"The Politics of Inequality": Overview

Who We Are

"The Politics of Inequality: Perceptions, Participation and Policies" - that is what we call our Cluster of Excellence within the framework of the Excellence Strategy of the federal and state governments. This cluster of excellence is a joint project of researchers from political science, sociology, economy, linguistics, psychology and education studies.

We study the cycle that is formed by the perception of unequally distributed resources, political mobilisation resulting from perceived inequality, the policy measures undertaken to deal with them, and their impact on the underlying distribution of resources. Besides inequality of economic resources (wealth), we are interested in unequally distributed access to information, the effects of education and language, and the effects of group membership with pertaining rights and privileges (or the lack thereof).

Research on inequality has been carried out in a well-established field in the social sciences, but existing research has neglected the political causes and consequences of inequality.
Marius R. Busemeyer, Speaker of the Cluster

We employ a wide spectrum of methods – ranging from quantitative studies such as in surveys to qualitative case studies, from lab experiments to econometric analysis of aggregate data, from computational linguistics to semantic field analysis –, and we are keen on fruitful, direct, personal exchange to bridge the gaps between disciplines. Aside from our research program, we also feel our mission must include early career support, equal opportunities, and knowledge transfer.

What We Aim to Find Out

Our approach is most readily summed up in a simple "3 Ps" model: structural inequality is perceived; perception leads to participation; participation leads to policies; these policies, in turn, have an impact on structural inequality. Perception, participation, and policies form a cycle where inequality holds sway at every turn. These are the three research areas in which we engage in our cluster.

Our research can be divided into three research areas, resulting in one central question each to guide our research:

Research Area 1 - Perceptions

Unequally distributed income and wealth, unequal access to information and education, unequal treatment due to group membership: these are the fields in which we investigate the political dimension of inequality. But not every difference in income is perceived as unfair. Likewise, the exclusion of members of a group from certain privileges can be perceived as right and just, even by members of the affected group.
The political dimension of inequality obviously rests on perceptions of inequality. Impulses to change the prevalent order can only flourish where things are perceived, not only as unequal, but as unfair, unjustified, unbearable. So our research must necessarily start with the question:
Why do people perceive some distributions of resources as unfair, and not others – and how does this perception influence their political preferences?

This question is the foundation of our first research area: the analysis of perceptions and political preferences regarding inequality. Faced with a given distribution of resources, individuals estimate their own position: am I poor or rich? Uneducated or highly trained? Privileged or oppressed?
We expect that such self-estimates will deviate substantially from actual distributions, being, as they are, influenced by political discourse and framed by political actors. Self-estimates are politically relevant, wherever they influence individual preferences for certain policies. When socio-economic factors have an impact on political preference, it is always by way of perceptions of one's own relative position. For this reason, we especially focus on the effects of framing and filtered information on perceptions of individual positions, and on their role in the formation of political preference.

Research Area 2 – Participation

Movements to alter unequal distributions of wealth or privilege are not guaranteed to form even if things as they are are perceived as unfair and wrong. Sometimes, these perceived problems remain under the action threshold; at other times, protests lose steam along the way, or fail to get the attention of political decision-makers. Merely recognizing that there is a problem, even where it results in strong preferences, does not necessarily result in changes, as well. Change requires political participation: individuals with an opinion must become actors. Political participation requires moving from wanting something to taking action to get it. This is where our second research question comes in:
Under what conditions do public demands manifest in terms of political action and participation at the individual, group and collective levels?

In this second research area, we investigate participation and mobilization and their success conditions. Individual resources and opportunities are decisive factors here, and they in turn depend mostly on structural factors. Obiously, opportunities for participation are much reduced in nondemocratic societies, as opposed to true democracies. But in democracies themselves, there are often great differences in the ways political institutions influence the individuals' preference aggregation. This research area looks into the effects of unequally distributed resources and opportunity structures on participation and mobilization.

Research Area 3 – Policies

Simple models of democracy often assume that political interests compete to responsively generate policies, i.e. based on a more or less simple principle of cause and effect. We, however, expect that actors create policies selectively based on citizens demands. This selectivity is most obvious in nondemocratic societies, but democracies also show subtle yet powerful differences in responsiveness. For instance, the legislative might respond more easily to demands made by lobby groups or affluent citizens than by the general populace. Unequal responsiveness influences the way in which the political system approaches extant inquality, which is where our third research question comes in:
To what extent do policy-makers respond to different forms of political demands, and how do these political and policy responses in turn affect perceptions, preferences and political participation as well as structural inequality?

In research area 3, we investigate the make-up and causes of unequal policy-making in different institutional contexts. When policies are unequally responsive to extant inequalities, and their responsiveness in turn depends on those very extant inequalities, powerful feedback loops are established, possibly even resulting in growing inequality in a society. In our research area on "policies", we identify and analyse those feedback loops that link policies to structural inequality, to their perception, and to political participation.

What Is Important to Us

Next to our research interests, we have also committed to a number of goals that are very important to us. Research functions best in an environment of 'plurality in unity', as one might call it: as many perspectives as possible, brought to the table by anybody in a free and open manner, in order to jointly ask questions and pursue common ideas. We are convinced that we will be successful in our research by making the following issues our mission:

1. Early Career Support

At our cluster, we support doctoral and postdoctoral researchers in individual and group projects. We enable them to adopt indepent roles early in their research, and facilitate solid scientific skill development through research-oriented training.


The Graduate School of Decision Sciences (GSDS) offers well-grounded training in political sciences, psychology, economy, statistics and computer science for doctoral students. Our cluster will establish a wider scope of interdisciplinary coursework at the GSDS for all our doctoral students. In the mid-term, the cluster aims to establish a new Graduate School for the Social and Behavioural Sciences (GSBS) at the University of Konstanz.


Doctoral and postdoctoral researchers can choose between two options at our cluster: they can either apply to become part of a research project and pursue a line of research as part of a small team, or they can apply for a fellowship as an independent early career researcher. Apart from these two major lines of funding, all can apply for additional funds to support field trips, travels, conferences, further training measures, or to invite external researchers.
For junior researchers at a more advanced stage of their career, we will establish two junior professorships (with tenure track).

2. Equal Opportunities and Diversity

We are convinced that a diverse and open work environment are as important for our research as for our general culture of cooperative community. Work-life balance and diversity are thus central concepts. We have formally put down our aims and goals where equal opportunities and diversity are concerned in our Diversity Policy.

Work and Families

In order to reconcile their family lives with their careers, researchers require a lot of support. We provide earmarked places at the University's on-campus childcare facility, the Kinderhaus, where children up to the age of six are well cared for and looked after. For work-related travels and fieldwork, our researchers are granted additional travel funds for their children and childcare personnel. For their local work, they can also obtain additional funds to employ additional assistants. We ensure flexible working hours, limiting important appointments to family-friendly core times.

Support of Female Researchers

Women receive far-reaching support from University offices and programs, especially in the form of mentoring and further training. Measures include the 'Mentoring with Experts and international Networking (MEiN)' program, the Konstanzia Fellowship to support advanced female junior researchers on their way to a professorship, as well as mentoring programs with invited external mentors. These programs are also open to persons whose identity varies from traditional gender norms (e.g. transgender, transsexuals, intersexuals).

Scholars at Risk

Academic freedom is considered an inalienable right under German law, being explicitly referenced as such in the constitution (Art. 5 GG). In some countries, however, its stature is much reduced. Cooperating with the 'Scholars at Risk' Network, we invite researchers from countries where their academic freedom is limited or threatened to a stay at the University of Konstanz. We offer annual fellowships for Researchers at Risk to engage in our cluster's research interests and topics.

3. Knowledge Transfer and Communication

Our cluster investigates questions of fundamental relevance for our whole society. We do so at a university that is one of the strongest communicators in all of Germany. Vibrant, far-reaching, informative and accessible communication ought to be a given!

Knowledge Transfer and Communication

Science is obliged to talk to society. We as researchers in the field of social and political science have an especial obligation to make our insights available to political actors and society at large in other, more accessible forms than research papers.

In order to do so, we collate our scientific publications in the form of accessible abstracts, to be published online. Alongside research papers, we will be publishing a line of 'Policy Papers' to sum up our research results in non-technical language. For our purposes, the blog format is particularly well suited, so we will be using that extensively to provide a glimpse into our topics and findings, as well as the wider field of inequality research.

Alongside written publications, we will also convey our research and ideas in numerous public and semi-public events, especially in collaboration with the 'Konstanzer Wissenschaftsforum', a platform for knowledge transfer and science communication.

A Science Writer will accompany our research groups and document their work in order to make transparent how researchers proceed and how research works. We realize this basic idea even further in our 'Journalist/Expert-in-Residence' program: chosen journalists, representatives of think tanks or politically active organizations will be invited to pursue their own projects on-site for up to half a year, resulting in a close link-up with the media or organizations they represent.