Political Equality in V-Dem: “Power distributed by social group”

In a previous post, we discussed how the Varieties of Democracy “V-Dem” project measures “political equality.” V-Dem is an expert survey. They guide the expert-respondents’ attention to particular groups’ political equality. These groups are: (a) socioeconomic position, (b) social groups, (c) gender, and (d) sexual orientation.

In this post, we discuss how they measure “Power distributed by social group.”

See also

Political Equality as Measured by Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem), which includes “power distributed by socioeconomic groups”

Political Equality in V-Dem: “Power distributed by gender”

Political Equality in V-Dem: “Power distributed by sexual orientation”

V-Dem: “Power distributed by social group”

V-Dem tells the expert to focus on “caste, ethnicity, language, race, region, religion, or some combination thereof” but not sexual orientation or socioeconomic status. They say nothing about “gender” as constituting social groups, here, probably because it comes next (“Power distributed by gender”).

V-Dem does acknowledge intersectionality but do not dwell much on it. After the list of social groups, they include the intersectionality-esque phrase, “some combination thereof.” Next, they write that “Social group identities are also likely to cross-cut, so that a given person could be defined in multiple ways, i.e., as part of multiple groups.” The “cross-cut” can be construed as an intersection.

We should not make too much of their attempt at intersectionality, however. The concept of identity, critical to intersectionality research (see Hughes and Dubrow 2017) is lost when they mention only that people can “be defined,” and makes no mention of how people define themselves. The next word after that sentence (that starts the next sentence) is “nonetheless,” defined as “in spite of that,” and thus lessens the impact of a potential accounting for intersectionality.

Clearly, intersectionality is not V-Dem’s purpose for this item.

Again, this is a zero to four scale that starts with one social group monopolizing power, and that this monopoly does not often change (it is “institutionalized”). V-Dem refers to this powerful “social group” as a “minority:” “Political power is monopolized by one social group comprising a minority of the population.” Minority, as it is often used in the social sciences, is usually about the relative power, status, and resources of a social group; here, they might mean numerical minority.

The next level toward equality (1) is several social groups, also being minorities, and also enjoying an institutionalized monopoly on power. The difference between (1) and (2) is that the several social groups are now a “majority:” “Political power is monopolized by several social groups comprising a majority of the population.” It is hard to see this as a step up towards equality. Whether the group is a numerical minority or a numerical majority does not seem to matter much for the degree of power they have. Thus, I see it as not a step up, but a step different.

When we get to (3), we get a very different step:

“Either all social groups possess some political power, with some groups having more power than others; or different social groups alternate in power, with one group controlling much of the political power for a period of time, followed by another – but all significant groups have a turn at the seat of power.”

There are several issues with this formulation, both for quantitative approaches to intersectionality research that feature power structures, and for political equality studies in general. First, the phrase, “all social groups possess some political power” is problematic because while V-Dem does define political equality (as a distributional thing) they do not define political power. Certainly, if we take the interdependency approach to political inequality, as Piven and Cloward (2005), does, we see the power process as not merely distributional one, but between opposing political actors.

For a discussion, see Definining and Measuring Power Resources.

Second, for social groups’ distribution of power V-Dem introduces a time element:

“different social groups alternate in power, with one group controlling much of the political power for a period of time, followed by another,”

which might mean that some groups have power at one point in time, and that is followed by another group in another time period. This time element is missing from their set-up to the issue of political equality and does not appear in the other “Power distributed by…” items. It is hard to know what an expert is to make of the sudden introduction of time.

Third, they introduce the term, “significant group,” as in: “all significant groups have a turn at the seat of power.” Since time is now an element, when is a group significant? When they have the power? Can a group be significant and not hold power before? Again, I do not know how the experts can make sense of the item.

Finally, point (4) is a social group political equality utopia, where “Social group characteristics are not relevant to politics.” There has never been a society where there are social groups and also where (and when) this utopia exists.

Introducing PaReSoGo, Dataset on Party Representation of Social Groups

PaReSoGo at a Glance

Why PaReSoGo – Party Representation of Social Groups?

Parties and parliamentarians are charged with the responsibility to express and translate the voice of the masses in the legislature. A classic concern is the extent to which political parties who attained seats in parliament represent the masses; a smaller current in the literature is about the party representation of particular social groups.

Social scientists have devised various ways to measure representation gaps across nations and time (see the MARPOR Party-Voter Dataset), but rarely do they account for particular social groups.

To address research questions about how well social groups are represented in parliament across nations and time, we created and are in the process of archiving the dataset, “Party Representation of Social Groups” (PaReSoGo) – that contains a simple and replicable measure of the party representation of social groups per country and year from high quality publicly available survey and administrative data. 

How did we measure the Party Representation of Social Groups?

Our country-year measure is based on the idea of issue congruence measures that match distributions. For survey data, we use the European Social Survey (ESS), 2002 – 2016, that contains items on sociodemographics, social attitudes, and retrospective vote choice, i.e. the party that the respondents said they voted for in the last general election.

POLINQ and Aggregation of Survey and Administrative Data

Following the research conducted by the grant on aggregation of survey data to the country-year level, discussed in the grant’s international conference, “Politics and Inequality across Nations and Time: Theoretical and Empirical Approaches,” held at IFiS PAN, December 12 – 14, 2018 in Warsaw, Poland, we aggregated the ESS items to the country and year level. We match the distribution of social groups’ party choices to a distribution of the percentage of parliamentarians in each party that were elected to parliament, as provided by ParlGov.

The Dissimilarity Index

In our data, this match of distributions is made via the Dissimilarity Index (DI). To calculate the party representation with a DI we took a sum of absolute values of the share of seats a given party received in the elections and subtracted the share of ESS respondents who claim that they voted for this party, and divided by two. Here, the DI is a measure of distance in party representation between gender, age, education, intersectional, and attitudinal groups’ retrospective party vote choices and the distribution of parliamentarians in parties. In the PaReSoGo DI, the higher the value, the greater the distance between what social groups want and what parties there are in parliament.

Table 1 illustrates the logic of calculations using Poland 2015 example for young adults.

PaReSoGo contains 150 country years, which cover eight ESS rounds (2002-2016) and 95 national elections (1999-2016) across 25 countries.

Table 2 illustrates the data basics. The minimum country-years that cover the same election is one; the maximum is three. For each country-year we calculated the DI for all ESS respondents and twelve social groups of gender, age, and education; intersectional groups based on gender and age; and attitudinal groups for and against immigration. Due to data availability, not all countries are available in all years, and not all groups are available in all country-years.

We presented the data idea in the conference, Building Multi-Source Databases for Comparative Analyses, in December 2019 in Warsaw, Poland and in our 2021 research note in Party Politics.