gotemburgo, Suécia, em 2010 e, por outro lado, é caudatário do debate apresentado no volume especial (volume 41), de 2011, do International Journal of Sociology (IJS), ‘Desigualdade Política na América Latina’ (Political Inequality in Latin América), em 2011, editado pelos Professores Soraya Vargas Cortes e Joshua Kjerlf Dubrow. Na seção Artigos, Lígia Mori Madeira e Fabiano Engelmann fazem uma análise dos estudos sociojurídicos no Brasil. Em outro artigo, Afonso de Oliveira Sobrinho retoma a temática da ideologia higienista associando-a a ideia de modernidade, no contexto do espaço urbano da cidade de São Paulo, na virada entre os séculos 19 e 20. Madel Luz, Cesar Sabino e Rafael Mattos, em “A Ciência como Cultura do Mundo Contemporâneo: a utopia dos saberes das (bio)ciências e a construção midiática do imaginário social”, alertam para pouca ênfase dada na sociologia às questões da vida e da saúde humanas. Os autores debatem o papel desempenhado pela ciência na construção da cultura contemporânea envolvendo os conceitos de vida e saúde. Na seção Interfaces, Darío Rodriguez, Rodrigo Flores Guerrero e Paula Miranda Sánchez trazem um estudo de casos sobre as relações de colaboração estabelecidas entre empresas espanholas baseadas no Chile e organizações não governamentais chilenas, no contexto de programas de responsabilidade social daquelas empresas. Na seção de Resenhas, Mário Augusto Medeiros da Silva apresenta a obra O Romancista e o Engenho: José Lins do Rego e o regionalismo nordestino dos anos 1920 e 1930, de Mariana Chaguri.”

Sociologias 2013 Political Inequality, Democracy and Global Gov

Political Inequality Sessions at the International Sociological Association 2012 Second Forum of Sociology

I am organizing two sessions at the upcoming International Sociological Association Second Forum of Sociology in Buenos Aires, Argentina, August 1 – 4, 2012.

If you are interested, please submit an abstract on-line in the ISA website between August 25 and December 15, 2011.  You can also email Joshua Kjerulf Dubrow: dubrow.2@osu.edu

Here is what ISA says about grants.

For more information, please see ISA 2012 Political Inequality Sessions on this website.

Cross-National Measures of Political inequality of Voice

Dubrow, Joshua Kjerulf.  2010.  “Cross-National Measures of Political Inequality of Voice.”  ASK: Research and Methods 19: 93-110.


Social scientists have long argued that political power is a key dimension of stratification, yet few empirically analyze political inequality or explicitly discuss the methodological implications of their measures of it. Political inequality is a distinct dimension of social stratification and a form of power inequality whose domain is all things related to political processes.  It is a multidimensional concept – comprised of voice, response, and policy – that occurs in all types of governance structures.  Conceptions of political inequality of voice reflect the well-established finding that position within the social and political structure impacts individual and group political influence. I argue that definitions and measures of political inequality of voice should focus on the extent of influence given its connection, but not reduction, to economic resources.  This article proposes and evaluates cross-national structural measures of political inequality of voice based on the relationship between socioeconomic status and political participation.  I explore the relationships between the measures and the rankings of European countries using data from the European Social Survey 2008 and the Economist Intelligence Unit Index of Democracy 2008’s “political participation” category.

Does the Internet Reduce Political Inequality of Voice?

Not yet and not in America, according to a recent article in Perspectives on Politics:

Perspectives on Politics, Volume 8, issue 2 (June 2010), p. 487-509

Weapon of the Strong? Participatory Inequality and the Internet

Schlozman, Kay Lehman; Verba, Sidney; Brady, Henry E

What is the impact of the possibility of political participation on the Internet on long-standing patterns of participatory inequality in American politics? An August 2008 representative survey of Americans conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project provides little evidence that there has been any change in the extent to which political participation is stratified by socio-economic status, but it suggests that the web has ameliorated the well-known participatory deficit among those who have just joined the electorate. Even when only that subset of the population with Internet access is considered, participatory acts such as contributing to candidates, contacting officials, signing a political petition, or communicating with political groups are as stratified socio-economically when done on the web as when done offline. The story is different for stratification by age where historically younger people have been less engaged than older people in most forms of political participation. Young adults are much more likely than their elders to be comfortable with electronic technologies and to use the Internet, but among Internet users, the young are not especially politically active. How these trends play out in the future depends on what happens to the current Web-savvy younger generation and the cohorts that follow and on the rapidly developing political capacities of the Web. Stay logged on …