Gender and Political Inequality in Eastern Europe: Open Access Resources from the POLINQ Project

What is the relationship between gender and political inequality (POLINQ)?

Despite the promises of political equality of the Communist era, and the promises of the post-Communist era, from 1945 to now women in Eastern Europe have endured political inequality.

Political inequality is defined as structured differences in influence over political decisions, and the outcomes of those decisions.

Women have been unequal to men in representation, whether it is fewer parliamentary seats than men, or whether it is in policy.

While much attention on gender and political inequality is about the USA and Western Europe, scholars have paid far less attention to the problem in Eastern Europe. We need updated, open access resources on the problem of gender and political inequality in Eastern Europe.

Scholarship on Gender and Political Inequality in the POLINQ Project

The POLINQ project partnered with scholars from the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, Polish Academy of Sciences, to produce three free & open access resources for activists, NGOs, politicians, students, and scholars to use.

Gender Quotas in Eastern Europe

Gender quotas are rules that aim at providing opportunities for women to be in parliament or to appear on candidate lists in elections for political office. Quota policy should be designed to provide substantial equitable opportunities and access to those decision-makers and their political decisions by the creation of new, favorable circumstances for women to be parliamentarians.

To understand gender quotas in Eastern Europe, the POLINQ project partnered with Dr. Adrianna Zabrzewska on the free, open access book:

Dubrow, Joshua K. and Adrianna Zabrzewska (eds.). 2020. Gender Quotas in the Post-Communist World: Voice of the Parliamentarians. IFiS Publishers.

This book is available on this website and was funded by the National Science Centre, Poland (2016/23/B/HS6/03916)

Gender, Politics and Protest in Eastern Europe

Whereas just and fair democratic societies require gender equality, in Eastern Europe, as well as countries around the world, past and present, gender inequality is the norm.

To achieve equality, we need knowledge of the world, past and present.

The POLINQ project partnered with Adrianna Zabrzewska and Magda Grabowska to create the website:

Women, Politics, and Protest in Central and Eastern Europe

This website provides basic knowledge for high school students and undergraduates, as well as any reader who is unfamiliar with the history and current issues of gender and politics in Eastern Europe. The project tells the story of gender and political change from the rise of Communism, the revolutions of 1989, and on to the present day.

Funding for this website comes from the Title VI Comprehensive National Resource Center grant from the International and Foreign Language Education division of the U.S. Department of Education, awarded to The Ohio State University’s Center for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies (CSEEES).

Gender and Protest in Poland over the Abortion Ban

In autumn 2020, as the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic began, Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal issued a ruling that severely restricted access to abortion. Massive street protests, led by Strajk Kobiet (Women’s Strike), quickly followed.

To understand this protest movement in Poland, the POLINQ project partnered with Dr. Adrianna Zabrzewska on the free, open access book:

Zabrzewska, Adrianna and Joshua K. Dubrow (eds.). 2022. Gender, Voice, and Violence in Poland: Women’s Protests during the Pandemic. IFiS Publishers.

This book is available on this website and was funded by the National Science Centre, Poland (2016/23/B/HS6/03916)

Strajk Kobiet protest in Poland, 2020

POLINQ: Political Inequality and Political Voice across Nations and Time

What is POLINQ Political Inequality?

POLINQ is an acronym for political inequality, defined as structured differences in political influence and its consequences. POLINQ is also the acronym of the National Science Foundation, Poland funded project (2016/23/B/HS6/03916), which ran from 2017 – 2022, with Joshua K. Dubrow as the Principle Investigator.

POLINQ was housed at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, Polish Academy of Sciences, and featured PhD students from the Graduate School for Social Research.

POLINQ moved forward the study of political inequality across nations and time.


Table of Contents

  1. What is POLINQ Political Inequality?
    1. POLINQ Theoretical Model
      1. Political voice can be defined minimally or maximally
      2. Mechanisms: Elite coordination and mass discoordination
      3. POLINQ, social structure, and social groups
      4. POLINQ, economic inequality, social welfare, and clientelism
    2. Some conclusions of the POLINQ project
    3. Published Results of the POLINQ Project
      1. POLINQ Conceptual and Theoretical Articles
        1. (a) The definition of political voice
        2. (b) The elucidation of the role of economic and political grievances in generating political inequality
        3. (c) Contentious politics and repertoires of action in low-level democracies
        4. (d) The dueling roles of elites and masses in economic redistribution
      2. POLINQ Methodological Articles and Notes
        1. (a) POLINQ explored the potential impact of major economic and political events during survey fieldwork:
        2. (b) POLINQ explored the potential impact of wording of survey items in major cross-national surveys:
        3. (c) POLINQ investigated quantitative problems and solutions in accounting for intersectionality with cross-national surveys, including structural equation modeling and mixed-methods
        4. (d) the local sources of error and bias in cross-national data
      3. POLINQ sources of information and data
        1. (a) Open access sourcebooks on gender and politics:
        2. (b) POLINQ Database:
      4. POLINQ Substantive Findings
        1. (a) Stability of the individual determinants of political participation in Europe across time
        2. (b) Protest under conditions of democratic backsliding
        3. (c) The relationship between economic inequality, policies of economic redistribution, attitudes toward economic redistribution and economic inequality, and protest potential
        4. (d) The relationships between economic inequality, economic and political grievances, and protest
        5. (e) Protest within authoritarian regimes and other un-democratic institutions
      5. POLINQ Guest Edited Issues of International Peer Reviewed Journals
    4. Seminars of the POLINQ Project
    5. Conferences of the POLINQ Project
    6. Training of PhDs and Post-Docs of the POLINQ Project

POLINQ Theoretical Model

POLINQ’s main theoretical elaboration is on the relationships between voice, inequality, and institutions across various regime types and for various social groups.

Political voice can be defined minimally or maximally

Minimally, political voice is the expression of interests within the political system.

Maximally, political voice is (a) participation – verbal, physical, symbolic, monetary, or otherwise – in the political sphere by individuals, organizations, social groups, interest groups, or entire populations in electoral and non-electoral situations. In this maximalist sense, voice is also (b) representation by movements, organizations, or political leaders and other figures. From a voice perspective, representation is someone or something engaged in the expression of interests in the political sphere on behalf of others or to promote an idea.

Political voice’s two main dimensions — participation and representation– appear in different contexts and scholars can study voice from various methodological approaches.

Mechanisms: Elite coordination and mass discoordination

One mechanism is how elites reproduce inequalities, or “elite coordination.” A second mechanism is how social inequalities structure participation and contestation. We call this second mechanism, “mass discoordination.” The two key mechanisms of elite coordination and mass discoordination feed off of each other. The uneven distribution of power resources encourages the elite — who head the democratic institutions and set the rules — to pursue greater concentration; meanwhile, the elite-led institutions that allow such disparities to occur promote roadblocks that either prevent groups from participating, such as in the case of disenfranchised citizens, or discourages collective coordination around shared interests. The masses remain aggrieved yet disorganized.

POLINQ, social structure, and social groups

For everyday citizens, structured gender, economic, and age inequalities, in their intersection, prevent representative politics and political action from producing equality. Representation and participation should empower those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. Yet, across nations and time, an individual’s position in the social structure interacts with the economic and political environment to repress the mass actions that could, potentially, push the elites toward fair economic redistribution.

POLINQ, economic inequality, social welfare, and clientelism

Political participation is a core aspect of POLINQ and it is a foundation of European democracies. Of the social forces that act in tandem to influence political participation, economic inequality, social spending, and clientelism loom large. Whereas economic inequality in modern capitalist societies is associated with the maldistribution of political power and unequal political engagement, institutional contexts of the political economy can amplify or dampen the impact of economic inequality. In theory, social spending should mitigate the negative externalities of economic inequality through the provision of the social and economic resources to individuals and social groups that they need to participate in politics. Equitable social spending across socioeconomic strata should relieve social and economic burdens that make it difficult for disadvantaged groups to participate in democratic life, and thus buoy the participatory environment. Yet, social spending is not necessarily equally distributed; clientelism intervenes to push resources towards already politically and economically advantaged groups, thus lowering the level of political participation.


Some conclusions of the POLINQ project

Political voice inequality is the inequality in influence – directly via political participation and indirectly through party representation – over the government decisions that impact society. Exacerbating voice inequality are economic conditions, including economic inequality. Whereas macro-level economic inequality matters under some conditions, what matters more is how structural inequalities, economic ones included, impact vulnerable disadvantaged social groups. Grievances of the masses are multi-dimensional – economic, as well as social and political – such that low income and low political opportunities leads to political dissatisfaction with external institutions and, at points, is associated with lower protest potential; however, perceived societal discrimination based on social attributes can increase protest potential. Across democracies, the youth are both the future of democracy and are among the most economically vulnerable groups. They may blame the political institutions for growing economic problems. We find that their distrust in political institutions can lead to democratic backsliding. To understand representational inequalities of social groups, we needed better data. To this end, POLINQ created two new publicly available datasets that, taken together, form the POLINQ Database: Party Representation of Social Groups (PaReSoGo) and POLINQ-Participation: Political Inequality of Voice.


Published Results of the POLINQ Project

POLINQ’s main published results are conceptual and theoretical articles, methodological articles and notes, and substantive articles.

POLINQ Conceptual and Theoretical Articles

We sought to elaborate on extant concepts in the field of studies of political voice, institutions, and inequality. This includes:

(a) The definition of political voice

Dubrow, Joshua K. “Guest Editor’s Introduction: Political Voice in Europe.” International Journal of Sociology 51, no. 4 (2021): 257-259.

(b) The elucidation of the role of economic and political grievances in generating political inequality

Muliavka, Viktoriia. “Bringing grievances back into social movement research: the conceptual and empirical case.” Social Movement Studies (2020): 1-19.

Li, Olga. “Grievances and political action in Russia during Putin’s rise to power.” International Journal of Sociology (2021): 1-17.

and of the roles of cognition and attitudes in political inequality

Lavrinenko, Olga. “Cognition and protest in democratic and authoritarian regimes, 1981–2020.” International Sociology (2022): DOI: 02685809211068664.

(c) Contentious politics and repertoires of action in low-level democracies

Zelinska, Olga. “How Protesters and the State Learn From One Another: Spiraling Repertoires of Contention and Repression in Ukraine, 1990-2014.” American Behavioral Scientist 64, no. 9 (2020): 1271-1298.

(d) The dueling roles of elites and masses in economic redistribution

Lopez, Matias and Joshua K. Dubrow. 2020. “Politics and Inequality in Comparative Perspective: A Research Agenda.” American Behavioral Scientist 64(9): 1199 – 1210.

POLINQ Methodological Articles and Notes

POLINQ sought to understand the relationship the bases of political voice from a methodological point of view. POLINQ tested various ways to measure political inequality of voice, and the results are two datasets that, combined are the POLINQ Database.

As befitting an intellectually open project that evolved over time, POLINQ made various discoveries.

(a) POLINQ explored the potential impact of major economic and political events during survey fieldwork:

Muliavka, Viktoriia. “Political Participation and Institutional Trust of Young Adults in Ukraine: Matching Conditions of Economic Grievance and Political Mobilization with European Social Survey Fieldwork Periods, 2004-2012.” Ask: Research and Methods 27, no. 1 (2018): 61-86.

Voicu, Bogdan. 2019. “Do Differences in Fieldwork Period Affect Survey Comparability? Examining World Values Survey and European Values Study in Romania, 2017 – 2018.” Harmonization: Newsletter on Survey Data Harmonization in the Social Sciences (The Ohio State University and the Polish Academy of Sciences) 5(2): 20 – 27.

(b) POLINQ explored the potential impact of wording of survey items in major cross-national surveys:

Tomescu-Dubrow, Irina, Joshua K. Dubrow, Ilona Wysmulek, and Kazimierz M. Slomczynski. 2018. “Have Done ‘Ever’ Political Participation Items in Cross-national Surveys: Origins and Implications for Analyses,” Harmonization: Newsletter on Survey Data Harmonization in the Social Sciences (The Ohio State University and the Polish Academy of Sciences) 4(2): 2 – 11.

Dubrow, Joshua K., Irina Tomescu-Dubrow, and Olga Lavrinenko. 2022. “Contacting a public official: Concept and measurement in cross-national surveys, 1960s–2010sSocial Science Quarterly DOI: 10.1111/ssqu.13177

(c) POLINQ investigated quantitative problems and solutions in accounting for intersectionality with cross-national surveys, including structural equation modeling and mixed-methods

Dubrow, Joshua K. and Corina Ilinca. 2019. “Quantitative Approaches to Intersectionality: New Methodological Directions and Implications for Policy Analysis,” pp. 195 – 214 in The Palgrave Handbook of Intersectionality in Public Policy edited by Olena Hankivsky and Julia S. Jordan-Zachery. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

(d) the local sources of error and bias in cross-national data

Dubrow, Joshua K. 2021. “Local Data and Upstream Reporting as Sources of Error in the Administrative Data Undercount of Covid 19.” International Journal of Social Research Methodology. DOI: 10.1080/13645579.2021.1909337

POLINQ sources of information and data

In addition to providing methodological knowledge for the international scientific community, we also sought to provide sources of information and data. These included:

(a) Open access sourcebooks on gender and politics:

Dubrow, Joshua K. and Adrianna Zabrzewska (eds.). 2020. Gender Quotas in the Post-Communist World: Voice of the Parliamentarians. IFiS Publishers.

Zabrzewska, Adrianna and Joshua K. Dubrow (eds.). 2022. Gender, Voice, and Violence in Poland: Women’s Protests during the Pandemic. IFiS Publishers.

(b) POLINQ Database:

Zelinska, Olga; Dubrow, Joshua K.: Party Representation of Social Groups (PaReSoGo) [data]. Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences [producer], Warsaw, 2021. PADS21317. Polish Social Data Archive [distributor], Repozytorium Danych Społecznych [publisher], 2021. https://doi.org/10.18150/NPXPAT, V1

Described in: Zelinska, Olga, and Joshua K. Dubrow. “PaReSoGo: Dataset on party representation of social groups for 25 countries, 2002–2016.” Party Politics (2021).

Dubrow, Joshua K.; Lavrinenko, Olga: POLINQ-Participation: Political Inequality of Voice [data]. Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Polish Academy of Sciences [producer], Warsaw, 2021. PADS22001. Polskie Archiwum Danych Społecznych [distributor], Repozytorium Danych Społecznych [publisher], 2022. https://doi.org/10.18150/PC8QZQ, V1

POLINQ Substantive Findings

POLINQ analyzed cross-national data for our substantive discoveries. These included:

(a) Stability of the individual determinants of political participation in Europe across time

Dubrow et al 2022 “Contacting a public official: Concept and measurement in cross-national surveys, 1960s–2010s” Social Science Quarterly

(b) Protest under conditions of democratic backsliding

Kwak, Joonghyun, Irina Tomescu-Dubrow, Kazimierz M. Slomczynski, and Joshua K. Dubrow. 2020. “Youth, Institutional Trust, and Democratic Backsliding.” American Behavioral Scientist 64, no. 9: 1366- 1390.

(c) The relationship between economic inequality, policies of economic redistribution, attitudes toward economic redistribution and economic inequality, and protest potential

Lavrinenko, Olga. “Cognition and protest in democratic and authoritarian regimes, 1981–2020.” International Sociology (2022): DOI: 02685809211068664.

Lavrinenko, Olga. “Exploring Protest in Europe with a Multi-Level Cross-National Test of the Structural Cognitive Model.” International Journal of Sociology (2021): 1-15.

(d) The relationships between economic inequality, economic and political grievances, and protest

Muliavka, 2020 “Bringing grievances back into social movement research: the conceptual and empirical case,” Social Movement Studies

(e) Protest within authoritarian regimes and other un-democratic institutions

Li, Olga. “Grievances and political action in Russia during Putin’s rise to power.International Journal of Sociology (2021): 1-17.

POLINQ Guest Edited Issues of International Peer Reviewed Journals

POLINQ produced two guest edited issues. They are:

Dubrow, Joshua K. 2021. Political Voice in Europe. International Journal of Sociology, Volume 51, Issue 4.

Lopez, Matias and Joshua K. Dubrow. 2020. “Why Political Inequality Endures: Elites, Contestation and Participation in Modern Democracies.” American Behavioral Scientist 64(9).


Seminars of the POLINQ Project

The POLINQ project organized two rounds of seminars, pre-Covid 19 pandemic.

The first was at the University of Bucharest, Romania 2017 – 2018. The seminar centered on (a) the connection between politics and inequality across nations and time and, to add to graduate student training, (b) moving from ideas to manageable research projects, and publishing, in the social sciences. The second was at IFiS PAN 2019 – January 2020. This was a monthly meeting in which we discussed the latest academic research in the social sciences on the subject of politics.


Conferences of the POLINQ Project

POLINQ organized two major international conferences.

The international conference, “Politics and Inequality across Nations and Time: Theoretical and Empirical Approaches,” was held at IFiS PAN, December 12 – 14, 2018 in Warsaw, Poland. Presentations were on substantive and methodological issues related to political voice and economic inequality. There were 34 attendees from Europe, the United States, and Latin America. Of the fifteen conference presenters: eight were from institutions outside of Poland, and there were eight advanced researchers, three recent PhDs, and four PhD students. Students from the Graduate School for Social Research and the University of Warsaw attended. Participants hailed from across the social sciences, including sociology, political science, and economics.

POLINQ conducted post-conference interviews with some of the participants: Renira C. Angeles, Catherine Bolzendahl, Constantin Manuel Bosancianu, Gwangeun Choi, Jan Falkowski, Katerina Vrablikova, and Piotr Zagorski.

The second international conference, “Building Multi-Source Databases for Comparative Analyses,” was held December 16-20, 2019 at IFiS PAN and was in cooperation with the project “Survey Data Recycling: New Analytic Framework, Integrated Database, and Tools for Cross-national Social, Behavioral and Economic Research”, a joint endeavour of the The Ohio State University and IFiS PAN. It explored the sources of data for the POLINQ project, including survey and administrative data.


Training of PhDs and Post-Docs of the POLINQ Project

Within the grant period, one of our research assistants achieved their PhD in sociology (Olga Zelinska, 2020, IFiS PAN), and three of our young researchers – Marta Kolczynska (2019/32/C/HS6 /00421) (former post-doc), Olga Zelinska (2021/40/C/HS6/00229) (Graduate Research Assistant), and Olga Lavrinenko (2021/40/C/HS6/00150) (recent Post-doc) – were awarded National Science Centre, Poland Sonatina Post-Doctoral Scholarships.

The Nationalist Retrenchment Hypothesis

As populist nationalists push back on neoliberal arguments on globalization, we see a diminished power of international bodies who attempt to solve global problems. Where once there was the hope of global governance, there is now Trumpism, John Birch-ism, Bolsanaro-ism, Orban-ism, and other societal ills.

A main cause of why nationalist retrenchment became so, well, entrenched, is that there was an inherent political inequality within nations and in the global governance institutions such as the United Nations.

This post asks, Is global governance inevitable? Is democratic global governance likely? The main thesis is that political inequality at home became political Inequality in global governance.

I wrote this in 2013. Unfortunately, the nationalist retrenchment thing happened. The nationalists are winning. Global governance is on the run. Democratic backsliding is real.

What is global governance?

Borrowing from Elke Krahmann, we can define global governance as regulation of international relations without centralized authority, meaning that collaborative efforts to address interdependent needs are voluntary. Because global governance challenges national sovereignty, nation-states resist centralizing too much power in a single global body.

Despite that global governance challenges national sovereignty, its institutionalization has accelerated; nations are aware that no one nation can solve global problems, and globalization has forced even the most nationalistic countries to collaborate across state lines.

Is global governance inevitable? Two Rival Hypotheses

In addressing the question of governance inevitability, there are two major hypotheses: the global governance hypothesis, and the nationalist retrenchment hypothesis.

Global Governance Hypothesis

The more problems are global in scope, the greater the chance that global governance will emerge and be enhanced.

An alternative hypothesis posits a world in which the opposite occurs: Despite growing global problems, countries will shrink from international commitments that they think will limit their ability to act in their parochial self-interest. This is the nationalist
retrenchment hypothesis.

Nationalist Retrenchment Hypothesis

The more problems are global in scope, the greater the nationalist retrenchment.

By nationalist, I mean a nation-centric view of world events, akin to unilateralism. By retrenchment, I mean a stop and backslide toward unilaterialism in which countries eschew global governance strategies.

Is Nationalist Retrenchment a Possibility? (I asked in 2013)

Nationalist retrenchment may be a mere theoretical counterfactual, something that at its fullest extent is not now possible.

What evidence do we have in the modern era of nationalist retrenchment? (I asked that in 2013. Josh in 2022 says, “Plenty“) The relationship between the United States and the UN is a useful case study. The “U.S. out of the UN!” movement has its roots in the ultra-right wing John Birch Society, and despite some occasional resurgence, it has never truly threatened to pull the United States from the UN or eject the UN from its New York City headquarters. Although the U.S. Congress has historically been skeptical of the UN, diehard members of the nationalist retrenchment club—anachronistic throwbacks to the pre- Wilsonian era (or the 1930s)—are a rare breed.

This possibility blossomed under Donald Trump’s surprise presidency in 2016, and culminated, thus far, in the insurrection (or “riot”) at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.

Political Inequality at Home leads to Political Inequality in Global Governance

If global governance is inevitable, we can now turn to the next question: Is democratic global governance likely?

Here is where the notion of political inequality is important.

There is plenty of evidence to support the view that global governance organizations are characterized by political inequality. Kofi Annan, former secretary general of the UN, said that “we cannot claim that there is perfect equality between member states.” Political inequality, according to Annan, can differ in extent: he says that the “small and powerless feel less unequal” at the UN than in other major international organizations.  Nevertheless, political inequality in terms of unequal voice and response continues to challenge the legitimacy of existing global governance institutions.

If international organizations, individual nations and social movements have thus far been relatively ineffective democratizers of global governance structures, it may be because political inequality at home translates into political inequality on the global stage.

Nationalists and internationalists—or, unilateralists and multilateralists— are battling for supremacy over foreign policy within their own nations and in global governance organizations. We can imagine a situation in which nationalists win policy battles more often than internationalists, and where the scope of the policies made by nationalists precludes or minimizes actions to internationalize.

In a world where few countries have a lot and most have little, nationalist retrenchment can also weaken democratic development of these structures by de-funding these organizations and neglecting the needs of the disadvantaged.

This post is based on the article, Dubrow, Joshua Kjerulf. 2013. “Democratic Global Governance, Political Inequality, and the Nationalist Retrenchment Hypothesis.” International Journal of Sociology 43(2): 55 – 69.

Further Reading

What Populists Do to Democracies – The Atlantic

US Congress investigates the January 6, 2021 attack

What Is Political Inequality and How Unequal Are We?

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 know less about Political Inequality

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 of Political Inequality

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.

Built on the classics, modern definitions of political inequality depend on whether one is concerned about equality of opportunities or equality of outcomes. In short, equality of opportunities is about access to the political decision. Equality of outcomes refers to the law, symbols, policy or other output that is the result of the political process. Most definitions are based on the idea of equality of opportunities, but they could be modified to include outcomes, too.

Let’s look at some popular definitions from my book on political inequality:

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Political inequality is structured differences in the distribution of political resources

According to this definition, one group has greater or lesser access to, or acquisition of, political resources than another group.

Political equality is when everybody’s preferences are equally weighted in political decisions.

The definition of “everybody” matters, of course: Everybody could mean all citizens, or it could mean all who are potentially impacted by the decision.

Political inequality is the existence of authority divisions

Here, we speak of political inequality when groups have unequal political input into the decisions that affect them. The more layers of authority between the citizen and the decision, the greater the political inequality.

We can usefully combine these approaches with a definition that both simple and flexible:

Political inequality refers to structured differences in influence over decisions made by political bodies and the unequal outcomes of those decisions.

How Much Political Inequality Is There?

Short answer: nobody knows.

Why? Because there are no cross-national comprehensive measures of it. Nobody’s ever done it. And that’s because we need to ask, “for whom” and “of what.” Who is unequal? And are they unequal in terms of voice or government response? Those questions are hard to quantify.

This video explains why we don’t know:

Political Inequality Is the Shadow of Democracy

Democratic institutions set the rules of the political process and guarantee formal rights of political participation to a wide variety of citizens, but not to all of them. Many discussions of political inequality are debates about whether and how equality in democratic governance can be achieved. The coexistence of democracy with political inequality leads to the question of how realistic the idea is that all interested participants can enjoy equal influence on the governance decision or in its outcomes. A common thought is that we should seriously consider acceptable limits in who should be unequal and how to manage this inequality while still raising high the banner of democracy. This leads to a conclusion that political inequality is the shadow of democracy.

A recent article on inequality and policy outcomes by Gilens and Page (2014) 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, but their measure of political inequality has shortcomings. First, 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. Nor can it account for the policies that are off the Congressional agenda, the type of power that Bacharach and Baratz (1967) warned that is most pernicious: the power to compel voters to not even ask for the policy in the first place. 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 (2014) conducted what is likely one of the most unique studies on American political inequality, and it’s just a start.

Future Research in Political Inequality

Political inequality is an important topic for our times. We must be aware that the objective and subjective realities of political inequality rouses people to action.  That political inequality lives in democracies across the world is a troubling fact of life, and if we want to move closer to political equality, we can do better to understand it.

First, let’s study it more. While doing that, let’s see if we can measure it comprehensively across nations. And then, let’s see what can be done about it.

And, so we did. Please read our report on POLINQ: Political Inequality and Political Voice across Nations and Time.

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Copyright Joshua K. Dubrow 2022

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.

ABSTRACT

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.

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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