Research Area 1: Perceptions
Research in RA1 addresses issues pertaining to people’s awareness of inequality, how this affects the preferences they form, and what the role of framing is in this process. Before it can become a politically relevant issue, inequality needs to be perceived as problematic. These perceptions, in turn, reflect individuals’ ideas about what is fair or unfair, their evaluations of actual distributions of resources and their beliefs concerning their individual position within that distribution. Such perceptions and evaluations are often biased; for example, rich citizens often underestimate their position in the income distribution, while poorer citizens believe themselves to be better off than they actually are. Individual perceptions are likely to be affected by the social and political context. Political elites and the media contribute to misperceptions about inequality by highlighting certain aspects of these distributions and omitting others. Language plays an important role in shaping both perceptions of inequality, but also people’s political preferences. The aim of this RA is to study the processes that link inequality, perceptions thereof and preferences for (or against) policies related to redistribution. It will bring together scholars from different disciplines, including linguists, whose expertise has been missing in social science research about perceptions of inequality and preference formation.
Research Area 2: Participation
Research in RA2 investigate why perceptions of unfair distributions often fail to lead to political participation and mobilisation to change them. Overcoming the collective action problem may be particularly challenging in the field of inequality. Rising inequality might well increase the number of individuals of lower socioeconomic status who are in favour of more redistribution; at the same time, however, this group is less likely to articulate its preferences and to challenge the authorities. After all, the inclination to become politically active varies according to the level of education, income and legal status. Nevertheless, numerous instances of successful mobilisation of the disadvantaged clearly illustrate that the link between inequality and political participation is more complex. The mobilisation of former non-voters, who contributed to the success of populist candidates and parties in the US and Europe, is a case in point. This phenomenon also reveals that not only economic deprivation but also perceived losses of power and influence may fuel populist reactions. In studying the mechanisms that lead to political mobilisation against inequality, we focus on conventional and non-conventional forms of engagement, including violent ones, in democratic and non-democratic contexts. We also examine the role of social media and new communication channels and determine if they render participation of the disadvantaged more likely, or simply reinforce apathy among those already silent.
Research Area 3: Policies
In RA3, we study which voices are most likely to be heard in the political arena, and which political responses they trigger. Obviously, policy-makers are limited in the number of topics that they can address and thereby must be selective. At the same time, some groups are more present in the political arena and some interests better organised than others. Consequently, politicians are often more responsive to the wishes of those who are better off and can voice their concern more effectively, thereby translating economic power into political influence. By covering a broad range of different political systems from democracies to autocracies, we investigate why selectivity of policy responses differs widely across these systems. We will also examine the consequences of these political responses, most importantly as regards their impact on the level of structural inequalities. At the same time, however, political responses may again shape individual perceptions, preferences and patterns of participation, encouraging or discouraging further political mobilisation. These policy feedback processes need to be taken into account in order to arrive at a comprehensive understanding of the links between inequality and political processes.