Types of Inequality: What Matters to Who?

About this Session


Thu. 11.04. 15:45




Although inequality is an important topic that permeates the lives and consciousness of most people, the types of inequality they consider most important are something we remain mostly ignorant of. In this paper, we examine German society’s comprehension and saliency of inequality. We utilize an open-ended survey question that asks respondents to describe the inequalities that come to mind in a the German society (N = 5459). We then categorise the responses using computational analysis, intergrated with human expertise, and find that privileged groups tend to omit any mention of the types of inequality that benefit them, while disadvantaged groups actively highlight these very forms of inequality. For instance, women mention gender inequality significantly more than men, Eastern Germans mention east-west differences more than people from the West, and poor people mention wealth inequality more often than rich people. This finding illustrates the relational concept of inequality: while privileged groups may struggle to recognize their unearned advantages as markers of inequality, the unearned disadvantages are frequently indisputable to those who experience them.

We argue that people’s social group memberships and their social identities align with the types of inequalities they experience, and these experiences in turn shape political interest and policy preferences. These in-group loyalties have been identified as primary drivers of vote choices, and as such, the types of political cleavages that the disadvantaged groups identify, inherently relate to their political view of societal issues. Compelling evidence shows that people line up behind policies designed to alleviate their social and economic distress (Owens & Pedulla, 2014; Weeden & Kurzban, 2014). For instance, the loss of employment leads to higher preferences for welfare spending (Margalit, 2013), redistribution and increased benefits for the unemployed (Weeden & Kurzban, 2014, 2017). Women favour gender equality more than men on average, including removing salary discrimination (Davis & Robinson, 1991).

Building on this literature, we find that specific inequalities are more salient to respondents with specific political affiliations: right-wing populist party supporters mention more inequality types than other partisan voters. This underscores the notion that inequality plays a significant role in driving populist support. However, while this strand of literature usually traces populist support to economic inequality concerns, it is crucial to recognize that there is more to this story: the presence of additional inequality concerns also likely contribute to this support.