Five Problems with Measuring Political Inequality

How much political inequality is there? Is political inequality rising, falling, or staying the same? To answer these questions, we would have to measure the idea of “political inequality.”

Here are five main problems in measuring political inequality:  

1. Political influence is hard for scientists to observe.  Political influence is notoriously difficult to measure because it is an interaction between power wielders that is more inferred than directly observed.  We tend to “see” power after the decision is made, not during the decision process.

2. The range of potential political resources is extremely diverse and heavily dependent on context.  Political resources are anything one can use to influence a political decision: social or psychological factors – material, ideational, a personal attribute, a group level attribute, an authority position, a network connection – or an action, such as political participation. In international perspective, this is further complicated by seeking a measure that is functionally equivalent across nations.  

3. Political outcomes is also hard to measure. To answer the question, “does political inequality matter?”, we would have to empirically demonstrate that governmental decisions systematically favor some groups over others. Some recent work in the U.S. is exemplary (see the Gilens and Page argument below). Similar work outside the American context is rare.

4. Political equality never existed. Is political equality a real, empirically visible end of the continuum? If political equality is an ideal then does a theoretical endpoint belong in an empirical measure?

5. We need to specify the particular type of political inequality. Political inequality can be found anywhere within the political process. Let’s simplify the political process to two parts – voice and response.   Voice refers to how constituencies express their interests to decision-makers directly or through representatives.  Response refers to how decision-makers act and react to their constituencies and is expressed via policy and symbols.

The Gilens and Page Measure of Political Inequality

A recent article on inequality and policy outcomes by Gilens and Page highlights the promise and the difficulties in measuring political inequality. Their unique data consists of 1779 policies taken up by the U.S. Congress from the 1980s to the early 2000s. Each policy is matched to a public opinion survey research question asked during the time the policy was introduced (“this policy says X, to what extent do you agree with it?”) and to a set of interest groups who have taken a position on the policy. With these data, they gauged the extent to which the policy outcome reflects (a) the will of the median voter – identified within the surveys and (b) types of interest groups, such as economic elites, business interests, and mass public interest groups. They found that policy outcomes tend to favor the will of economic elites, not the median voter. Their study provides solid, further evidence of the paucity of pluralism in American democracy.

Gilens and Page recently published a spirited and convincing defense of their findings, but we should consider how the basis of their study — the measure of political inequality — has some fundamental problems.

A. They chose policies based on whether they were asked in public opinion surveys, and that means the many, not-so-famous policy debates that also shape key economic distribution policies were excluded.

B. Nor can it account for the policies that are off the Congressional agenda, the type of power that Bachrach and Baratz (1962) warned that is most pernicious: the power to compel voters to not even ask for the policy in the first place.

C. It is also specific to the American experience; though it can be replicated elsewhere, so far there is no cross-national equivalent to these data.

Gilens and Page conducted what is likely one of the best and most unique studies on American political inequality, and it’s just a start.

Josh (2)


Joshua Kjerulf Dubrow is an Associate Professor at the Polish Academy of Sciences. This post is adapted from the article, “Political Inequality is International, Interdisciplinary, and Intersectional,” published by Sociology Compass in 2015.


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.

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

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 …

Notes on Winters and Page’s (2009) “Oligarchy in the U.S.?”

Winters, Jeffrey A. and Benjamin I. Page.  2009.  “Oligarchy in the United States?”  Perspectives on Politics 7(4): 731 – 751.

What the Article Is About
Winters and Page (Hereafter, WP) argue that all modern democracies, regardless of level of democracy, can be oligarchies.   Oligarchy and democracy can, and do, “coexist comfortably” (731).  WP ask whether the U.S. is an oligarchy.

WP want to “advance the research agenda” of the APSA Task Force on Inequality and American Democracy, and goad political scientists to “treat power… more seriously” (732).

Continue reading “Notes on Winters and Page’s (2009) “Oligarchy in the U.S.?””

Intersectionality and Political Inequality

I created a website that is a companion to a recently published paper on intersectionality and political participation.  The abstract is as follows:

Dubrow, Joshua Kjerulf.  2008.  How Can We Account for Intersectionality in Quantitative Analysis of Survey Data?  Empirical Illustration of Central and Eastern Europe.”  ASK: Society, Research, Methods 17: 85-102.




While applying intersectionality is common in the qualitative literature, there are few methodological guides for the quantitative researcher.  I examine the challenges of incorporating intersectionality into quantitative survey analysis by comparing and contrasting statistical approaches in the analysis of the influence of intersectional demographics. To illustrate these approaches I use European Social Survey (2006) data and focus on gender, ethnicity, and class and their intersections to explain soft political protest in Central and East European countries. Logistic regression equations with dichotomous explanatory variables, including multiplicative interaction terms and their main effects, allow for testing variants of intersectionality theory and hypotheses testing cumulative disadvantage.  Some main guidelines for the cross-national quantitative analysis of intersectionality are: (1) multiplicative interaction terms are the best way to measure intersections and account for their properties as being beyond the sum of their parts; (2) care must be taken with the interpretation of main effects and higher and lower order interaction terms; and (3) each intersection has time and space specific consequences. In advocating for widespread use of quantitative techniques to analyze demographic intersections, large survey data sets, especially cross-national ones, provide opportunities for intersectionality researchers to provide empirical support for their theoretical statements and generalizability of their findings.