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.

Some Notes on Measures of Political Inequality

Unlike economic inequality, a standard measure of political inequality has yet to arise from the sociological and political science disciplines.  It is dfficult to understand why, other than political resources are more abstract than income, wealth, and other measures of economic resources.  Measures of democracy are not the same as political inequality; level of democracy, or political system, is the context in which political resources are distributed and used.  An interesting measure of democracy is the Everyday Democracy Index, which can be examined here.  One of the author’s blog, Divided Democracy by Paul Skidmore, also notes the difficulty in measuring political inequality.  Skidmore read some of the same source material that I did, and independently, I have a similar vision of how such a measure could be constructed:

One is the idea of using the correlation between income and activism as a summary indicator of political equality that can be compared across countries…

The idea is that activism is a political resource, like income is an economic one.  If income is predictor of activism (as is class, and other disadvantaged group indicators), which most studies find that it is, then income has to be considered as a correlate but not equivalent measure of political resources.  Understanding the relationship between personal economic resources and personal political resources ma be dificult if income is part of the measure of political resources.

How have others measured political inequality?

Acemoglu et al (2007) measure political inequality at the local level with the following equation:

 equation for political inequality at the local level

This is a political concentration measure, which is, in a sense, a ratio score.

Griffin and Griffin and Newman measure political inequality as influence.   They examine different groups and their influence on representatives:

We focus on Senators’ roll call votes, but appreciate that these are just one of the important ways legislators represent racial groups (e.g., Canon 1999; Tate 2003). To determine the responsiveness of Senators’ votes to whites’ and African Americans’ preferences, we model each Senator’s votes as a function of his or her mean white and mean African American constituents’ opinions.



Anderson and Beramendi (2005) attempt a cross-national examination of the relationship between political and economic inequality, where political ineuality is measured by vote turnout.

Our individual-level data come from surveys collected as part of the World Values Surveys (WVS) in 1999-2001 (ICPSR Study No. 3975). The 18 countries that provided most important survey items and that had a sufficient number of cases for multivariate analysis are drawn from the OECD countries… The individual level dependent variable investigated in this study is vote intention

(turnout). Turnout is a variable that has been used widely in research on political behavior for a variety of purposes.