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, as well as in a spatial perspective to sociology, studying agglomeration effects and urban-rural disparities. This research draws attention to the increasingly uneven economic geography observed in many countries, with growing levels of inequality between urban and rural areas.


“Scaling Trajectories of Cities.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116(28):13759-61.

A particular viewpoint has come to dominate the science of cities. Cities of different sizes are seen as scaled versions of one another, expected to go through similar stages of socioeconomic growth––only in different historical epochs. In this perspective, cities follow parallel growth trajectories and, as an urban system grows in wealth and people, the relative inequality between cities remains stable. Here, I put the established interpretation of “urban scaling” to the test. I use microdata from Swedish population registers that capture, for the first time, the city growth trajectories of an entire urban system––from the smallest town with 2,600 inhabitants to Sweden’s capital city with 2.5 million inhabitants. I find that regional inequalities between smaller and larger cities increased substantially during 1990-2012. While big cities’ growth trajectories are extremely robust, places with less than 75,000 inhabitants show little resilience to economic shocks and social change. Revealing a firm grip of urban hierarchy, dominant positions give an advantage to larger cities. Because lower-ranking cities lack such relative advantages, path dependencies place bounds on the self-similarity of urban growth.


“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.


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

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 article tests three mechanisms underlying the complex association between income and life satisfaction: 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.