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I. The Concept of ConsensusEdward Shils


II. The Study of ConsensusLewis Lipsitz



Consensus is a particular state of the belief system of a society. It exists when a large proportion of the adult members of a society, more particularly a large proportion of those concerned with decisions regarding the allocations of authority, status, rights, wealth and income, and other important and scarce values about which conflict might occur, are in approximate agreement in their beliefs about what decisions should be made and have some feeling of unity with each other and with the society as a whole. Consensus may also exist between individuals in primordial or personal face-to-face relationships as in a family or in friendship; it may exist within a charismatic corporate body like a church or sect or within a society. Here we shall be considering only the consensual state of a society, that is, “macrosocial” consensus. (Dissensus exists in situations where potentially divergent “interests” confront each other and consensus is absent.)

Three elements crucial to the functioning of consensus are (1) common acceptance of laws, rules, and norms, (2) attachment to the institutions which promulgate and apply the laws and rules, and (3) a widespread sense of identity or unity, which discloses to individuals who experience it, those features in respect to which they are identical and therefore equal. The sense of identity diminishes the significance of the differences on which dissensus and hostile sentiments would otherwise focus. Although these elements may vary independently, the strength of any one of them helps to strengthen the others.

The pattern of consensual belief. Consensus refers to distributions of scarce values among individuals who are in face-to-face interaction and who are competing for these values. Between workers and supervisors and among workers on a shop floor, among members of different political parties, or members of different factions within a political party, consensus operates to restrict the extension of dissensus and to limit conflict with regard to the allocation of valued objects. In these face-to-face situations the consensus is ordinarily, although not always, a “derivative” of beliefs which have a wider range of reference. The adjudication of conflicts with immediate superiors, colleagues, or political rivals is often a specific product of norms or maxims which have a more general and a wider relevance. (The same applies to dissensus.) Relatively few persons are in face-to-face interaction with those who are remote from them in such society-wide distributions as income, power, and deference, but it is to these larger distributions that attention is given, and it is about them that “serious” beliefs are held. Individuals are capable of perceiving the approximate dimensions of these larger distributions and of passing judgment on their rightfulness; indeed, the greatest importance is attributed to these distributions. Human beings are capable of rendering judgments about situations in which they do not actually participate, and many are strongly inclined to do so. Intellectual and moral sensibility impel them to judge the quality of their society and to formulate the attitude they should take toward it and toward the larger distributions which determine it. The fact that beliefs about such distributions are beliefs about power—a fact which draws attention to itself and which urgently demands judgment—makes macrosocial distributions into objects of vital beliefs.

The beliefs with respect to which consensus may exist include both cognitive propositions and moral standards about the justice or injustice of the distribution of roles, facilities, and rewards and about the worth of the institutions of authority and order by which these distributions are brought about, maintained, and changed. These beliefs usually concern the rightness and the qualifications of those in authority to exercise it and of those receiving different amounts of the valued objects to receive what they do. These beliefs also concern the legitimacy of the institutions through which the bearers of authority and the recipients of the different shares are selected. In a condition of macro-social consensus, the most important beliefs relate to the sense of unity which extends from those who possess it, whatever their own position, to strata of the population very differently situated in the distributions of rewards and very different in their share in the exercise of authority. Macrosocial consensus by definition does not include such beliefs as those which refer to the right order of personal relationships, the proper objects of aesthetic experience and judgment, the origin and structure of the cosmos, and the nature and powers of divinity. (It is of course quite likely that where consensus exists with respect to such beliefs, the macrosocial consensus in which we are interested is more probable and more enduring.)

Until the emergence of the modern liberal state with a plurality of religions, diverse political parties, and institutions for the conduct and control of class and other sectional conflicts, rulers tended to believe that consensus in religious beliefs was a necessary condition of the consensus required for social order. In the nineteenth century this view ceased to be regarded as valid. Yet it is quite possible that consensus of beliefs apart from those about the justice or injustice of the distribution of scarce and desired objects helps to create and maintain the vague sense of unity which is an essential part of consensus. There is perhaps a deeper truth hidden in the quip which asserted that England was a “country of a hundred religions and one sauce.” The approximate uniformity of standards of taste might have contributed to the sense of unity which enabled a macrosocial consensus to function despite the divisions concerning questions of theology and ecclesiastical organization [seeLegitimacy].

Abstract or general ethical and political beliefs (”principles”) can enter into consensus insofar as they affect agreement or disagreement on particular issues of legitimacy, distribution, selection, and so on. A situation in which general principles, ratiocinatively or affectively arrived at, explicitly and visibly determine particular orientations is by no means impossible. Still, it is relatively rare in any society, and only rigorous ideologists insist on a very close dependence of particular decisions on the explicit principles which are part of an explicit and systematic belief system.

Human beings assess the actions and orientations of other persons in general categories, and their assessments give some direction to their particular and immediate response to these persons. General ethical standards, vague notions of the right ordering of life, and conceptions of the virtues which entitle men to power, deference, and other rewards and facilities can have some influence on concrete responses to particular issues; insofar as they are consensually shared, such general orientations may be said to constitute part of the consensus.

The beliefs which enter into consensus are not clearly articulated or systematically ordered. They are expressed sometimes in maxims and sometimes in ambiguous terms like “fairness.” They are often formulated negatively, repudiating particular situations but not indicating what is positively right. Even the corpus of law, which is the most articulated precipitate of consensus, is full of gaps and is rarely very coherent in a logical sense; what is more, the specific imperatives and prohibitions contained in law are far more differentiated than the beliefs actually formulated or articulated by those who share in consensus. In societies with written constitutions, the body of beliefs and rules and images contained therein has some correspondence with the prevailing consensus, but the correspondence is only approximate and uneven.

Dissensual patterns of belief are often more explicit and systematic than are the consensual patterns which affirm the existing central institutional system. The more dissensual it is, the greater the likelihood of explicitness and systematic coherence in a pattern of belief. Accordingly, consensual belief patterns tend to be more pluralistic in the sense that they espouse a number of beliefs which are not wholly consistent with each other and which are able to coexist quite easily as long as no one of them is carried out in full. Thus, in contemporary Western liberal societies both equality and liberty are believed to be very important, but neither is pressed to complete fulfillment. They remain vague indicators of a direction or tendency rather than specific imperatives. A greater monism is generally but not always characteristic of dissensual patterns of belief. There probably is a positive correlation between monism in the pattern of belief and the degree of dissensuality vis-à-vis the prevailing patterns of belief.

The beliefs which enter into consensus (or dissensus) vary in the intensity with which they are adhered to even within a single pattern of belief; some component beliefs might be very stringently insisted upon, others less so. Correspondingly, within a given society some of the adherents of a given pattern of belief might have a high average level of intensity of adherence, others might have a lower average level. The adherents of a dissensual (internally consensual) pattern of belief will usually have a higher average level of intensity of adherence than the adherents of a consensual pattern.

Consensual patterns of belief tend to be affirmative about the distribution of authority, the legitimacy of its results, and the mechanisms and standards by which it is effected. There is nothing in the definition of consensus that requires this to be so, and there might indeed be occasions when the prevailing system of authority becomes the object of a widely shared negative consensus. This would be a situation in which the paradox of a dissensual consensus is realized. But that would be the exception. Insofar as a dominant consensus exists in a society, it usually more or less affirms the existing system of authoritative institutions and the distributions associated with them because authority, when it is effective, tends to establish its own legitimacy. The coercive powers of authority also help it to call forth a conformity which justifies itself by an acknowledgment of the legitimacy of the powerful. Perhaps even more important is the close affinity of outlook of the central cultural system with the central institutional system, and this, through teaching and exemplification, tends to diffuse itself into the outlook and the programs of large parts of the society.

The empirical analysis of the pattern of consensus confronts the same difficulties as the empirical analysis of beliefs actually held by individuals. Because of vagueness, ambiguity, unsystematic character, and variations in level of abstraction, actually held beliefs are difficult to describe, and there is a tendency on the part of sociological and anthropological analysts to systematize, clarify, and specify actually held beliefs to a point which makes the holder of such beliefs appear to be a systematic philosopher. Premises are rendered explicit and particular judgments are generalized; as a result of this process, beliefs which are not knowingly held are imputed by the analysts, who thus distort the nature of consensus and the mechanisms through which it operates.

The social structure of consensus. In no society, however consensual, is the consensus ever universally shared. Nor does it depend upon universal participation to be effective. Those adults who do share it, do so with very different degrees of intensity or concern. Of course no adult member of society is outside the system of allocation of scarce roles, facilities, and rewards, and as a result no adult, unless he is utterly—indeed almost catatonically—apathetic, can entirely avoid rendering judgments at least about that sector of the distribution which he perceives immediately around him. Moreover, the judgments which he renders are related in a determinate way to those current in the culture of his society. Yet his interest in the larger distribution and the problems of legitimacy associated with it might be very faint and infrequent.

Since one of the most important foci of consensus is the system of allocation of the whole society, those persons who do not concern themselves much or intensely with the total allocation may be said to be somewhat marginal in the structure of consensus. Even where they share general beliefs, about what is “fair,” for instance, the fact that they apply these beliefs only or primarily to their immediate environment and not to the larger society means that they do not participate in the consensus to the same extent and in the same way as those who apply the consensually shared norms more intensely and frequently to the macrosocial system of allocation.

In societies which are relatively unintegrated and where centrally made decisions therefore impinge only very intermittently and marginally on certain sectors of the society (e.g., isolated villages which do not participate in a national economy), the members of those sectors might be entirely outside the structure of consensus. But in modern societies, where government plays such a large part in influencing allocations and where country-wide communication and transportation systems bring at least some features of the central institutional system into the field of attention of even the uneducated and apathetic, complete abstention from the structure of consensus (or dissensus) is very rare.

On some issues and on some occasions most of the adult population is consensual, but even within such general consensus there are many individual differences. Apart from differences in intensity among those who share in any particular belief in a consensus, there are differences in the number or proportion of beliefs adhered to. Every consensus is constituted by a plurality of beliefs, such as beliefs about the right principles of remuneration, the proper shape of particular distributions (equality and inequality), the prerogatives of property ownership, the propriety of incumbency by certain individuals and classes of individuals in certain positions on particular distributions, and the value of the total national community. Within the “public” of a consensus, some sectors might be attached intensely to all the beliefs, others intensely only to some of them and faintly to others, and some might be attached only to a very few and repudiate most others. A common acceptance of certain of the beliefs might bind the entire “public” into a partial consensus; just how partial it is depends on the extent to which other beliefs are repudiated and various contrary ones espoused by the various subsectors of that public. For example, nearly everyone in a given country might accept the legitimacy of the electoral system and of the authorities selected through it, and they might also accept a particular unequal distribution of income; but they might disagree sharply about the distribution of deference, and about the capacity of particular incumbents of authoritative roles to act beneficially on behalf of the society as a whole.

Consensus exists in a complex interplay with dissensus. Dissensus is the state of disagreement of beliefs about allocative decisions and results. Those who are dissensual with respect to a particular feature of an allocative system or process might be consensual with respect to other features or about the general properties of the system. Thus the dimensions or boundaries of the structure of consensus are variable within a given society, not only over a longer trend but from situation and problem to situation and problem.

Party politics in modern societies are organized efforts to shift the boundaries of the partial dissensus within the framework of a partial consensus. But alongside these deliberate efforts to change the structure of consensus, there is a continual shifting of boundaries among partially dissensual groups. Beliefs about which there was once disagreement (e.g., concerning the right of the unemployed to public assistance) become consensual, while previously consensual beliefs, such as those concerning the right of the inheritance of property, become partially dissensual. These historical shifts in the structure of consensus arise in part from the struggles of the proponents of the partially dissensual programs, in part from demographic and technological changes, which are accompanied by changes in occupational structure, and in part from the unfolding of the dynamic potentialities of various patterns of belief.

The variations in the “public” of consensus (i.e., in the size of the population participating in it) testify also to the simultaneous coherence and incoherence of the patterns of belief which individuals bring into consensus. If each individual had a perfectly systematized pattern of belief, those who disagreed with him on one particular belief would disagree with him on all others. On the other hand, if this pattern of belief were totally incoherent, there would be no stability in the “publics” formed by the consensus around particular beliefs. Agreement on one issue would not entail any probability of agreement on any other. Yet, as we know, every consensual pattern of belief is borne in the first instance by a persisting “public” of adherents who gather around them, on particular issues and clusters of issues, extended and somewhat fluctuating “publics.” Some who are consensual on most issues are dissensual on a few; others who are dissensual on most issues are consensual on a few. From this determinateness of pattern an approximate stability of the “publics” is borne.

The function of consensus. Consensus maintains public order, that is, it reduces the probability of the use of violence in the resolution of disagreements; it increases the amount of cooperation which is not impelled by fear of the coercive power of the stronger party. It does so by (1) the reduction of the probability of disagreements, (2) the restriction of the intensity of affect and strength of motivation with which disagreements are conducted and the softening of the rigidity of the attachment to the objectives about which the disagreements exist, and (3) the fostering of a readiness to accept peaceful modes of adjudicating disagreements among those who have a sense of mutual affinity or identity.

There is no natural harmony of interest among men in society. Men are diverse in their propensities, and the material and symbolic objects which they seek are scarce in relation to the demand for them. Their “interests” are in conflict. Furthermore, a society—particularly a large-scale society—differentiated by generations, by occupations, by status and culture, will naturally tend toward a differentiation in beliefs regarding the rightness of the actions of authority and the justice of the existing social order [seeConflict]. Where it exists, consensus is a counterforce against the fulfillment of the divisive potentialities of these divergent “interests” and beliefs. Consensus facilitates collaboration: it reinforces the cooperation which arises from coincidences of interest, limits the range of the divergence of interests by defining ends in a way which renders them more compatible, and circumscribes the actions injurious to cooperation which might arise from the divergent interests.

To be effective consensus depends particularly on those persons scattered throughout the society in many classes, regions, and occupations who have a fairly continuous concern with (1) the macrosocial distribution of roles, facilities, and rewards, (2) the particular decisions taken in the center of the society inasmuch as they affect these distributions or are affected by them, and (3) the institutions in which these decisions are taken or which influence the distributions. The concern may take the form of institutionalized participation in the decisions bearing on these three aspects of distributive events, or it may take the form of attitudinal involvement which affects action. The concerned are elites who, on behalf of the strata and collectivities generated by the distributions or on behalf of some ideal arrangement, take it upon themselves or are institutionally entitled to pass judgment and to attempt to influence opinion and decision. Their agreement or disagreement on particular issues can promote harmony or conflict in the working of institutions and in the relationships of strata and collectivities. [SeeElites.]

Public order and effective cooperation among the diverse parts of the society do not, however, require complete and continuous consensus even among the elites. What is important for the maintenance of order is that their disagreements about particular issues should exist within a consensual matrix. This consensual matrix is maintained largely by the sense of oneness with each other and with the whole society; this sense of oneness manifests itself in a sense of affinity even with persons with whom there might be many particular disagreements. Coalitions of interests, the boundaries of which cut across each other, keep the sense of oneness from disintegrating. (Cleavages formed by the coincidence of boundaries of interest coalitions, on the other hand, do serious damage to the sense of oneness.) The power to coerce is another important element in maintaining order in society, but it never operates alone for any length of time. Without a strong consensual reinforcement, coercion could in itself never be effective. It is a supplement to consensus, not a mutually exclusive alternative.

The formation and change of consensus. The family which inducts the newly born organism into society is the first instigator of consensus. Within the family the child acquires generalized and affirmative attitudes toward authority, which are the preconditions of a subsequent assimilation into a consensus based on authoritative institutions at the center of society. In school the child acquires some of the culture of the larger society, some knowledge and appreciation of its heroes, great events, and territorial scope; he forms an image of the society. From childhood on, great collective rituals repeatedly renew the sense of unity with the larger society, and recurrent interaction with like-minded persons maintains and reinforces the disposition to attribute validity to those who speak and act through and for the central institutional system and those who speak on behalf of the central cultural system. As a result, a substantial proportion of the indigenous population grows into a consensual culture which accepts the Tightness and justice of existing distributions, the norms for judging them, and the institutions for maintaining and changing them [seeSocialization].

But the consensus never includes all the population. Some families and sectors of the population —classes and ethnic groups—are at the margins of the dominant consensus or even outside it. Some people even reject the pattern of the beliefs which inform the dominant consensus as far-reachingly as is possible under the pressures of authority and the permeative influence of the central cultural system. Every large society has a dissensual as well as a consensual culture, which is sustained by religious traditions and regional and class cultures as well as by recurrently renewed ethical and metaphysical criticism of the prevailing system of authority and the allocations of which the incumbents of authoritative and elite roles are the beneficiaries. Those who experience pain from the existing distributions of income, power, and status, although often sharing much of the consensual pattern of belief, also have contrary inclinations. A society which inflicts the distress of a sense of exclusion and inferiority cannot wholly succeed in assimilating into its affirmative consensus those whom it wounds.

The numerous particular situations of conflicts of interest and of norms of what is fair and just constitute the occasions for repeated rearrangements and regroupings of those who are consensual and those who are dissensual. The boundaries shift and shade off from the one zone into the other. At times the consensus might be very inclusive and at others it might lose some or much of its following.

The strength of the central institutional system and the deep penetration of the central cultural system result, however, in a considerable tenacity of the beliefs that make up the consensus. But the beliefs themselves undergo gradual changes. Indeed, the traditional character of most of the consensual beliefs renders such changes feasible, and this too helps to maintain the consensus. The ambiguity which is inherent in traditionally transmitted beliefs fosters flexibility and permits continuity in the face of changing circumstances. Moderate changes in the structure and in the incumbents of the various positions in the distributions of power, income, and status can be borne without a serious diminution in adherence to the main beliefs in a prevailing consensus. If the losers by these allocative changes are not too drastically affected, their participation in the consensus will not be greatly affected. Much depends on the continued strength of the central institutions. If these continue to maintain the appearance of effectiveness, dissensual tendencies will be held in check. Strong attachment to the society as a whole, aided by the apparent effectiveness of authority, inhibits dissensual tendencies. Beliefs about “luck” and a belief that results are indicative of qualifications render losses even more bearable.

When, however, drastic changes occur, the consensus is likely to be weakened by a deeper and more comprehensive withdrawal of those who are severely hurt by the changes. The diverse potentialities of interpretation which every consensus contains tends, under these circumstances, to be subjected to constructions which run in opposed directions, and reconciliation becomes more difficult. It is also likely that large and rapid increments in the quantity of rewards received will disrupt the participation of the gainers in the hitherto dominant consensus. Such increments often raise the level of aspiration well beyond the limits permitted by the beliefs of the traditionally established consensus.

Changes in technology disclose new possibilities of changing the share in valued objects possessed by various strata of the population. Those who perceive these possibilities and who, by virtue of their control over resources, are in a position to enhance their share will usually seek to do so. If they are prevented from doing so by the fixity of attachment of the incumbent elites to the existing distributions and by the rigidity of the patterns of belief of those elites about the rightness of the existing distributions, a new focus of dissensual beliefs will be formed. Technological innovations also engender new occupations with new occupational cultures. These new cultures might contain beliefs which cannot always or easily be accommodated within the existing consensus, and this too leads to new foci of dissensual beliefs.

Yet, despite the strains to which it is constantly subjected, the consensus of a society has much adaptability and considerable powers of endurance. Even in periods of acute civil disorder, when the previously legitimated authority has been expelled or has shown its weakness, the consensus is not entirely in dissolution. Society can never dissolve into a Hobbesian state of nature. Even though it has ceased to bind the warring groups, the sections of the population which are not intensely involved in the conflict might be quite consensual in their orientations toward each other or, at least, much more so than the groups which are violently in conflict with each other. The disruption of society in situations of acute civil disorder consists of the active contention of violently dissensual elites for the machinery and symbols of authority and the control of the system of distribution. The persistence of the more consensual sections of the population in the beliefs they have hitherto held fosters the re-establishment of a substantial measure of consensus when the crisis passes. Even the two warring parties usually contend against each other on behalf of divergent interpretations of a commonly shared constellation of beliefs. It is only that the sense of unity, of attachment to the whole society, which is an essential constituent of consensus, has been so violently ruptured that the affinity of substantive beliefs retains no restraining power.

Once civil order is restored, consensus gradually becomes re-established. It will not be exactly the same consensual pattern of belief that existed previously. The newly established elite, legitimated by effective incumbency, will both deliberately and unwittingly infiltrate some of its own beliefs into the previously operative consensus. However, the members of the new elite will, in their turn, become assimilated into the basic consensual pattern which is held by those they rule and which they too shared before coming to power.

Edward Shils

[See alsoAuthority; Conflict; Cooperation; Democracy; Equality; Ideology; Norms; Values. Other relevant material may be found underLaw.]


Abrams, Mark 1964 Party Politics After the End of Ideology. Pages 56–63 in Erik Allardt and Yrjö Littunen (editors), Cleavages, Ideologies and Party Systems: Contributions to Comparative Political Sociology. Helsinki: Westermarck Society.

Lipset, Seymour M. 1964 Political Cleavages in “Developed” and “Emerging” Politics. Pages 21–55 in Erik Allardt and Yrjö Littunen (editors), Cleavages, Ideologies and Party Systems: Contributions to Comparative Political Sociology. Helsinki: Westermarck Society.

Lockwood, David 1964 Social Integration and System Integration. Pages 244–257 in George K. Zollschan and Walter Hirsch (editors), Explorations in Social Change. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Mcclosky, Herbert 1964 Consensus and Ideology in American Politics. American Political Science Review 58:361–382.

Plamenatz, John; Griffith, Ernest S.; and Pennock, J. Roland 1956 Cultural Prerequisites to a Successfully Functioning Democracy: A Symposium. American Political Science Review 50:101–137. → See especially pages 115–127, by John Plamenatz.

Prothro, James W.; and Grigg, C. W. 1960 Fundamental Principles of Democracy: Bases of Agreement and Disagreement. Journal of Politics 22:276–294.

Shils, Edward 1961 Centre and Periphery. Pages 117–130 in The Logic of Personal Knowledge: Essays Presented to Michael Polanyi. London: Routledge; New York: Free Press.

Tocqueville, Alexis de (1835) 1945 Democracy in America. 2 vols. New York: Knopf. → First published in French. Paperback editions were published in 1961 by Vintage and by Schocken.

TÆnnies, Ferdinand (1887) 1957 Community and Society (Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft). Translated and edited by Charles P. Loomis. East Lansing: Michigan State Univ. Press. → First published in German. A paperback edition was published in 1963 by Harper.

TÆnnies, Ferdinand (1909) 1961 Custom: An Essay on Social Codes. New York: Free Press. → First published in German.


Political consensus involves kinds of agreements that are politically relevant. Students of this subject have been concerned largely with questions of the stability of regimes, particularly democratic regimes.

Four uses of the idea of consensus have been developed by writers interested primarily in the viability of democratic political processes. One conception has seen consensus as agreement on the “fundamentals” of democratic government. There is marked divergence, however, on the questions of what it means to agree on fundamentals and just how significant such agreement is (Griffith et al. 1956). Others have argued that the consensus necessary in a democracy is chiefly a matter of habitual patterns of behavior which are more important than conscious agreement on democratic principles (Prothro & Grigg 1960). A third position has emphasized the question of the acceptability of governmental policy to significant social groups. In this view, consensus on emotion-laden issues such as those embodied in the welfare state can have decisive influence on the stability of the political system (Lipset 1964). A fourth view of consensus in the democratic context has defined consensus as existing where all structurally important social groups contain adherents of major political parties. This view of consensus sees it as the outcome of “cross-cutting cleavages” which ensure that social divisions and political conflicts do not reinforce one another too thoroughly. Here consensus is the opposite of acute conflict and is hypothesized as leading to political tolerance and a low-tension politics (Parsons 1959). It should be clear that these four conceptualizations of politically relevant consensus are not mutually exclusive but in some cases complement each other, while in others they conflict.

Two other views of consensus, although also related to the problems of democracy, have been developed and employed in different political contexts as well. The first of these is consensus as legitimacy: approval of the existing government and/or its directives. Understood in this sense, consensus is seen to be one of the key elements in governmental stability. Others have discussed consensus in terms of the basic moral and social perspectives that underlie political life. This has been a matter of deep concern to students of developing nations. In this view, the problem of creating consensus is closely related to questions of political socialization, ideology, political myths and rituals, modernization, and personality structure.

Each of these concepts of politically relevant consensus deals with a form of agreement. Although this notion of agreement appears to be the core of the idea of consensus, such a conclusion hardly begins to clarify the important problems. Of acute concern, and the object of most controversy among students of consensus, are the questions of how various kinds of agreement or lack of agreement are related to political stability, democracy, and the limitation of conflict.

Consensus and political philosophy. Preoccupation with problems of social cohesion and legitimacy was characteristic of political philosophy from its beginnings. Plato and Aristotle explored questions of political consensus. Both, for example, emphasized the significance of appropriate political socialization through education if the polity was to be stable. Several of the books of Aristotle's Politics are concerned with problems of political viability and revolution and deal extensively with governmental legitimacy.

Concern with political cohesion has been a recurrent one in the modern period. Contract theorists such as Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, and Paine emphasized the need for a rational, conscious creation of political consensus and employed the idea of the “contract” as the basis of legitimate authority. The utilitarians, and to a certain extent John Stuart Mill, provided an “interest” justification of government. In their view, a secular consensus should be based on a recognition that government should serve the interests of the greatest number.

Political theorists of a more conservative or aristocratic hue have been profoundly concerned with consensus as a problem. Burke, for example, feared the spread of the ideology of the French Revolution because, in his view, it called into question the legitimacy of all forms of government. He championed political ritualism, a hierarchical social order, and close church-state relations as important sustainers of consensus about governmental legitimacy. De Tocqueville emphasized the peculiar problems of consensus in a democratic polity and argued for the increased significance of religion as a binding force in direct proportion to the growth of political liberty. Concern continues with the significance of ritualism and religiosity in creating consensus. Several authors have emphasized the role of political holidays and ceremonies in producing a sense of national unity.

Nationalism has been discussed as a semireligious unifying motif in Western nations (Key 1961, p. 43). It has also been argued that the American president and the British monarch inspire a semireligious attachment which serves as a primordial unifying bond in the political system. Similar hypotheses have been offered with regard to the role of nationalist ideologies and nationalist leaders in developing nations (Apter 1963).

Modernization and political consensus. There is agreement that modernization processes generally involve acute crises of political consensus.

Western societies. Lipset (1960, pp. 76–97) has discussed this process as it occurred in Western societies in terms of three basic crises of legitimacy: first, the crisis involving church-state relations; second, the crisis involving the entry of the working class into politics; and third, the crisis surrounding questions of redistribution of wealth. He argues that governmental legitimacy can be undermined by these crises in various ways. For one, the entry of the working class into the political arena can be delayed too long, thus making for a revolutionary ideology in that class. Second, crises can accumulate through the inability to solve any one of them. In such a case, as in France, cleavages are intensified and governmental stability fundamentally endangered. Finally, too radical a change in the political system, again as in France, can alienate the more conservative groups, thus undermining the conditions for mutual tolerance.

Lipset concludes (1964) that the wide acceptance of a secularized welfare state marks the ends of these crises of consensus. PostWorld War II developments, especially economic growth, settled the intense political conflicts of previous western European politics. The older, largely nineteenth-century ideologies are outmoded. A new ideology, named “conservative socialism” by Lipset, has gained acceptance among major social groups and the major political parties. Political conflict, then, has lost its intensity and no longer revolves around what are felt to be fundamental differences of view. Europe is described as coming to resemble America in its politics, in that political parties offer similar programs and a large middle class plays a crucial moderating role. Many have seriously questioned this view. LaPalombara (1966a; 1966b), for example, has raised important methodological issues and also has challenged the substance of the argument as it applies to Italian politics.

Lane (1962) has explored this new “ideology” as it appears among upper-working-class and lower-middle-class Americans. His data are drawn from intensive interviews of 15 men. He maintains that the strata these individuals represent are largely satisfied with the existing political system, as well as with the present patterns of social stratification. Their political attitudes are characterized by pragmatic responses, an absence of moral perspectives on current issues, and the lack of a distinct ideological identity. Lane argues that these individuals identify with various social groups and therefore their ideology, such as it is, is diffuse and tolerant. His findings support those of survey research concerning the attitudes of Americans toward the political parties and their candidates. It is unclear whether this “nonideology” is a distinctly contemporary phenomenon in America or is merely the modern version of older aspects of American politics. It is also unclear whether the “ideology” Lane has uncovered is confined to a particular geographic section of the United States and to a particular stratum of the population.

Developing nations. Political consensus expressed in terms of governmental stability is regarded as a fundamental problem in developing nations. Many maintain that discontinuous social change, creating sharp imbalances between expectations and opportunities, makes political stability a rare and yet overwhelmingly necessary commodity. This gap between expectations and opportunities is conceptualized variously as a result of excessively rapid urbanization, the absence of employment for highly trained personnel, or the spread of ideas of equality and economic development.

One problem of modernization involves the gap between mass and elite. This gap prevents effective communication in both directions and therefore blocks the development of a national normative culture and national identity, as well as preventing widespread needs and demands from becoming known to the elite with sufficient speed (Binder 1964).

Intense conflict and the absence of consensus on the ends and means of political life are also characteristic of developing states. Students of many countries have observed the severity of political party conflict involving groups with sharply different world views, which often takes on some of the aspects of warfare. In these cases, the stakes involved in politics are perceived as being so high that no political group is willing to concede defeat voluntarily. The norms of tolerance cannot develop and governmental legitimacy is constantly threatened. Democratic politics may be able to develop only where political activists do not feel the stakes of competition are too high. We know little, however, about the circumstances in which such perceptions change, and this knowledge is critical to the problems of developing nations.

Consensus and “fundamentals” of democracy. Scholars have maintained that agreement on certain fundamentals is a prerequisite of democracy. These fundamentals have been variously seen as the belief in human equality, the belief in the superiority of democracy, the belief in tolerance for dissenting views, and the belief in majority rule. Recent empirical examinations of the actual state of agreement on such matters in the United States has led to a more complex picture of the relationship between consensus on fundamentals and democratic practices.

Prothro and Grigg (1960), using 90 per cent agreement as a measure of consensus, found it to exist on matters of majority rule and minority rights in two American cities, as long as statements were phrased in very abstract terms. When statements were made more specific, however, consensus broke down. Agreement appeared to be especially fragile when communists and Negroes were involved in the specific statements. The authors found that higher education and higher social status were related to greater agreement on the worth of majority rule and minority rights. They concluded that democracy can exist without consensus because many of the undemocratic are apathetic, and because agreement on specific policies sustains unity despite lack of consensus on fundamentals.

McClosky (1964), building on earlier work, found important differences in support of democratic norms between party activists and the general electorate. Party activists were more likely to support majority rule and minority rights and to believe in governmental fairness. But even among activists disagreement was widespread, and there was frequently failure to achieve consensus on specifics. (McClosky defined consensus as 75 per cent agreement.) Consensus was highest among both activists and electorate on abstract statements concerning freedom of speech and of dissent. Consensus was weakest on questions of political, social, and economic equality. McClosky noted the use fulness of apathy when many do not share democratic norms, although he maintained that this condition has its dangers. In particular he stressed that many may mistakenly support undemocratic organizations and practices while thinking that they are defending freedom. In general, he argued, consensus is not necessarily a condition of political stability. When conditions are stable, consensus may be unnecessary. Only in time of social disorganization is consensus important as a stabilizing force. Finally, he argued that the conditions which enhance consensus on democratic norms are becoming more widespread in the United States: education, urbanization, social mobility, proliferation of the mass media, expansion of the middle class, reduced size and isolation of rural groups, declining number of groups living on substandard incomes, and more complete integration of minority groups into social and cultural life.

Consensus and political symbols. The role of national holidays, ceremonies, and rituals in creating or sustaining consensus has been little explored. It remains questionable that such events facilitate consensus. Arguments concerning the supposed integrative role of the British coronation ceremony have been effectively challenged (Shils & Young 1953; Birnbaum 1955). Contrary hypotheses also exist. It has been observed, for example, that the creed of Americanism and the ceremonies that accompany it have sometimes served as a focal point of conflict (Key 1961, p. 43). A fervent belief in this creed has often been associated with persecution of those groups regarded as foreigners or aliens. At present, one cannot be certain about the function of any particular political ritual without knowing the social circumstances in which it is enacted.

It is fairly clear, however, that myths and symbols can play a role in diminishing conflict in specific policy areas (Edelman 1960). Consumer groups, typically poorly organized, often achieve symbolic victories through the passage of regulatory legislation covering a particular area of the economy. Producer groups, more involved in the details of policy making, can often shape the substance of this regulation in a direction congenial to them. If the public is unaware of this change in the original intentions of the legislation, it assumes that these intentions are being carried out. In such a case, the general public believes policy is made in its favor, while those being regulated are also content with the arrangements, and a rather strange consensus may be said to exist. One must, however, ponder the consequences of such a consensus for the real content of political democracy.

Problems and research needs. The empirical and speculative work concerning consensus on fundamentals in the United States is open to serious question on several points (Willhoite 1963).

Measuring democracy. Some researchers seem to have assumed that the United States is in fact a democracy. This assumption has confused the picture of the relationship between consensus and democracy. For example, when Prothro and Grigg discovered that consensus is weakest on questions involving Negroes and communists, they went on to conclude that democracy can exist without consensus. But if, in fact, American democratic practices are least adequate where Negroes and communists are concerned, then lack of consensus appears to be far more significant. In order to relate attitudinal consensus to democratic practices, one needs to measure not only the degree of consensus but also the degree of democracy. This has not yet been done. Therefore one must retain an open mind on the question of the exact connections between these two variables.

Negative consensus. A different line of attack flows from the analysis of negative consensus. Many authors have pointed out the significance of a consensus on behavior that will not be allowed. This matter has been of particular interest to students of international relations who have concentrated on the problem of “encapsulating” conflict (Etzioni 1964). The shared fear of war has been cited as a major factor in keeping conflict under control. Likewise, negative consensus may play a role in domestic politics. For example, the tacit agreement, perhaps conscious, not to raise certain sorts of issues is of great importance in facilitating peaceful adjustment of disputes. If this is the case, then negative consensus may take the place in domestic politics once credited to a positive consensus on democratic norms. The gains of the civil rights movement in America have flowed, in part, from a negative consensus among whites on the need to avoid violence. Given such a consensus, certain Negro demands have had to be met (Killian & Grigg 1964). This interpretation runs counter to the assertion that the civil rights movement has been successful because equality is a significant tenet in the American creed. The hypothesis is that negative consensus operates in place of positive belief. These conflicting interpretations are in need of further investigation.

Consensus, cooperation, and stability. The conviction that consensus, in any sense, is necessary for political life has been vigorously challenged. In many cases social cooperation and political cohesion may not depend upon consensus. Further, conflict as well as consensus can lead to social integration and successful problem solving.

There is no direct relation between consensus and political equilibrium or integration. Consensus can retard political and social adaptation as well as facilitate it. For example, as Van den Berghe has pointed out (1963), consensus on such norms as extreme competition, individualistic laissez-faire, treachery, and witchcraft does not necessarily aid social solidarity. Moreover, consensus within groups can hinder consensus among groups.

Consensus is not identical with cooperation, and the latter can exist without the former. Many factors besides consensus may contribute to cooperative behavior. Williams (1964, p. 383) has observed that such factors include mutual advantage, power, technical capacities for communication, and social mechanisms for settling conflicts. The precise role of consensus in political stabilization clearly remains a matter of dispute.

Problems of creating consensus. How is consensus created, and how is it changed? Under what circumstances, for example, do previously outlawed forms of conflict become legitimate or acceptable? Such changes have taken place in the domestic politics of many countries, involving, for example, issues raised by political pamphleteering, strikes, and mass demonstrations. In these cases, more democratic norms have been achieved primarily through serious social conflict. It is clear, therefore, that the identification of democracy with government by consensus can make sense only in that ideal case in which a perfect democracy has already been created.

Under what circumstances will governmental initiative be successful in altering a previously existing consensus? Research into American race relations has demonstrated that attitudes adapt over time to overt behavior, but clearly such adaptation has limits and preconditions. Related to this question is the problem of determining under what circumstances governmental legitimacy itself is undermined, particularly in relation to the government's ability to cope with social change.

On the policy-making level, democracy has often been described as politics involving bargaining among political leaders through which a consensus is created. There has been little systematic study, however, of this consensus-creating process. Finally, a critical problem for students of international behavior is consensus creation concerning the limitation of conflict. Osgood (1962) has described the general principles of a process of tension reduction based on the building of trust through graduated reciprocal initiatives by the parties to the conflict. Fisher (1964) has advocated the “fractionation” of conflict, that is, the breaking down of complex, emotion-laden disputes into smaller parts which may prove easier to compromise (see also Etzioni 1964). The difficulties faced in achieving a negative consensus on conflict are clear, but these highly suggestive strategies may help to overcome some of them.

Lewis Lipsitz

[See alsoDemocracy; Majority rule; Modernization; Socialization. Other relevant material may be found inPolitical sociology; Public opinion; Social contract; and in the biographies ofBurke; Hobbes; Locke; Mlll; Paine; Rousseau; Tocqueville.]


After, David E. 1963 Political Religion in the New Nations. Pages 57–104 in Chicago, University of, Committee for the Comparative Study of New Nations, Old Societies and New States: The Quest for Modernity in Asia and Africa. Edited by Clifford Geertz. New York: Free Press.

Binder, Leonard 1964 National Integration and Political Development. American Political Science Review 58:622–631.

BirnbauM, Norman 1955 Monarchs and Sociologists. Sociological Review 3:5–23.

Dahl, Robert A. (1961) 1963 Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

Edelman, Murray 1960 Symbols and Political Quiescence. American Political Science Review 54:695—704.

Etzioni, Amitai 1962 The Hard Way to Peace: A New Strategy. New York: Collier.

Etzioni, Amitai 1964 On Self-encapsulating Conflicts.Journal of Conflict Resolution 8:242–255.

Fisher, Roger D. 1964 Fractionating Conflict. Pages 91–109 in Roger D. Fisher (editor), International Conflict and Behavioral Science: The Craigville Papers. New York: Basic Books.

Griffith, E. S.; Plamenatz, J.; and Pennock, J. R. 1956 Cultural Prerequisites to a Successfully Functioning Democracy: A Symposium. American Political Science Review 50:101–137.

Horowitz, Irving L. 1962 Consensus, Conflict and Cooperation: A Sociological Inventory. Social Forces 41: 177–188.

Key, Valdimer O. 1961 Public Opinion and American Democracy. New York: Knopf.

Killian, Lewis M.; and GRIGG, CHARLES 1964 Racial Crisis in America. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Lane, Robert E. 1962 Political Ideology: Why the American Common Man Believes What He Does. New York: Free Press.

Lapalombara, Joseph 1966a Decline of Ideology: A Dissent and an Interpretation. American Political Science Review 60:5–16.

Lapalombara, Joseph 1966b A Reply to “Some Further Comments on The End of Ideology.'” American Political Science Review 60:110–111.

Lerner, Daniel 1958 The Passing of Traditional Society: Modernizing the Middle East. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

Lipset, Seymour M. (1959) 1962 Political Sociology. Pages 81–114 in American Sociological Society, Sociology Today: Problems and Prospects. Edited by Robert K. Merton, Leonard Broom, and Leonard S. Cottrell, Jr. New York: Basic Books.

Lipset, Seymour M. 1960 Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Lipset, Seymour M. 1964 The Changing Class Structure and Contemporary European Politics. Daedalus 93:277–303.

Lipset, Seymour M. 1966 Some Further Comments on “The End of Ideology.” American Political Science Review 60:17–18.

McClosky, Herbert 1964 Consensus and Ideology in American Politics. American Political Science Review 58:361–382.

Osgood, Charles E. 1962 An Alternative to War or Surrender. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press.

Parsons, Talcott 1959 Voting and the Equilibrium of the American Political System. Pages 80–120 in Eugene Burdick and Arthur J. Brodbeck (editors), American Voting Behavior. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press.

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Shils, Edward; and Young, Michael 1953 The Meaning of the Coronation. Sociological Review 1:63–81.

Tocqueville, Alexis de (1835) 1945 Democracy in America. 2 vols. New York: Knopf. → First published in French. A paperback edition was published in 1961 by Vintage and by Schocken. See especially Volume 1.

Van den Berghe, Pierre L. 1963 Dialectic and Functionalism: Toward a Theoretical Synthesis. American Sociological Review 28:695–705.

Willhoite, Fred H. 1963 Political Order and Consensus. Western Political Quarterly 16:294–304.

Williams, Robin M. JR. 1964 Strangers Next Door: Ethnic Relations in American Communities. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.


views updated Jun 11 2018



Consensus refers both to a state of common feeling or agreement in a group and to a decision rule by which a group or society determines legitimate political authority and coordinates political action. The term derives from the Latin consens, which is closely related to consent, and was first used in modern times to describe the relationship between different parts of a system in working toward the purpose of the whole. Characteristic of many nineteenth-century writers, Émile Durkheim posits the analogy of a spontaneous consensus of parts in the body social as a necessary condition for the preservation of order in increasingly differentiated societies (1984, p. 297). Contemporary theories of communitarianism, civic culture, and liberal pluralism follow Durkheim, to different degrees, in staking democratic order on a value consensus embedded in social norms, practices, and institutions.

Theorists of participatory and deliberative democracy often abandon the search for an empirical consensus underlying social order and instead hold consensus as a normative ideal of political decision making amid human conditions of difference and conflict. For Jean-Jacques Rousseau, legitimate political authority rests not on the consent of the majoritythe domination of a part of society over the wholebut on a consensus that accounts for the interests of all members of society. Consensus thus seeks to preserve individual freedom and political equality. Indebted to Immanuel Kants (17241804) theory of common sense, Jürgen Habermas (1990) locates the ideal of consensus in the fundamental practice of communication, which presupposes the possibility of shared understanding between speakers. The expectation of rational consensus inherent in speech establishes certain norms for political deliberation, most notably reason, inclusion, participation, and publicity. On many accounts, consensual politics requires both constitutionally protected public spaces and institutionalized procedures that incorporate the previous norms into decision-making processes.

Critics of consensualism worry that the ideal of consensus carries normalizing and repressive effects on groups and societies. Theorists of agonistic democracy, such as Iris Marion Young (2000) and William E. Connolly (1991), contend that commitment to a strong rational consensus privileges certain modes of expression and participation to the exclusion of others and often brackets difficult issues from public discussion altogether. Thus, consensual ideals of political engagement and outcome effectively silence some points of view. While agonistic democracy affirms the possibility of agreement on particular issues in particular circumstances, it recognizes the contingencies and exclusions that constitute any strong value consensus and emphasizes a care for difference and struggle as central elements of politics.

In practice, consensual politics have long embodied the ideals and tensions of these competing theoretical strains. While consensus was the aim, if not always the abiding practice, in the political assemblies of ancient Athens, classical writers from Thucydides (c. 460c. 400 BCE) to Aristotle cautioned against the dangers of popular rhetoric in fomenting collective tyranny. The Iroquois Confederacy explicitly protected dissenting views during consensual processes by establishing mechanisms for veto power and for the revisiting of contentious issues. The Religious Society of Friends and the peace and environmental movements of the late twentieth century are examples of groups that use consensus decision-making practices.

SEE ALSO Conflict; Egalitarianism


Connolly, William E. 1991. Identity/Difference: Democratic Negotiations of Political Paradox. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Durkheim, Émile. 1984. Division of Labor in Society. Translated by W. D. Halls. New York: The Free Press.

Habermas, Jürgen. 1990. Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action. Trans. Christian Lenhardt and Shierry Weber Nicholsen. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Johanson, Bruce Elliott, and Barbara Alice Mann, eds. 2000. Encyclopedia of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Mansbridge, Jane J. 1980. Beyond Adversary Democracy. New York: Basic Books.

Ober, Josiah. 1998. Political Dissent in Democratic Athens: Intellectual Critics of Popular Rule. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Pellow, David N. 1999. Framing Emerging Environmental Movement Tactics: Mobilizing Consensus, Demobilizing Conflict. Sociological Forum 14 (4): 659683.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1987. The Basic Political Writings. Trans. and ed. by Donald A. Cress. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing.

Young, Iris Marion. 2000. Inclusion and Democracy. New York: Oxford University Press.

Laura Grattan


views updated Jun 27 2018

consensus, social consensus The term consensus refers to a commonly agreed position, conclusion, or set of values, and is normally used with reference either to group dynamics or to broad agreement in public opinion. Additionally, however, it has come to be associated with the particular form of normative functionalism most fully developed in the writings of Talcott Parsons (see, for example, The Social System, 1951

In so far as sociological theory is concerned with the problem of social order, it is possible to identify two broadly differing approaches in the history of the discipline, one of which emphasizes conflict and coercion while the other assumes a degree of social consensus in the form of agreement over values and norms. Whilst value consensus is seen as the basis of social order, the true explanatory focus is the process of socialization through the vehicle of the family, an activity upon which normative functionalists placed great emphasis.

It was commonplace, during the 1960s, to speak of the debate between the consensus and conflict schools. Enthusiasts of the former approach tended to be critical of any kind of social determinism and to argue instead that social theory must accommodate intention and choice at the level of individual action. Society should therefore be seen as the expression of a system of values and norms which have been developed and institutionalized over time by its members. Thus, in Parsons's own writings, ‘integration’ is cited as one of four key requirements for the functioning of society. Conflict theory was the inevitable counterpart to the consensus view of social order and was developed in opposition to Parsonsian functionalism in the late 1950s and early 1960s. This approach rejects the assumption of shared norms and values as the basis for social order, and points instead to the balance of power between conflicting interests, both political and economic. With hindsight it is clear that, on many issues, the two groups of protagonists were simply talking past each other.


views updated May 11 2018

consensus In combinational logic, a condition that is said to exist when two terms of a Boolean function have one shared variable, which in one term is true and in the other complemented. A new term can be generated by the product of the remaining literals in the two terms, with the consensus variable eliminated, without altering the value of the function. For example, if f = ab + ac

then, in addition, f = ab + ac + bc

The term bc is sometimes called an optional product. This operation is invaluable in the elimination of circuit static hazards. Its systematic application to a Boolean function provides the basis of a minimization procedure that is less voluminous than the Quine-McCluskey method, since it does not require the full canonical expansion of the original function.


views updated May 18 2018

con·sen·sus / kənˈsensəs/ • n. [usu. in sing.] general agreement: a consensus of opinion among judges| [as adj.] a consensus view.


views updated May 11 2018

consensus general agreement. XIX. — L., f. consēns-, pp. stem of consentīre CONSENT.

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