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The Political Economy of Inequality (Module)

Module description

Inequality is a recurring policy concern for governments in advanced industrial democracies. In recent years, the issue has been prominent on the policy agenda due to evidence of the growth of top incomes at a time when incomes at the lower of the scale are stagnating and welfare states are being rolled back in the name of fiscal austerity.

The aim of this course is to provide students with an advanced understanding of the relationship between individuals, the economy, political institutions and inequality. These relationships are naturally complex however, the development of new datasets and improved methodological approaches has allowed scholars to explore these interactions in great detail. Over the course of the module you will examine the multidimensional character of inequality, focussing on both income and wage disparities. This will include an analysis of the relationship between individual preferences for redistribution and inequality, the role of the welfare state, the influence of political institutions such as electoral systems and coalition governments, the effect of labour market institutions, the role of global economic structures, and an examination of partisanship which will ask the question ‘does politics make a difference on inequality?’

The module is cross-national, comparative and explicitly empirical in its focus. Although we will explore the normative foundations of inequality and redistribution in week two, the primary goal of the course is to develop your knowledge of the empirical bases of the debates surrounding inequality. No statistical knowledge is assumed or required for this module though a large part of the literature in this field is quantitative in design and you will be expected to approach these studies with an open mind. Furthermore, we will spend part of the first seminar discussing the interpretation of quantitative outputs. As such, a secondary aim of this module will be to develop your methodological skills.

As well as being empirical in focus, the module is also naturally interdisciplinary. The issue of inequality cuts across political science, economics and sociology and you will therefore develop a critical understanding of the evidence and approaches adopted in different fields.

Module aims

The aim of this course is to provide students with an advanced understanding of the relationship between individuals, the economy, political institutions and inequality. These relationships are naturally complex however, the development of new datasets and improved methodological approaches has allowed scholars to explore these interactions in great detail. Over the course of the module students will examine the multidimensional character of inequality, focussing on both income and wage disparities. This will include an analysis of the relationship between individual preferences for redistribution and inequality, the role of the welfare state, the influence of political institutions such as electoral systems and coalition governments, the effect of labour market institutions, and an examination of partisanship which will ask the question ‘does politics make a difference to inequality?’

Learning outcomes

By the end of the module, students will:

  1. Be able to analyse in detail the relationship between political institutions, economic institutions and both income and wage inequality.
  2. Have developed an advanced understanding of both the demand and supply side of preferences for state action to reduce inequality through policy actions.
  3. Be able to analyse, and provide detailed evaluations of the differences in inequality that can be observed both between countries and over time.
  4. Develop their capacity to interpret quantitative evidence and produce detailed written outputs (via formal assessments) that demonstrate their capacity to relate this data to empirical theories of inequality.

Core text

  • Beramendi, P. and Christopher J. Anderson (2008) Democracy, Inequality, and Representation: A Comparative Perspective, New York: Russell Sage Foundation

*Please note that module information is indicative and may change from year to year.

Staff information

Dr Lee Savage

Teaching pattern

2 hours per week

Indicative teaching schedule

Week 1: Why do we care about inequality? Patterns of distributive outcomes in advanced industrial democracies

Week 2: The normative foundations of inequality: What type of inequality should we measure and when should the state intervene?

Week 3: The welfare state, social rights and inequality

Week 4: Individual level demand for redistribution

Week 5: Labour market institutions and inequality

Week 6: Does politics matter? Partisanship and inequality

Week 7: Political institutions and inequality

Week 8: Social mobility and inequality: Does social mobility mean that we do not need to worry about inequality?

Week 9: The effect of inequality on political outcomes: Electoral choice, participation and policy outcomes

Week 10: Inequality between nations: A lost cause?

Module assessment - more information

One 4,000 word essay (100% of final mark), plus optional 2,000 word formative essay

Key information

Module code 7AAOM224

Credit level 7

Assessment coursework

Credit value 20

Semester Semester 2 (spring)

Study abroad module No