Blog Political Science and Public Administration

Aina Gallego Dobon (Beatriu de Pinós Fellow Standford University, tesis UAB)

Resource-rich citizens vote and participate in politics more frequently than their more socially disadvantaged fellow citizens. This proposition is among the better established ones in political science. However, this is only true in the US and in some advanced industrial democracies in the case of voter turnout. In many other contexts there are no differences in the turnout rates of people how belong to different social groups and moreover the intensity of these differences is not stable but has changed over time. In other words, inequalities in political participation are not universal and constant but they are dynamic and vary depending on the context.


In this doctoral dissertation I examine the inequalities in the political participation across countries and along time, focusing on the effect of education on the vote. I propose four different explanations of the differences in the inequality levels. According to institutional theory, participation is more unequen where voting is more difficult in cognitive terms, i.e., where the costs of voting are high due to the institutional arrangements, the characteristics of the party system and factors related to electoral competition. Secondly, the social structure model predicts that the levels of unequal participation are related to the levels of social and educational inequality because there are spill-over effects between these arenas. Thirdly, the mobilization theory points out that some groups such as political parties, trade unions and associations moderate the relationship between education and the vote. Strong associations that mainly target at poor and poorly educated people should be an equalizing agent for political participation. Finally, political culture could also shape inequalities in political participation. Positive attitudes towards the political actors make it easier to decide for whom to vote, and this general inclination to think positively about the political system should be particularly important for people with few cognitive resources.

The four theories are tested with a wide array of data in a double perspective. Cross-sectionally, I use data for 28 advanced industrial democracies and longitudinal the cases of Denmark, Norway and Sweden are analyzed in depth. The techniques used include hierarchical models in two-steps and single-equation multilevel models.

Compulsory voting eliminated inequalities in political participation and it is therefore the most effective tool to counterbalance this phenomenon. Other institutional factors, such as the number of electoral parties, the type of ballot used or the registration system are also found to predict inequality. Political identification is particularly useful to increase the likelihood of voting of the poorly educated and therefore this is an attitude that fosters political equality. In the longitudinal perspective the theories are more successful to explain the Swedish case than the other Scandinavian countries. Surprisingly, and contrary to common sense knowledge, the social structure and the characteristics of left-wing mobilization do not shape inequalities in political participation.

This dissertation shows that inequalities in political participation cannot be taken for granted because they are not universal but their existence depends on contextual factors and the institutional design. It makes two original theoretical contributions by widening institutional theory and by proposing a functional interpretation of political attitudes to explain political inequality. From a methodological point of view, different multilevel techniques are used, which only recently have been adapted to comparative political behavior research.


Ref. Centro de Estudios Políticos y Constitucionales Award 2009