Interview with Gwangeun Choi on Economic and Political Inequality in Cross-national Perspective

Gwangeun Choi presented the paper, “The Link between Economic and Political Inequality in Cross-National Perspective” at the Politics and Inequality conference held in Warsaw, Poland in December 2018.

Dr. Choi recently received a PhD in Government at the University of Essex in the UK. His research interests are in the areas of democracy, quality of democracy, political inequality, economic inequality, perceived inequality, redistributive preferences, redistribution, and universal basic income. His latest article, “Revisiting the Redistribution Hypothesis with Perceived Inequality and Redistributive Preferences” appeared at the European Journal of Political Economy (2019).

We asked Gwangeun Choi for an extended abstract of his Politics and Inequality conference paper and, via email, some questions about his research. We are thankful for his positive and detailed response.

Extended Abstract by Gwangeun Choi

It is widely believed that there exists a debilitating feedback cycle linking economic and political inequality. However, there has been a lack of empirical evidence about this association, particularly, in cross-national comparative research. It is largely because cross-national measures of political inequality are underdeveloped. To fill this gap, this study introduces the Political Inequality Index (PII) and the Political Power Inequality Index (PPII). The PII is composed of the two dimensions: participation and representation, which are based on the reconceptualization of political inequality from the perspective of a middle-range conception. The PPII comes from the indicators that measure the distribution of political power across socioeconomic position, social group, and gender, which the Varieties of Democracy provides. This inquiry then investigates the two-way causal relationship between economic and political inequality. In the first causal direction, net income inequality is used as a proxy for economic inequality, while in the reverse causal linkage political inequality is supposed to influence market income inequality and redistribution separately, as income inequality is considered as an outcome of the two different distributive stages. In doing so, both causal directions between economic and political inequality are integrated into a unified framework. With respect to estimation techniques, a system GMM estimator for a dynamic panel data model, which is an increasingly popular estimation method, is mainly used to address the issue of endogeneity. The findings show that net income inequality does not significantly affect political inequality and that political inequality appears to have little impact on market income inequality, while political inequality seems to contribute to economic inequality by influencing redistribution in a negative direction.

Interview with Gwangeun Choi

The research you presented at the Politics and Inequality conference was on the relationship between political inequality and economic inequality in cross-national perspective. How did you get interested in this topic? And how is this topic connected to other research that you are doing?

I first became interested in a concept ‘political equality’ while I was doing research on the quality of democracy. In my framework designed to conceptualize and measure the level of democracy, political equality was one of the three core principles of democracy. Thus, it was easy for me to construct a new measure of political inequality, building on this framework. The next step was to investigate the reciprocal relationship between economic inequality and political inequality, as I realized that there is a lack of empirical evidence on this linkage although no one seems to doubt the widespread belief of the vicious cycle between economic and political inequality.

What is most challenging about measuring political inequality, and why?

I think that the most challenging part is to provide convincing theoretical arguments on the conceptualization of political inequality. Measuring the quality of democracy is also faced with the same issue. My study on democracy and political inequality and several other studies attempting to measure them with relatively thick concepts reached a consensus in excluding both minimalist and maximalist approaches. However, this does not guarantee that the majority of scholars agree with a specific middle-range concept of democracy or political inequality. This is therefore a more pressing issue than a range of measurement problems.

What surprised you most about your research on political and economic inequalities?

What surprised me most is the consistent findings of the paper I presented across the different measures of political inequality that are based on a middle-range approach: Political Inequality Index (PII) and Political Power Inequality Index (PPII). I reported the results at the conference that political inequality significantly reduces the level of redistribution, not market income inequality, while the effect of net income inequality on political inequality is not significant. After the conference, I got to know that the dataset of the Democracy Matrix directed by Hans-Joachim Lauth has become publicly available since last December. The Democracy Matrix is also based on a middle-range conception of democracy, and political equality is one of its three principles. I constructed another measure of political inequality right away from the aggregate index of political equality in this dataset and redid the main analysis of the paper with this new measure. Surprisingly, the results strongly support the main findings of the inquiry.

Imagine that you only have a minute or two to tell someone about your paper. What is the main message of your paper that you want people to remember?

The main findings of my paper should be interpreted with caution⸺that net income inequality does not significantly affect political inequality, while political inequality contributes to economic inequality by influencing redistribution rather than market income inequality. First, the concept of political equality in my paper focuses on securing an equal opportunity by encouraging political participation and making a more representative political system, not guaranteeing equal political outcomes.

Second, addressing either economic inequality or political inequality, not both of them, is incomplete, irrespective of to what extent they are associated, as economic inequality and political inequality are ubiquitous and troublesome in the modern world. Last, the finding that enhancing political equality in terms of participation and representation has clear limitations in influencing market income inequality leads us to pay more attention to other political efforts beyond enhancing redistributive policies, given that both market conditioning policies and redistributive policies are important to redress economic disparities that may influence politics in myriad ways.

What’s the next step for your research on this topic?

The empirical analysis of the current paper could not directly test the theories of political inequality discussed in the literature so far. For instance, to examine the elite theory, we need to exactly define the elite and measure their disproportionate political influence, but there is no such measure currently available. As Jeff Manza argues, contemporary theories of political inequality, such as elite and oligarchic theories, power resources theories, and globalization models, do not present a satisfactory explanation for the causes and consequences of political inequality, and they are also faced with many cases that contradict the theories. Therefore, theory building in the study of political inequality is pressing although it is a challenging task. Further investigation of the channels of influence between economic and political inequality, using various research methods beyond macro-level analysis, will open up an avenue for that.

Please list two of your recent favorite articles or books in the field of politics and inequality, and why you chose them.

I’d like to list Unequal and Unrepresented: Political Inequality and the People’s Voice in the New Gilded Age (Schlozman, Brady, and Verba, 2018) as one of the books I recommend. I would say that this book is a newly published classic as it is a brief summary or a synthesis of their earlier works, Voice and Equality (1995) and The Unheavenly Chorus (2012), as well as an updated empirical research with recent data reflecting the new political and economic landscape. Another one is the completely revised and updated second edition of Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (Bartels, 2018). The two books seem to be complimentary to each other in the sense that the former focuses on political voice, while the latter addresses political responsiveness. Reading these books may give readers something more than that: the whole picture of political inequality and critical thinking towards different views on political inequality.

What’s an older article or book in the field of politics and inequality that you like, and why?

The Power Elite (1956) by American sociologist C. Wright Mills is one of the great classics for social scientists, but its profound insights can also shed new light on contemporary democracies in which political and economic inequality has been growing. In 2006, G. William Domhoff, a successor to Millsian elite theory, said, “Mills looks even better than he did 50 years ago.” Many advanced democracies as well as the United States appear to be dominated by an elite ownership class that monopolizes political and economic power. The growing importance of the asset economy since 1970’s and its accompanying politics require us to rediscover and reinterpret the elite theory in revealing the mechanisms of the interplay between political inequality and economic inequality.

The interview was conducted via email by Joshua K. Dubrow, who also edited this piece, including the embedding of web links. This work was funded by the National Science Centre, Poland (2016/23/B/HS6/03916).

Be sure to read:

Choi, Gwangeun. “Revisiting the redistribution hypothesis with perceived inequality and redistributive preferences.” European Journal of Political Economy 58 (2019): 220-244.

Choi, Gwangeun. “Conceptualizing and Measuring Political Inequality in a Cross-National Perspective.” Comparative Sociology 20, no. 1 (2021): 1-44.

Five Problems with Measuring Political Inequality

Political equality is a foundation of democracy, but in every democracy citizens are politically unequal. Some voices are louder than others, whether it has to do with their political participation or the level of economic inequality. As a consequence, there is democratic backsliding, and other political problems.

If we want to know, Is political inequality rising, falling, or staying the same? We would have to measure the concept of “political inequality.”

Measuring political inequality has multiple challenges.

In this post, I pose five main problems in measuring political inequality:  

1. Political power and influence is difficult to observe.  

Political power and 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.

Read: What is Power? What is a Power Structure?

2. The range of potential political resources is extremely diverse and heavily context dependent.  

We discussed how 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.  

Read: Defining and Measuring Political Resources

3. Political outcomes is difficult 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. Similar work outside the American context is rare.

Read: Gilens and Page

4. Political equality never existed.

Political equality has never existed in any democracy or any other political system ever. 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?

Read: The Many Definitions of Political Inequality

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.

If we are to measure political inequality, we need to know how to define it. There are many definitions of political inequality. Start with a definition, and then build the measure.

Read: The Many Definitions of Political Inequality

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.

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

 In this post, I summarize the article “Oligarchy in the U.S.,” by Winters and Page (2009).

Winters and Page: Oligarchy in the USA

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).

Defining Oligarchy

Citing Aristotle, WP argue that wealth is the primary power resource.  WP define oligarchy as a “type of political system” in which “the wealthiest citizens deploy unique and concentrated power resources to defend their unique minority interests” (731).  WP argue that oligarchy is a form of extreme political and economic inequality: “Oligarchy refers broadly to extreme political inequalities that necessarily accompany extreme material inequalities” (732).  Oligarchs, due to their wealth, are a powerful minority that dominates policy in modern democracy. 

Why wealth? 

Wealth is “a material form of power that is distinct from all other power resources, and which can be readily deployed for political purposes” (732).  (Material, as opposed to other types of) wealth is an individual power resource for three main reasons: (1) It is concentrated in the hands of the few; (2) it is easily used as a means of political influence; and (3) it implies a set of political interests: specifically, the desire to protect the wealth they have and get more of it.  The core political interest is in property and income defense.  Concentrated wealth is both power and a motivation to use power.  WP acknowledge other sources of political power: position within government, full political citizenship, position within organizations, personal capacity to mobilize people, and access to the means of violence.  In their view, wealth is the most consistent major political power source.

WP acknowledge that oligarchs do not control all political life: just the major ones concerning property and income.  Oligarchs do not have to exhibit “explicit coordination or cohesion” (731).  Their common interest in wealth protection is enough to bind them and coordinate their actions.  This common interest also insulates the oligarchal system from radical changes resulting from circulation of elites. 

How do oligarchs use wealth? 

Wealth is a gateway to purchasing the means of control and furthering their political interests.  They command large organizations.  They hire “armies” of skilled professionals.  They are “denizens of foundations, think tanks, politically connected law firms, consultancies, and lobbying organizations” (732). Oligarchs do not have to have extensive engagement in political participation to be oligarchs.  They argue that oligarchs do not have to hold formal government positions to wield power: rather, “indirect influence is sufficient” (731). 

Masses do not rebel against this state of affairs because of a stable “oligarch-mass” settlement.  In exchange for extreme inequality, masses receive universal suffrage.  The masses are divided in terms of their interests.  Oligarchs operate within a — limited — pluralistic environment. 

WP argue that oligarchy became a muddled concept in the hands of the classic elite theorists of Mosca, Pareto and Michels, who included resources other than wealth in their lists of what constitutes power resources for oligarchs.

How Winters and Page Measure Individual Political Power?

WP argue that there are many possible political power measures, and they encourage empirical investigation into them.  Their measure of political power is based on indices of income and wealth.  They note (endnote 21) that income and wealth does not necessarily have a 1:1 relationship with political power, such that twice the wealth equals twice the political power.  They argue that such relationships are open for empirical investigation.  Yet, in Table 1, this is exactly how they calculate “individual power index.” 

“The Individual Power Index for each income fractile is a ratio, calculated as the average income for that fractile divided by the average income of the bottom 90%” (735, Table 1).

Individuals in the top 1/100 of 1% with an average income of over 25 million dollars have 882.8 times as much “individual power” as an individual in the bottom 90%.  Due to this form of calculation, the bottom 90% will always have an individual power index score of 1.

WP also measure individual power based on the wealth of the Forbes 400 richest Americans and distributions based on estate tax and data from the Survey of Consumer Finances.

They do not have a threshold at which a certain level of political power (based on income or wealth) is oligarchy: “Any fixed quantitative criterion used to identify oligarchs is bound to be arbitrary… we would argue strongly against any mechanical rule” (737).  Yet, they argue that in the U.S., “a definitional boundary that identifies the top tenth of 1 percent of the wealthiest households as potential oligarchs seems fairly plausible” (738).

What Oligarchs Control

Oligarchs do not control all policy.  Rather, they control key policies that offer the best wealth protection.
Policy types that oligarchs exert over-influence are:

  1. International economic policy (important for a globalizing world)
  2. Monetary policy (important during economic crisis)
  3. Tax policy (which influences government spending and other government budgetary matters)
  4. Over-all redistributive impact of all government policies.

How Oligarchs Control

  1. Lobbying (which has got more professional and more expensive)
  2. Elections (campaign contributions influence who gets elected to office)
  3. Opinion shaping (media and more subtle ways that they do not specify)
  4. Constitutional rules (including the appointment of judges)


Critiques of Winters and Page

This is an interesting a provocative article.  I especially appreciate their attempt to measure political power.  I have some criticisms of their approach.

They do not consistently distinguish between “power” resources and “political” resources.  They refer mostly to political power, but their vocabulary is not precisely deployed.

Though they reference Aristotle in their claim that wealth is the primary power resource in democracies for oligarchs, they do not explicitly reference the deep roots their ideas have in Marxism and neo-Marxism.  Their thesis of why the masses accept this arrangement is very close to the Marxian theory of state compromise/class compromise.  In exchange for their larger monetary and political control, the ruling class grants concessions to the proletariat, including limited political influence and limited economic redistribution. 

Further, WP argue that masses are “persuaded” as a result of this settlement.  In Marxian terms, the settlement leads to false consciousness (they do not use the term “consciousness”).  Lacking wealth as a motivator for political action, masses are divided over their different interests.  This implies that wealth is the only thing in modern democracy that can successfully bind a group together and motivate each individual to act as if they have a common interest with their fellow group members. 

In their discussion of how wealth is used, they do not separate ownership from control over organizations.  For example, WP states that “the wealthy often control large organizations, such as business corporations, that can act for them” (732).  CEOs and boards of directors are the ones that usually control these organizations; while they are wealthy, it is not their material wealth that is used; rather, it is their position within a heavily resourced organization.  This fact undermines their argument that wealth is the key political force. 

A similar problem is with oligarchs relationship to think tanks, lobbying firms, and the like.  While funded by the wealthy, even the non-wealthy can be influential actors within these organizations.  These problems in their conceptualization are especially problematic because they operationalize political power solely on income and wealth indices.

While WP say that oligarchs do not control all political activities, their last form of control, “Over-all redistributive impact of all government policies” is vague enough to imply a much larger range of control than WP admit.  “Over-all” is far too imprecise to be operationalized.

What happens to WP ‘s theory when placed in a communist regime?  There, position within the state is more of a political power resource than wealth.  Clearly, the “wealth is most important” argument does not work there.  They do not discuss communist societies (which is understandable, if they concentrate only on putative democracies).

WP do not engage directly with the problem that oligarch influence is not directly observed.  They should do more to acknowledge that, in all such similar theories, influence is inferred, not explicitly seen.  This invisible hand argument has been troublesome for all elite theories.  Further, while they cite Domhoff and Mills (but not Parenti, surprisingly), they do not engage directly with their very similar theories.  Domhoff’s “upper class as ruling class” elite theory is substantively similar to WP’s oligarchy.


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

Copyright Joshua Dubrow 2022

Notes on Piven and Cloward’s (2005) Discussion of Power Resources

What are power resources?

Piven and Cloward (2005) discuss power resources

They write: “…it is perhaps the most important dispute in the discussion of power.  What are to be regarded as power resources?” (36)

Distributional approaches

Weber: “all conceivable qualities of a person and all conceivable combinations of circumstances may put him in a position to impose his will in a given situation” (as cited in Wrong 1979:23).

Collins (1975):  “the resources for conflict are complex,” comprising just about everything

Dahl (1961): “anything that can be used to sway the specific choices or strategies of another individual”

Oberschall (1973): “anything from material resources… to nonmaterial resources”

Giddens (1985): allocative vs. authoritative resources

Etzioni (1968): utilitarian/material resources vs. normative/symbolic (see also Gamson 1968)

Tilly (1978): economists’ factors of production

Mills (1956): occupation of key positions/”command posts.”

One kind of resource can be used to gain another.

Piven and Cloward: “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” (37).

Key resources are not widely distributed, but are concentrated at the top of the social hierarchy (37). 

Yet, those at the lower end do still influence social change.  How?

Interdependent relations, or interdependency approach

Piven and Cloward:  “the effective exercise of power in electoral representative institutions… does not result simply from a general currency of things or traits and the pattern of their distribution but rather depends on the specific relationships that make particular things or traits useful and important.”  (38).

“…in addition [to disembodied attributes, resources for power] are derived from the patterns of interdependence that characterize all social life” (39). 

“People have potential power, the ability to make others do what they want, when those others depend on them for the contributions they make to the interdependent relations that are social life” (39).

Power is embedded in interaction.  Power resources – or, rather, what are considered as power resources – are dependent on the interactional context.  “Control over capital is an effective resource for exercising power over others because those others are already entangled in a system of economic relations that makes them dependent on entrepreneurs for the means of production and subsistence” (39).

The exception is force – either the threat or actual physical force.  This is an important and possibly far-reaching exception, as force is embedded in many social interactions. 

The basic assumption is that actors are equal in the power relationship.

Giddens (1984): “much of day-to-day interaction is routine and is subject only to reflexive monitoring and rationalization” (34).  Piven and Cloward: “most of the time, people only try to make their everyday lives.  They do not try to make history” (41).

These interactional contexts in which power arises are in “the systems of interdependence that constitute societies” (40).  Systems are plural: “A web of complex networks of political, economic, and cultural interdependencies has to be analyzed if the actual potential for power by different participants in these networks is to be deciphered” (41).

The interdependency approach shares intellectual terrain with “exchange theorists.”  Power is “an attribute of relationships,” not of social actors.  They criticize Blau’s theory that power imbalances are the result of asymmetrical contributions to needed things:  employers have more power because they supply the jobs and those with less power have less to contribute to whatever is needed.  “Needed services” contributions… but landowners, do they contribute more than the workers who build the estate?  How is this measured?  P&C accuse Blau of justifying—even morally – power imbalance.

But if equality of contributions is inherent in mutual, interdependent relationships, why is the distribution of economic and status resources unequal?  Why don’t people use the potential power embedded in these interactions?

Value of contributions cannot be measured, and is therefore not the answer.  There are seven reasons why participants do not exercise their potential power:

1.  Consciousness: “people must recognize their potential power before they can act on it.”
2.  Coordination: in circumstances of collectivities, action requires coordination across similarly situated actors (as opposed to husband and wife relationships).
3.  Staying power: “power seekers must be able… to tolerate the costs” of acting.
4.  Control over supply of alternatives: “power seekers” must be able to prevent the other parties from going around them, circumnavigating them, to get what they want (via scabs, etc.).
5.  Exit: “contenders do not respond to challenges by simply exiting… or threatening to exit” (43) the relationship.
6.  Third-party leverage: “power seekers must be “free from constraints” from another, third party, that could intervene (e.g. courts intervening in labor disputes, e.g. Reagan firing the air-traffic controllers.
7.  Force:  power seekers must be free from threat or use of physical force.

“Social rules inhibit the activation of interdependencies and hence restrict the wide exercise of power” (43).

“Rules… [specify] the behaviors that are permissible by different parties in interdependent relations” (44).  Only certain rules are of interest: those that have direct bearing on power exercise.  The system of interdependencies, i.e. the context in which power interactions operate, include “rules” which legitimate “the actions available to some contenders while delimiting the actions available to others” (44).

Key to P&C’s theory is the legitimation of power exercise.  Legitimation is institutionalized, embedded in institutions that organize social life, such as law, policy.  Focus of power struggles is over rules—their legitimacy and their enforcement.  Once rules are legitimized, power interactions are characterized as being one-sided because the power seekers who attempt to break the rules no longer have legitimate means of challenging other parties. 

The role of the state is to formulate, impose and enforce the rules.

Agency in Piven and Cloward’s (2005) approach

They go back and forth on the constraints of social structure and the capacity of people to think and act beyond the constraints of social structure.  Because people are reflexive, they have the capacity to transcend constraints of social structure.  Reflexivity can therefore change the dynamic of power interactions, enabling rule breaking.


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.

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?


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. 


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