Imagined Inequality and Directed Discourse

Perception – Information - Framing

Perceived inequality can be more powerful in policy-making than actual facts – preparing a fertile ground for populism and “alternative facts” to fall on. However, structural inequalities in society sometimes differ significantly from how they are perceived. This is why the existence and emergence of these public perceptions are key to our research on inequality.


Inequality challenges society as a whole, yet it can only be tackled if people perceive it as such. Those affected don’t always recognize a given kind of inequality, and even when it is a well-known circumstance, it might not be questioned or criticized as such. How distinct is social inequality in Germany, and is it even an issue from an individual’s point of view? For instance, is there a fair chance for everyone on the labor market? Does the education system offer equal opportunities?

The project Perceptions of Gender and Seniority Wage Inequality (Thomas Hinz, Susanne Strauß, Nick Zubanov) investigates how differences in pay are perceived, depending on whether they are based on gender or the level of seniority.

The questions at the core of the project Students’ Perception of Inequality and Fairness and their Impact on Educational and Political Outcomes (Marius R. Busemeyer, Claudia Diehl, Axinja Hachfeld, Thomas Hinz, Theodoros Marinis) are how students see their own opportunities and how they perceive the education system’s inequalities.


Politicians frequently are not experts in the fields for which they have to make far-reaching decisions. This is why they have to gather specialist knowledge and rely on others’ expertise. This is also true for those who take part in political discourse and call for policy changes according to their understanding of reality. From where do politicians gain their information? What do they disregard and on what do they focus? On which economic models do popular demands, e.g. for redistribution or fiscal discipline, draw? What do political elites know about social inequality, and in which relation can their knowledge be put to what voters demand?

The project Political Elites and Inequality: Information, Heuristics and Policy (Christian Breunig, Friedrich Breyer, Wolfgang Gaissmaier, Guido Schwerdt) aims at investigating how elected representatives of the people gain their information on inequality.

The project Preferences for Redistribution Across EU Member States (Thomas Hinz, Dirk Leuffen, Peter Selb) examines, across various EU member states, in which way the public’s knowledge of economic processes has an influence on their political preferences.


A rule that applies not only to populists says that in most cases, it is more important how something is said than what is said. The way political content e.g. in a speech, a media report or on social networks is presented influences how this information is perceived, sorted into our personal knowledge and put into our view of the world. How do these so-called framing effects work? Which linguistic tools in particular are used in politics? How is framed information perceived? How do politicians and the media achieve differing perceptions of social inequality? How do populists communicate? The project Framing Inequalities (Miriam Butt, Regine Eckardt, Katharina Holzinger) aims to answer these questions by means of computational linguistics.

Two University of Konstanz researchers are members of the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration, which publishes a detailed annual report on the topics covered here: Cluster Co-Speaker and sociologist Claudia Diehl, and legal scholar Daniel Thym, the latter of whom will also be a PI in the upcoming Cluster project “Administrative Inequality: The Case of Foreign Nationals in Germany” starting in October 2020. The current Expert Council report can be found here

These two University of Konstanz scholars explain and discuss important aspects of the current report in an interview found here