Group-Based Inequality and Power

To many people, power means that groups are unequal and that this is unfair. Fairness is a judgment – a judgment, even though people usually speak of what is fair or unfair as if it were an objective truth. Note that there are several different principles for judging fairness or justice, such as equal treatment, rewarding “merit,” meeting needs, or equal outcomes (Rokeach, 1979). Although individuals’ favorite fairness principle is related to their social values, almost anyone can feel that any principle should pertain in some circumstances (e.g., Pratto, Tatar, & Conway-Lanz, 1997).

Although fairness is a subjective judgment, most kinds of inequality can be measure objectively. Whether groups are unequal can be measured in a variety of ways: life expectancy or other measures of health, high school or college graduation rates, unemployment rates, representation in legislatures, pay levels in particular jobs, positive portrayals in movies, and on and on. People can also disagree over which of these measures of people’s lives is important. Logically, just because one group is on the bottom for one measure, that doesn’t mean the same group is on the bottom on another measure.

However, harms to well-being that a person experiences early in life are followed by more harms. For example, people who are sexually abused as children often develop worse physical and mental health, and unhealthy habits such as smoking, later in life (e.g., WHO, 2002, p. 71). Factually, groups who tend to receive the fewest government services, live in the most polluted neighborhoods, a treated most harshly by the police and courts, have the highest unemployment and poverty rates, experience the most discrimination in housing, financial services, education, and health care, are the same group (see Sidanius & Pratto, 1999 for an extensive review of studies). In other words, any objective measure of living well or experiencing hardship typically correlates quite strongly with any other such objective measure. In addition, all such measures correlate strongly with a person’s gender and sexual identity, citizenship status, adult-child status, and what we call one’s “arbitrary set” group: the social category that distinguishes power within a person’s society such as race, ethnic group, religious sect, etc. (Sidanius & Pratto, 1999).


Pratto, F., Tatar, D., & Conway-Lanz, S. (1999). Who gets what and why?  Determinants of social allocations. Political Psychology, 20, 127-150.  Rokeach, M. M. (1979). Understanding Human Values: Individual and Societal. New York: Free Press.

 Sidanius, J., & Pratto, F. (1999). Social dominance: An intergroup theory of social hierarchy and oppression. NY: Cambridge University Press.

 World Health Organization. (2002). World report on violence and health. Geneva.

Additional Resources

Who Has a Chance in Life?

Picketty on Inequality