Perceptions of Inequality and Protest

In a recent post, Noah Carl described inequality “as one of the central political issues of our time” pointing to the growing number of cross-national protests mobilized around economic inequality. This mobilization has no doubt helped increase salience around the issue of inequality and while it may not have necessarily led to any specific policies designed to address inequality, it surely got the issue onto the policy agenda. But what might explain why individuals participate in these forms of political and collective action? Carl alludes to a possible factor when he points to his preliminary evidence “that citizens’ concern about inequality is correlated with the belief that individual effort determines income.”

My colleagues, Katie Corcoran, Jacob Young, and I investigate this question in a paper recently published in Sociological Inquiry. We sought to shed light on the ways in which perceptions of structural disadvantage and injustice as well as efficacy explain differential participation in collective action – a central question in the study of political participation, collective action and social movements.

Drawing from the fourth wave (1999 2004) of the World Values Survey (WVS) with a sample of 22,388 respondents within 29 countries, we used hierarchical modeling to predict the effects of perceptions of legitimate and unjust structural disadvantage and efficacy on low (signing a petition or joining a boycott), medium (participating in a lawful demonstration) and high-cost (unofficial strikes or occupying buildings/factories) forms of collective action.

While we found that organizational embeddedness (measured as the number of groups an individual belongs to) is associated with higher chances of participating in all types of collective action, efficacy (measured as how much freedom of choice and control respondents have in their lives) is not associated with participating in high-cost forms. Importantly, our findings suggest that individuals with perceptions of legitimate structural disadvantage and perceptions of unjust structural disadvantage (i.e., structural injustice) have higher chances of participating in all types of action and that efficacy only matters for high-cost forms of action among individuals who perceive inequality as rooted in structural injustice. Individuals who are more organizationally embedded are more likely to participate in high-cost CA when they have perceptions of structural injustice as compared to when they believe that inequality is due to laziness or luck.  Our key findings are illustrated in the graphs below.



Our findings have important implications. Chief among them is that believing inequality is rooted in personal characteristics rather than the social structure may inhibit individuals from engaging in collective action to rectify inequalities. In addition, if people are fatalistic and view inequality as due to personal characteristics, social movement groups would need to focus more of their efforts on helping individuals overcome these barriers to participation.  In addressing the broader question about barriers to political participation, our findings may shed some light on why people have more recently mobilized around issues of injustice and inequality. In addition to political opportunities like the recession, bailouts, economic corruption, and sympathetic elites in government, the confluence of an ever-growing perception of injustice and a stronger sense that these injustices can be rectified though the use of high-cost tactics may have also played a role in this kind of mobilization.


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David Pettinicchio

About David Pettinicchio

David Pettinicchio is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto and affiliated member of the University of Toronto School of Public Policy and Governance. He is also an associate member of Trinity College, University of Toronto. His research interests include political sociology, social policy, and social movements and collective action.

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