Social Inequality

Under the rubric of social inequality, I combine research concerned with one of sociology’s fundamental problems. I am particularly interested in the distribution of income, both within and across countries. This includes addressing the social mechanisms behind discriminatory behavior and finding empirical strategies for their identification. More recently, I became involved in a quantitative perspective to urban sociology, studying agglomeration effects, the phenomenon of urban scaling, and urban-rural disparities.

My earlier papers center around the social determinants of life satisfaction. Dissecting the complex relationship between wealth and happiness taps into the legitimization of modern capitalism. It also sheds light on the importance of social status in contemporary societies. This area of specialization closely connects to my other lines of research, as social inequality often results from cumulative-advantage processes and is fused by social norms.


“Urban Scaling and the Regional Divide.” Science Advances 5(1):eaav0042.

The higher than expected pace of life in large cities has been explained as an emergent consequence of increased social interactions in dense urban environments. Our research calls into question this influential theory of the self-reinforcing dynamics of city growth. Using geocoded microdata from Swedish population registers, we remove population composition effects from the scaling relation of wage income. We show that half of the previously reported “superlinear” scaling of cities is due to their differences in sociodemographic composition. Those differences amplify through cities’ attraction of talent from their hinterlands. People who leave rural areas for cities are, on average, better educated and have higher cognitive abilities, and they crucially add to urban populations’ human capital, inventiveness, and modern lifestyles. Selective migration fuels the higher than expected outputs of big cities and, at the same time, adds to the cumulative decline of less populated regions. Our paper also signifies that the existence of an aggregate pattern in social data says little about the causal processes that brought it about.


The Use of Field Experiments to Study Mechanisms of Discrimination.” Analyse & Kritik 38(1):179-201.

logo_akThis paper discusses social mechanisms of discrimination and reviews existing field experimental designs for their identification. We first explicate two social mechanisms proposed in the literature, animus-driven and statistical discrimination, to explain differential treatment based on ascriptive characteristics. We then present common approaches to study discrimination based on observational data and laboratory experiments, discuss their strengths and weaknesses, and elaborate why unobtrusive field experiments are a promising complement. However, apart from specific methodological challenges, well-established experimental designs fail to identify the mechanisms of discrimination. Consequently, we introduce a rapidly growing strand of research which actively intervenes in market activities varying costs and information for potential perpetrators to identify causal pathways of discrimination. We end with a summary of lessons learned and a discussion of challenges that lie ahead.


“Needs, Comparisons, and Adaptation: The Importance of Relative Income for Life Satisfaction.” European Sociological Review 29(1):86–104.

Different influences moderate the complex association between income and life satisfaction. This article discusses three mechanisms referring to the so-called Easterlin paradox: basic human need satisfaction, interpersonal comparison processes, and adaptation. Using the German Socio-economic Panel and a self conducted cross-sectional survey for the urban area of Munich, we test hypotheses derived from these different explanations. In result, all three mechanisms add to the understanding of the nonlinear income-life satisfaction-relationship. According to our estimates, the threshold for fulfillment of basic needs lies within the range of approx. 800 euros disposable income per month in Germany. We also provide weak evidence for social comparison processes concerning the respondents’ city district. More importantly, using a new measurement method for social comparisons, we show life-satisfaction-relevant comparison processes for colleagues and average citizens, but not for friends and relatives. Furthermore, using panel data we confirm hypotheses of aspiration and adaptation. Thus, relative income (social as well as temporal) is more important for life satisfaction than absolute income. Moreover, as theoretically expected, income losses have a stronger influence on life satisfaction than income gains—a finding which can also be transferred to social comparisons.


Nationale und Internationale Einkommensverteilung [Income Distribution Within and Across Countries].” Pp. 255-281 in: Braun, N., M. Keuschnigg, and T. Wolbring (eds.) Wirtschaftssoziologie II: Anwendungen. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Soziale Ungleichheiten können in verschiedenen Formen existieren. Dazu zählen der ungleiche Zugang zu und damit die ungleiche Ausstattung mit Bildung, eine ungleiche medizinische Versorgung und damit ungleiche Lebenserwartungen oder ungleiche Möglichkeiten, ein selbstbestimmtes Leben führen zu können, und damit ungleiche Niveaus allgemeiner Lebenszufriedenheit. Typischerweise ist allen Ungleichheitsfaktoren eine negative Assoziation mit Einkommen gemein, sodass ein geringes Einkommen mit einer individuellen Unterversorgung bezüglich verschiedener Dimensionen sozialer Ungleichheit einhergeht. Eine Vielfalt an Ungleichheitsdimensionen lässt sich also auf die Variable Einkommen und damit auf lediglich ein Merkmal sozialer Ungleichheit reduzieren. Dieser Beitrag, unter Mitarbeit von Jochen Groß entstanden, betrachtet die Ungleichverteilung von Einkommen sowohl als Ursache als auch als Folge von sozialer Ungleichheit.


Robert K. Merton: Self-fulfilling Prophecy & Matthew Effect.” Pp. 177-184 in: Kraemer, K. and F. Brugger (eds.) Schlüsselwerke der Wirtschaftssoziologie. Wiesbaden: Springer VS.

logo_schlüsselDie Arbeiten von Robert K. Merton prägen verschiedene Bereiche der Soziologie und seine Ideen sind innerhalb der Disziplin weitgehend kanonisiert.  Der Beitrag, zusammen mit Tobias Wolbring erstellt, arbeitet bedeutsame Einsichten Mertons für die Wirtschaftssoziologie heraus. Wir konzentrieren uns auf sich selbst erfüllende Prophezeiungen und Matthäus-Effekte, also auf zwei bedeutsame Spezialfälle einer Gruppe von Prozessen, die Merton als “unvorhergesehene Folgen zielgerichteter sozialer Handlung” bezeichnet. Von inhaltlicher Relevanz sind weiterhin seine Beiträge zu sozialen Vergleichsprozessen und der Verbreitung von Innovationen.