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.

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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.

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.

Continue reading “Statement on the Study of Political Inequality”

Defining and Measuring Political Resources

The definition and measurement of political inequality, in some formulations of the concept, requires a definition of political resources.  Let’s start with a definition of political inequality.

— 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.

What are political resources?  Are they different from power resources?  Let’s be a bit simple at first and say there are two perspectives (borowed from Piven and Cloward 2005):

(a) Distributional:  Resources are anything that can be used to influence an outcome.  Resources are used, but it is not power itself.  Resources are distributed unequally.  “Power resources” is used to describe any resources used in the exercise of power.  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). Political inequality refers to structured differences in the distribution and acquisition of political resources. Power is an attribute of people.

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.

(b)  Interdependency:  Resources are never strictly defined and can take the form of anything actors can do within an interaction.  Resources are actions available to the participants in the interaction.  These resources are valid 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.  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.

The interdependency approach is different from the distributional approach because it assumes that each actor in the interaction has equal power resources.  Employers can only make employees work because employees agree to work.  If employees decided not to work, such as a work-strike, then the employees could be said “to have power over” the employers.  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 to measure political inequality?

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

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 seems to be the main determinant of who has power and who does not.

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, i.e. the degree to which nations are internally-stratified in terms of political resources.  Democracy does have a relationship to economic outcomes, but it is not equivalent to political inequality.
As Verba et al (1978) point out, for democracy to reduce economic 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.  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. 


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.