Reading Group on Inequality

In preparation for Max Weber Programme Conference "Contemporary approaches to inequality in the social sciences"

The Max Weber Programme and the European Report on Development at the RSCAS will hold a multidisciplinary Conference on Inequality at Villa La Fonte 5-6 May 2010.
The Max Weber Programme will prepare this conference through a series of reading group meetings, at which aspects of the topic of inequality will be discussed from the viewpoints of all involved disciplines. Each session starts with an introductory presentation by Max Weber Fellows, presenting readings from their own discipline, with a general discussion to follow. All are welcome to attend.

The Reading Group takes place on Wednesdays, once a month at 14.00, Villa la Fonte, Sala A

Organized by Holger Döring and Christian Schemmel, MW Fellows


Conference Programme

Go to Conference page

  1. Political theory: (Different kinds of) inequality as a normative concern, 18 November 2009 
  2. Law: Inequality as a judicial concern, 16 December 2009 
  3. Political science: Inequalities in political participation, 20 January 2010 
  4. Urban Studies: Of life and the city: The provision of urban basic needs, 17 February 2010 
  5. Economics: Economic measures of inequality, 17 March 2010 
  6. Social stratification and progress, 21 April 2010 

Political theory: (Different kinds of) inequality as a normative concern

18th of November, 2 pm, Villa La Fonte, Sala A

Christian Schemmel, MW Fellow, and Miriam Ronzoni, MW Visiting Fellow

In this reading group session, we will give a brief overview over different approaches in contemporary normative political theory to the problem of inequality both between individuals at the domestic level, and between states and citizens of different states at the international level. We will also briefly portray our own approaches to these two issues, as well as discussing similarities and differences between them. In each case, we will ask both which kinds of inequalities matter (E.g., distributive inequalities? Inequalities in social/political relationships?), and how precisely they matter: Are they primarily bad because they lead to bad consequences? Or are they in themselves unjust?






  • On domestic inequality: Scanlon, Thomas: “The Diversity of Objections to Inequality”, in his: The Difficulty of Tolerance, Cambridge University Press 2003, pp. 202-218 (will be scanned and distributed by e-mail before the meeting).
  • On global/international inequality: Christian Barry and Laura Valentini, “Egalitarian Challenges to Global Egalitarianism: A Critique”, Review of International Studies 35 (2009), pp. 485-512.  

To receive the readings, please contact Holger Döring

Law: Inequality as a judicial concern

16th of December, 2 pm, Villa La Fonte, Sala A

Merilin Kiviorg, Ayse Idil Aybars, Valentina Calderai, MW Fellows

In this reading group we will focus on the theoretical challenges that both international and domestic courts face when they adjudicate cases of discrimination. What is the role of courts in dealing with inequalities? Special focus is on the development of the understanding that the right to equality is difficult to confine to a duty of restraint.  However, the acknowledgment of positive duties presents a few challenges to the courts. As Sustain has argued “judges have limited wisdom and limited tools.”  In relation to this we also propose to discuss some of the basic questions that courts need to ask: What counts as evidence of inequality of individuals/groups in the court?  What is the test of comparability? What is unjustified discrimination?


  • Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, V, 2-5;
  • S. Fredman, ‘Human Rights Transformed: Positive Rights and Positive Duties’ (OUP 2008), pp. 9-10, 175-203.
  • G. Calabresi, ‘The Pointlessness of Pareto: Carrying Coase Further’ (March 1991) 100 Yale Law Journal 1211.

To receive the readings, please contact Holger Döring

Political science: Inequalities in political participation

20th of January, 2 pm, Villa La Fonte, Sala A 

Holger Döring and Armen Hakhverdian, MW Fellows 


We introduce some recent work on the political sources of economic inequality by Larry Bartels. In his 2008 book 'Unequal Democracy', Bartels argues that increasing inequality is not merely the result of economic forces, but the product of conscious choices by political actors. For the United States, he demonstrates the different effects of Democratic versus Republican administrations on income growth for various subgroups. He further shows that the political system has been predominantly responsive to the needs of higher incomes at the expense of middle and lower incomes.


  • Bartels, Larry: 'Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age', Princeton: Princeton University Press (2008). chapters 2 ('The Partisan Political Economy', pp. 29-63) and 9 ('Economic Inequality and Political Representation', pp. 252-82). 

To receive the readings, please contact Holger Döring

Urban Studies: Of life and the city: The provision of urban basic needs

17th of February, 2 pm, Villa La Fonte, Sala A

Gergely Baics, Ivana Bajic-Hajdukovic, Nai Rui Chng, Jernej Letnar Cernic, Shikeb Farooqui, Seda Unsar, MW Fellows 

"We invite the reader to buy a packet of cigarettes...put it in a pocket, and rejoin the slum walk. It will not take long before a friend or an acquaintance approaches you for a cigarette – and if you light one yourself all bystanders expect you to pass the pack around. As a result, by the end of the day you will have almost always smoked much less than half of the now empty packet, and thus paid more for your own consumption than if you had bought the cigarettes individually or in pairs. The same logic applies to a woman who takes a bottle of shampoo or a pack of detergent to a public faucet. Buying single-portion packs makes economic sense as users can reserve at least small luxuries – but not for instance staple food – for themselves. It is a culturally acceptable way of circumventing the powerful obligation to share, exposed in James Scott’s seminal ‘moral economy of the peasant’ (1976), that is prevalent among the poor not only in the countryside." (Berner et al 2008). 

Is it meaningful to speak of a 'moral economy' of the urban poor in the city? How can the concept help/hinder us in the understanding of basic provisioning in the city? We invite you to join us for a discussion. This will be based on E.P. Thompson's (1971) seminal article 'The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century' and Karin Zitzewitz's (2009) recent article on two of India's best-known painters, Gieve Patel and Sudhir Patwardhan.  

Economics: Economic measures of inequality  

17th of March, 2 pm, Villa La Fonte, Sala A

Sarolta Laczo, Guido Ruta, Laura Hering, MW Fellows 

We first ask the question how to measure (economic) inequality. Comparing two groups of individuals, when can we say that there is more equality in one than in the other (in terms of one outcome, consumption for example, or several outcomes, consumption and health, say)?  In other words, when can we say that a policy reduces inequality? What kind of criteria we would want to incorporate into a measure? We also examine the advantages and disadvantages of different measures, like the Gini, the Theil/Atkinson index, and the Hoover index. Second, we turn to economic policies implemented or proposed to reduce inequality.   

Having looked at the issue of how to measure inequality, we want to have an idea of the measures of inequality over a cross section of countries and how these measures evolved in the last 30 years or so. If there has been an increase in inequality (within and across countries), what is the reason for that? We also want to address the issue of ex-ante inequality (at the time of birth) vs. ex-post inequality (over the lifetime) and how this varies in different countries and over time. Finally, we want to address the following normative issue: is too little inequality bad in terms of overall welfare? In other words, to what degree is inequality beneficial?


  • Debraj Ray. 1998. Development Economics. Chapter 6: Economic Inequality. 
    Princeton University Press. 169-96.
  • Frank Cowell. 2000. "Measurement of Inequality" in: Tony B Atkinson and 
    François Bourguignon (eds), Handbook of Income Distribution

To receive the readings, please contact Holger Döring

Social stratification and progress

21st of April, 2 pm, Villa La Fonte, Sala A

Nadia Steiber and Naomi Beck, MW Fellows 


This sessions introduces the concepts of 'social inequality' and 'social stratification', as defined and measured in sociology (in opposition to economics). We will review contemporary sociological research on the topic, which shows that reducing inequality has positive consequences for all members of society, not only the for the disadvantaged. We will compare these findings with the theoretical claims made by Hayek concerning the necessity of inequality for progress and the impossibility of achieving the goals of distributive justice in a free society. 


  • Erzse´bet Bukodi and John H. Goldthorpe. 2009. "Market versus Meritocracy: Hungary as a Critical Case." European Sociological Review.
  • Hayek, F.A. 1960. The Constitution of Liberty. Chapter 3: "The Common Sense of Progress." or chapter 6 "Equality, value and merit".

To receive the readings, please contact Holger Döring


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