Inequality & Collective Action

What drives demand for redistribution in highly unequal countries? And how does inequality impact political behavior? Are there feedback loops between them? We investigate these questions from different perspectives: with survey experiments and protest data in South Africa as well as with formal theory. 

Parts of this research were supported by EU FP7 (Project “No Poor”) and by the DFG Project “Local Conflict and the Local State, German Research Council”, led by Alexander De Juan


Pellicer, Miquel, Ragui Assaad, Caroline Krafft, and Colette Salemi. 2022. Grievances or skills? The effect of education on youth political participation in Egypt and Tunisia. International Political Science Review, 43(2), 191-208.

The educated have figured prominently in protests and elections in several Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries. The dominant explanation for this pattern centers on grievances and unfulfilled aspirations due to low education returns in the MENA. However, the pattern may simply reflect the unequal participation observed in many democracies where education provides skills and resources that facilitate political participation. This article compares the roles of skills and grievances in explaining the relationship between education and youth political participation during and after the Arab Spring. We use youth surveys with detailed data on education and political participation from Egypt and Tunisia. We control for parental education and family background to partially account for the potential of background to drive the education and participation relationship. Overall, our results are consistent with the skill channel and lend little support to the grievance channel. Our findings raise concerns about the exclusion of uneducated youth from both unconventional and conventional political participation in MENA politics.

Pellicer, Miquel, Eva Wegner, and Alexander De Juan. 2021. “Preferences for the Scope of Protests.” Political Research Quarterly 74 (2): 288–301.

This paper studies a dimension of protest largely overlooked in the literature: protest scope, that is, whether protests seek large, structural, changes for a large share of the population or focus on small-scale improvements for small groups. We argue that this protest dimension is relevant for understanding the political consequences of protests. We show empirically that protests vary substantially in scope and that scope is not collinear with other protest dimensions, such as size, motive, or tactics. We explore drivers of individual preferences for protest scope with a survey experiment in two South African townships. We find that respondents made to feel more efficacious tend to support protests of broader scope. This effect operates via a social psychology channel whereby efficacy leads people to assign blame for their problems to more systemic causes.

De Juan, Alexander, and Eva Wegner. 2019. “Social Inequality, State-Centered Grievances, and Protest: Evidence from South Africa.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 63 (1): 31–58.

What role does horizontal social inequality play for political protest in middle-income countries? We argue that public social service provision is an important driver of state perceptions. When a state fails to deliver services in an equitable manner, trust in institutions erodes and protest becomes more likely. We use a mixed methods design to investigate this argument in South Africa. First, we combine police event records with census data to estimate correlations between service inequality and protests. Second, we draw on an opinion survey with 27,000 respondents to investigate the suggested mechanism linking social inequality to protest through political attitudes. Third, we focus on qualitative protest accounts in two areas identified by a matching approach to assess the plausibility of our quantitative findings. Throughout these analyses, we document a robust association between horizontal social inequality and protest.

Pellicer, Miquel, Patrizio Piraino, and Eva Wegner. 2019. “Perceptions of Inevitability and Demand for Redistribution: Evidence from a Survey Experiment.” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 159 (March): 274–88.

Believing that inequality is inevitable may limit demand for redistribution. We explore this idea with a survey experiment in South Africa, one of the most unequal countries in the world. Inevitability beliefs can be influenced by learning about lower inequality elsewhere. We find that the demand for redistributive policies reacts to this information, while it is insensitive to other types of information/messages. Our analysis suggests a promising, and heretofore unexplored, avenue of research for refining our understanding of the determinants of demand for redistribution.

Pellicer, Miquel. 2009. “Inequality Persistence through Vertical vs. Horizontal Coalitions.” Journal of Development Economics 90 (2): 258–66.

This paper aims to contribute to a better understanding of the observed high persistence of cross-country differences in inequality. It focuses on the interactions between inequality and the predominance of either horizontal coalitions (among individuals of similar economic status) or vertical ones (among individuals with different economic status). A model is proposed showing that the interactions between inequality and the type of coalition formed in a society can give rise to self-sustained social contracts where inequality persists. Key mechanisms of the model are illustrated using the transformation in inequality, redistribution and social relations in Modern England, as well as the “paternalist” system of the US South at the beginning of the XXth century.