Political Behavior

views updated Jun 11 2018

Political Behavior



Inventory—areas of research

Inventory—ranges of theory

Inventory—state of methods and techniques




The analysis of political behavior proceeds from the assumption that politics as a special form of human activity is not, and cannot be, independent of what is known or knowable about social behavior generally. The primary objective of such analysis, therefore, is to link what is specifically political with other aspects of social relations.


In particular, political behavior analysis refers to a number of modes and methods of inquiry in the discipline of political science that have the following four general characteristics.

(1) Political behavior analysis takes the individual person’s behavior—broadly conceived as including not only his acts but also his orientations to action (identifications, demands, expectations, evaluations)—as the empirical unit of analysis.

Most behavioral research in politics is not, in fact, concerned with the individual actor as such. It more often seeks to describe and explain the political behavior of a group, an organization, a community, an elite, a mass movement, or a nation, but also assumes that such collectivities do not exist apart from the conduct of their individual members. The interactions and transactions of these members make for systemic relationships that are structurally discrete and functionally specific and can be meaningfully studied.

Political behavior analysis does not deny the importance of political institutions; rather it conceives of them as patterns of individual behavior that are more or less uniform and regular and can be analyzed in terms of the behavior of their molecular units. Individual political behavior is seen as deriving its meaning and significance from the institutional context in which it occurs.

(2) Political behavior analysis chooses a frame of reference that is shared by the behavioral sciences, notably anthropology, psychology, and sociology.

As man’s political behavior is only one aspect of his total behavior as a social being, political behavior analysis must be interdisciplinary; it cannot neglect the wider context in which political action occurs. It is bound, therefore, to consider the possible effects of social, cultural, and personal factors on political behavior.

The interdisciplinary focus of political behavior inquiry sensitizes the observer to the level of analysis on which research may be conducted most appropriately and fruitfully. Some problems of political behavior are best formulated and explored on the level of social relations; others, on the level of culture; and still others, on the level of personality. Which level of analysis is chosen depends on the problem under inquiry and on the degree to which generic rather than particularistic explanations are sought.

(3) Political behavior analysis chooses theoretical propositions about politics that lend themselves, in principle at least, although preferably in fact, to operational formulation for the purposes of empirical research.

Political behavior analysis seeks to join theory and the data of experience in a single operational discourse that allows theory to fertilize empirical inquiry and that utilizes empirical findings to advance the development of theoretical propositions about politics. Of course, where a particular study will fall on the empirical-theoretical continuum depends partly on the inclinations of the researcher and partly on his ease of access to a given research arena. For instance, access is relatively easy in the domestic legislative arena but extremely difficult in the field of international relations. Where access is easy, theoretical development may lag behind data accumulation; where access is difficult, theoretical sophistication may outstrip empirical investigation.

(4) Political behavior analysis chooses methods and techniques of inquiry that permit as rigorous treatment as possible of theoretical formulations and empirical data for the purposes of description and the testing of hypotheses.

Many of the theoretical formulations of political behavior research are now posed in terms of notions derived from game theory, decision theory, general systems theory, and communication theory, as well as notions derived from political science. In its empirical work political behavior analysis also utilizes techniques taken over from the other social sciences. It is concerned with the problems of research design, reliability of data-gathering and measuring instruments, criteria of validation, and other features of scientific procedure. Techniques now employed include participant observation and survey research, content and cluster-bloc analysis, scalogram and factor analysis, sociometry and psychiatric procedures, laboratory and field experiments, multivariate analysis, and computer programs. Application of these methods and techniques has had the effect of enormously broadening the range of political phenomena available to behavioral investigation and of systematizing the study of politics.


Behavioral analysis in the study of politics stems from the confluence of many converging tendencies that are isolated here only for the sake of identification. It is probably impossible to trace any particular approach to a single intellectual source. This section, therefore, though organized more or less chronologically, does not attempt precise historical reconstruction.

In their earliest manifestations, political behavior approaches in political science were declarations of protest against what was felt to be an unduly historical–descriptive, legal–formal, or normative orientation in the study of government and politics. The protest came, on the one hand, from psychology-oriented observers of the political scene, perhaps best represented by Graham WallasHuman Nature in Politics (1908), and on the other, from process-oriented students, stimulated by Arthur F. Bentley’s The Process of Government (1908). But neither Wallas nor Bentley had an immediate impact on the course of academic political science. It was the work of a nonacademician, Walter Lippmann (Public Opinion 1922), that, during the 1920s, directed political scientists to the study of public opinion and political attitude formation. Bentley’s “group approach” evidently had little influence on the studies of pressure groups which, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, gradually brought a new realism to the study of politics. It was not until after World War II that Bentley’s recommendations and formulations were explicitly acknowledged and developed in David B. Truman’s The Governmental Process (1951). Similarly, another early scholarly document of protest, Charles A. Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913), came to influence the study of politics only in the 1920s.

The efforts initiated in the early 1920s at the University of Chicago by the political scientist Charles E. Merriam exerted a more continuous and cumulative influence. His New Aspects of Politics (1925) was more than a critique of academic political science or a mere agenda for behavioral research. Men like Harold F. Gosnell and Harold D. Lasswell implemented Merriam’s teaching by ingenious studies ranging from field experimentation (Gosnell 1927) to intensive personality research (Lasswell 1930). A second generation of Chicago political scientists, product of the 1930s, provided the leadership of the behavioral revolution in political science after World War II (Key 1949; Simon 1947; Almond 1950; Truman 1951; Leiserson 1958; Pool 1952).

Other efforts in the interwar years to influence the course of political theory or research in a more behavioral or scientific direction were less successful. George E. G. Catlin’s The Science and Method of Politics (1927) was too far removed from the operational capabilities of the time to have much influence. On the other hand, Stuart A. Rice’s Quantitative Methods in Politics (1928), inventive in the application of statistical and quasi-statistical techniques to aggregate election data and legislative roll-call votes, tended to ignore the theoretical relevance of this type of investigation. However, his techniques proved viable in the more theoretical context of postwar research on electoral and legislative voting.

Perhaps even more difficult to identify and evaluate is the impact on political behavior analysis of the group of European or European-trained (Friedrich 1937; Parsons 1937) social scientists who, in the 1930s, familiarized American political science with new categories of thought rooted in the works of Marx, Durkheim, Freud, Pareto, Mosca, Michels, and Weber. Stimulated by the crises of democracy occasioned by the rise of totalitarianism, most of the work of these scholars sought explanations in terms of macro units of analysis. Only a few, like Paul F. Lazarsfeld or Theodor W. Adorno, were concerned with the individual as the unit of inquiry. The former’s now classic study of the 1940 presidential election, The People’s Choice, co-authored by Bernard Berelson and Hazel Gaudet, was not published until 1944 but came to have an enormous influence on political behavior research after the war. Similarly, The Authoritarian Personality (Adorno et al. 1950), though subjected to much criticism since its publication, has inspired a good deal of political behavior research.

Although World War II undoubtedly made political scientists, serving in manifold capacities in governmental and military positions, sensitive to the inadequacies of traditional political science, the postwar “behavioral revolution” in the study of politics was probably less a movement of protest (Dahl 1961b) than a realization that the problems encountered in concrete research required new theoretical and methodological departures.

The tendency toward behavioralism in political science was greatly aided by the activities of several groups of political scientists brought together under the auspices of the Social Science Research Council. In the 1950s and 1960s behavioral research was stimulated and financed by a committee on political behavior and a committee on comparative politics. A first “reader” on political behavior was published (Eulau et al. 1956). In the same year, a series of special panels devoted to political behavior analysis was included in the program of the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. In 1958 a group of political scientists and political sociologists from the United States, Europe, and Japan sponsored an “International Yearbook of Political Behavior Research,” of which five volumes have appeared (Janowitz 1961; Marvick 1961; Huntington 1962; Schubert 1963; Apter 1964). Also, in the 1950s, special professorships were set up at almost all major universities. At some institutions, the University of Michigan, for instance, a “doctoral program in political behavior” has been established, while at others, notably Yale, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northwestern, and Stanford, behavioral approaches permeate the offerings of the political science departments. In terms of research output, if one compares the pages of the learned journals in the first five decades of the century with the pages since about 1950, the development appears dramatic indeed. The establishment in 1962 of an “Inter-University Consortium for Political Research,” sponsored by almost all major departments of political science in American universities, attests to the pervasive influence that political behavior analysis has gained in the discipline.

While the “behavioral revolution” in political science has been primarily an American phenomenon, it has had some consequences for research developments abroad as well, especially in western Europe, India, and Japan. In some countries research institutes have undertaken behavioral or quasibehavioral research in politics—such as the studies on British elections undertaken under the auspices of Nuffield College (among others see Butler & Rose 1960; Butler 1962) or the studies on electoral behavior conducted in Norway by the Bergen Chr. Michelsen Institute and the Oslo Institute for Social Research (Rokkan & Valen 1960). In France individual scholars have been concerned with public opinion, electoral party behavior, and pressure groups (Grosser 1960). In Italy the work of Sartori and his associates on parliament is an outstanding example of the behavioral approach (Il parlamento italiano: 1946–1963). In Germany Otto Stammer and W. Hirsch-Weber, among others, have been influential and successful advocates of an empirical political science (Stammer 1960). In the 1960s the behavioral penetration of the study of comparative politics and the increasing interaction between American, European, and Asian scholars trained in behavioral research techniques promises to overcome traditional parochialisms in the study of politics [seePolitics, comparative].

Inventory—areas of research

Political behavior research can be conveniently inventoried in terms of the situational or institutional contexts and arenas in which men act politically. We can, therefore, speak of voting behavior research, legislative behavior research, international behavior research, and so on. What recommends this classification is not simply the convenience of tradition but the fact that political behavior analysis is pre-eminently interested in determining the consequences of individual political behavior for the functioning of political institutions. Moreover, a classification of research by institutional categories facilitates linkage of behavioral and other modes of analysis, such as legal or historical inquiry, and permits appraisal of the cumulative contribution made by political behavior analysis to political science as a whole.

Until the middle of the 1950s political behavior analysis was predominantly identified with (a) the study of political personality and related topics, such as the social composition of political elites; (b) the study of political attitudes and public opinion, including content analysis of the media of mass communication; and (c) the study of voting behavior and political participation. There were a few pioneering studies of legislative behavior, judicial behavior, community politics, and sundry other topics, but political behavior research was primarily thought of as involving studies of either the attitudes and behavior of the mass public or of elites. Moreover, perhaps because social psychologists were especially interested in this research, political behavior analysis was often assumed to represent a species of “political psychology.”

Actually, the intensive study of political personality was and has remained a very marginal concern. Lasswell’s pioneering Psychopathology and Politics (1930) has had few imitators. There has been some progress in this respect since 1955, but it has been slow [seePersonality, political]. However, studies of larger populations, indebted to various theories of personality and using inventories or scales derived from personality theories, concerned with such syndromes as authoritarianism, alienation, or anomie, have extended the range of political behavior research.

Closely related to this research and undoubtedly influenced by it are an increasing number of studies of “political socialization” (Hyman 1959; Greenstein 1965) and of “political culture” (Almond & Verba 1963). Political socialization, of course, is only a critical first step in a person’s political development, which must be distinguished from his recruitment and career pattern. The systematic study of elites, particularly in terms of their social backgrounds, has long been a concern of political science [seeElites], but more recently research has been directed to recruitment and career patterns, much of it conducted in specific institutional settings [seePolitical recruitment and careers].

Electoral behavior

No institutional arena of politics has been given more attention than elections and electoral processes. The ready availability of aggregate voting statistics made for an early interest in elections as behavioral phenomena (Gosnell 1930; Tingsten 1937). But whereas electoral statistics permitted only inferential statements about individual voting behavior, the invention and application of the sample survey made possible the direct study of individual voters and isolation of the many institutional-structural, social-psychological, and directly political variables that influence the voting decision [seeVoting]. Evidence of the increasing maturity of this research is the fact that scholars, using both aggregate statistics and survey data, have come to seek insight into, and test propositions about, macro aspects of the political process, such as the viability of political competition (Key 1956), the conditions of democratic consent (Janowitz & Marvick 1956), the extent of cleavage and consensus in political systems (Lipset 1960), the function of representation (Miller & Stokes 1963), and the nature of democracy itself (Key 1961).

Legislative behavior

As in the case of electoral behavior, research on legislative behavior had, in the form of roll-call votes and biographical data, an easily accessible reservoir of empirical information concerning both the backgrounds of legislators, from which presumably relevant attitudes were inferred, and the decisions of legislative bodies. Perhaps more than was the case with electoral research, both statistical and case studies of legislatures sought to link behavioral and institutional aspects of the legislative process. Recent studies of legislative committees as the critical tension points of decision making and of interpersonal relations have served to link even more closely individual and institutional patterns of legislative behavior [seeLegislation, article onLegislative behavior].

Judicial behavior

In the study of public law and judicial decision making the tradition of formal legal analysis was so strong that behavioral research did not emerge, with one exception (Pritchett 1948), until the late 1950s. When it came, the “behavioral revolution” in the field of public law took three forms. One group of scholars developed a largely nonquantitative “political process approach,” locating judicial cases in the broader context of social, economic, and political conflicts and specifying the judiciary as a party to the conflicts of interests (Peltason 1955; Rosenblum 1955; Shapiro 1964). A second group, using mathematical models and quantitative techniques, began to analyze opinions and decisions in terms of theories derived from social psychology and sociology for the purpose of making inferences about the motivations and attitudes of judges from a political perspective (Schubert 1960; 1963; 1964). A third approach in the new direction relies on the systematic treatment of judicial biographies (Schmidhauser 1960). [SeeJudiciary, article onjudicial behavior.]

Administrative behavior

Most of the work in administrative behavior research has been done, in the 1950s and early 1960s, by psychologists and sociologists (March & Simon 1958) who, with a few exceptions (Selznick 1949; Lipset et al. 1956; Wilensky 1956; Blau 1955; Janowitz 1961), are not particularly interested in governmental institutions or politically relevant organizational behavior. In a pioneering theoretical work by Herbert A. Simon, Administrative Behavior (1947), guidelines were made available for empirical research, but political scientists failed to follow this lead, probably because public administration has been dominated by “bureaus” which were primarily program-minded and preoccupied with “practical” matters. Only a few students of public administration have conducted behavioral research (Marvick 1954; Meyerson & Banfield 1955; Kaufman 1960; Peabody 1964). Although there have been recent stirrings in the study of metropolitan government (Decisions in Syracuse 1961; Sayre & Kaufman 1960), on the whole, behavioral research in the public administrative process lies dormant.

Community political behavior

Active political behavior research in the context of the local community revived the old struggle between monistic and pluralistic conceptions of power in society and government. Stimulated by Floyd Hunter’s Community Power Structure (1953), political scientists, equally dissatisfied with his theoretical premises and research procedures, descended into the local community and made it, more than any other political arena, a testing ground of theoretical propositions of a generic character about the bases, scopes, and relations of power (Banfield 1961; Dahl 1961a; Polsby 1963; Agger et al. 1964). The pluralists challenged the work of the monists, but they did not succeed in explaining how, in a plural order, diverse sets of power holders are coordinated and integrated into a functioning whole. This is clearly a next step in behavioral research on the local community.

International political behavior

Behavioral research in the field of international relations—i.e., the behavior of states in interaction rather than foreign policy making—presents many technical problems. Until the middle 1960s most of the work has been theoretical rather than empirical, indicative of the paradox that there seems to be an inverse relationship between theorizing as an independently creative activity and the empirical accessibility of the phenomena theorized about (Rosenau 1961; Kelman 1965; Singer 1965). Research along behavioral lines continues to rely on indirect evidence, produced by techniques such as content analysis, simulation, and the exploitation of aggregate data [seeInternational relations].

Inventory—ranges of theory

Institutional classification of political behavior analysis ignores the theoretical concerns at the core of scientific inquiry. A second classification would locate political behavior research in terms of either specific organizing concepts or the broader conceptual schemes that give it direction. Such a classification cuts across specific institutional arenas and has the advantage of being immediately useful in the further development of political theory.

Political behavior analysis has produced or used a variety of conceptual approaches. While none of them has as yet culminated in a general theory of politics in a formal sense, all of them provide conceptual tools out of which more formal theories of empirical relevance might be constructed. Present approaches seem to fall into two major types. First, there are those which seek to build theoretical formulations around a single central concept, such as group, power, decision, or conflict. Second, there are those which proceed from comprehensive formulations of high generality, such as system, field, process, or communication. In these approaches the task of theorizing seems to consist in filling a formal scheme with conceptual content of political relevance.

Both types of approach involve serious theoretical difficulties. Given the complexity of political phenomena, the efforts to build theories on a single central organizing concept are often unsatisfactory because they either explain too little or, paradoxically, pretend to explain much more than is actually explained. On the other hand, holistic approaches are often unsatisfactory because they really explain less than should be explained. Fortunately, in most empirical research on political behavior the dilemmas of theory are overcome by the good sense of scholars facing concrete research problems.

Most theorizing about politics in the context of behavioral research proceeds, in rather catholic and eclectic fashion, from a range of problems where self-consciously theoretical formulations, whether of the unitary or systematic type, and operational necessities can fruitfully meet to extend the margins of political knowledge. Theoretical development in political behavior analysis over the next few decades is likely to follow the course charted in the past, although increased theoretical sophistication, methodological refinement, and technical skills on the part of behavioral practitioners are also likely to open up new research directions.

System analysis

Of the different organizing schemes used in political behavior analysis, system notions, first promoted in political science by David Easton (1953; 1957), are only sparingly used in empirical research. While the system model provides a conceptual scheme broad enough to subsume most other formulations, and while, in the form of input-conversion-output-feedback analysis, it permits meaningful ordering of variables, the complexity of the model requires the production of so many kinds of data that any one piece of empirical research is likely to fall short of theoretical requirements. While the model has been used in macro analyses (Almond & Coleman 1960; Mitchell 1962), little empirical work using the model has been done on the micro level of analysis. [But see the work on legislatures by Wahlke et al. 1962; and Fenno 1962; see alsoSystems analysis, article Onpolitical systems.]

Group approach

The older work, stemming from Bentley (1908) and summarized by Truman (1951), was mainly concerned with interest or pressure groups as the effective actors on the political scene, and the interaction of groups was thought to constitute the political process. Political behavior research of more recent vintage, following a suggestive discussion by Garceau (1951), is more likely to think of the group as an agency that intervenes between the individual and the institutional tension points of the political system, where decisions are made. In this research, the group is mainly conceived of as a source of orientations and attitudes in individual behavior; it may also be treated as a system of action which, on the micro level of analysis, is a replica of larger political systems. Recent theoretical work on small groups (Verba 1961; Golembiewski 1962) shows that little empirical work in the field of politics has so far been produced [seePolitical group analysis].

Decision-making analysis

In spite of a great deal of theoretical discussion, especially in the arenas of international and private-organization decision making, behavioral-empirical research has been unable to make much use of decision-making models in a systematic fashion. The notion of decision as the problematic focus of analysis has directed research attention to decision makers’ attributes and the premises underlying their actions. But contextual and situational factors have eluded systematic analysis. With a few exceptions (Snyder & Paige 1958; Dahl 1957a), decision-making models in all their complexity have not been applied in political behavior research. Nevertheless, the possibility of breaking down the decision-making process into component parts that can be examined without necessary reference to the total process promises empirically testable research propositions [seeDecision making].


Communication models to analyze political processes—in contrast to the study of communication as a social process in its own right—have only recently been used in political behavior research, and so far not with satisfactory results [seeCommunication, political]. That communication as a concrete process is a critical variable affecting political processes and outcomes is clear enough, but as a model, the communication process seems more appropriate in analyzing macro political phenomena (Deutsch 1953; 1963) than individual political behavior (Milbrath 1963). One of the difficulties with communication models on the level of individual political behavior is that, precisely because communication is a universal component of all social relations, a communication model is likely to be a rather weak conceptual tool for explaining highly specific political processes.

Power analysis

Though no concept has been more central in political analysis than power and though no concept is more easily apprehended by common sense, its utility as a tool of behavioral research seems to be limited—not only because of definitional difficulties but also because of operational obstacles. Students of political behavior find it relatively easy to identify the bases of power or the scope of power (Lasswell & Kaplan 1950), but power relationships are extraordinarily difficult to identify and even more difficult to measure (Dahl 1957b). As a result, power is rapidly losing ground from the point of view of its operational, if not analytical, utility. Attempts to use the concept have been made in community and legislative behavior research, but the more research there is, the more elusive the concept of power appears to be [seePower].

Role analysis

An increasing number of political behavior studies utilize concepts borrowed from sociological or social-psychological formulations of social role [seeRole]. Of course, role analysis and whatever problems it is focused on—role conflict, role consensus, role structures, and so on—do not stand by themselves. Role analysis is likely to be combined with other theoretical notions, such as those of system, decision making, or power, and is most useful in structural-functional approaches to the political process (Almond & Coleman 1960; Wahlke et al. 1962; Barber 1965). It promises to be especially useful in closing the gap between macro analysis and micro analysis of politics (Eulau 1963).

Inventory—state of methods and techniques

Political behavior analysis has made very few original and independent contributions to research techniques and practically none to methodology. Rather, it has borrowed heavily from the other behavioral sciences, with the result that behavioral research on politics has generally lagged behind substantive discoveries in cognate fields. Interestingly, some of the most valuable research techniques that political behavior analysis can claim as its own were pioneered in the pre-World War II era, before the impact of the technological revolution in the behavioral sciences was felt in political science. The analysis of legislative roll calls by way of simple measures of likeness and cohesion (Rice 1928), content analysis of mass communication media (Lasswell 1927), and cluster-bloc analysis (Beyle 1931) are examples of creatively original technical innovations in the study of politics in the earlier period. Of course, other techniques were used as well by a handful of scholars, such as field interviewing, the mail questionnaire, punch-card data processing (Merriam & Gosnell 1924), the controlled field experiment (Gosnell 1927), and the sample survey (C. Robinson 1932), but concern with methodology has not been a hallmark of political inquiry until fairly recently.

It is now recognized that political behavior research is necessarily facilitated or impeded by the state of methodological sophistication and technical know-how at a given time. Especially needed today is a corps of trained and skilled research workers who are able to use, and recognize the limitations of, the modern methods. While the training of research workers improved in the years after World War II, it is still generally deficient in view of the rapidity of technological development, especially in comparison with the training given in neighboring disciplines.

It is true, of course, that concern with methods tends to direct research attention to areas of inquiry where data can be most readily harvested, processed, packaged, and distributed. As already mentioned, political behavior was for some time primarily identified with voting behavior, largely because of the ready availability of aggregated election returns in many jurisdictions. But it was the development of the random sample survey and the use of panels—especially in the Erie County study of 1940 (Lazarsfeld et al. 1944), in the study of Elmira, N.Y. (Berelson et al. 1954), and in studies of presidential elections in the United States by the Survey Research Center, University of Michigan (Campbell et al. 1954; Michigan, University of 1960) that made possible the analysis of mass political behavior on the level of the individual person. The success of systematic interviewing in the study of voting and public opinion gradually encouraged researchers to employ these techniques in the study of institutionalized populations, like legislatures, bureaucracies, or courts, which are of special interest to the political scientist. The use of the interview in institutionalized groups in turn helped close the gap between behavioral and institutional analysis and made possible much more carefully controlled comparative study of formal governmental structures (Wahlke et al. 1962).

Methodological development as a requisite of empirical inquiry is especially critical in a field like international relations where direct observation of political behavior on the level of group or individual is extraordinarily difficult. Nevertheless, recent efforts suggest future possibilities. Noteworthy are the application of the technique of the semantic differential and computer programming in the content analysis of state papers (North et al. 1963), the simulation of international behavior in laboratory decision-making groups and computer gaming (Guetzkow et al. 1963; Brody 1963), and the construction and exploitation of aggregate indicators of state behavior for the purpose of linking internal and external aspects of politics (Deutsch 1960).


In the third quarter of the twentieth century numerous problems of an empirical, theoretical, and methodological nature continue to limit the promises and prospects of a behavioral science of politics. Many of these problems are shared by the behavioral sciences generally. But some, it seems, stem from the character of politics as a particular mode of human action; even if these problems are not peculiar to politics, they are especially troublesome in the study of that particular field.

The problem of theory

It is an ideal of science that theoretical explanation should remain within a system of definitions, axioms, theorems, and postulates. Yet at the present stage of development no single theory of politics seems adequate to cope with all the problems encountered in political research. In the task of testing theoretically derived propositions the researcher is certainly free to ignore data that do not seem to be immediately appropriate. However, if the purpose of research is to describe, predict, and explain political behavior in the real world, there is an irresistible strain toward departure from theoretical purity and toward adoption of concepts and categories of analysis alien to initial theoretical formulation. Such departure from theoretical consistency tends to make disproof of hypotheses impossible or extremely difficult. Yet to limit research to only those occurrences that can be accounted for by a single theory would tend to rigidify political behavior research and obstruct its usefulness in the creation of new knowledge about politics. It is for this reason, probably, that political behavior analysis will continue to be, for some time to come, catholic and eclectic.

The macro–micro problem

Although concrete political action is invariably the behavior of individual human actors, the politically significant units of action are groups, associations, organizations, communities, states, and other collectivities. While referring to the “behavior” of such collectivities is readily recognized as necessary shorthand, the problem of how meaningful statements about collectivities can be made on the basis of inquiry into the behavior of individual political actors remains. The problem involves constructing, not only theoretically but also empirically, the chain of interactions and transactions that links the individual actor to the collectivities of which he is a part. In trying to solve the problem, a number of fallacies are possible. For instance, there is the fallacy of extrapolation from micro to macro phenomena. Small units are treated as analogues of large ones, and the findings on the micro level are extended to the macro level. There is the fallacy of personification: large-scale phenomena are reduced to the individual level through the use of anthropomorphic categories of analysis, as in the more grotesque descriptions of “national character.” Or there is the fallacy of misplaced concreteness: interactional and relational phenomena are reified and treated as if they were physical entities.

The problem of observation

Even at the least complex level, that of the individual, a great deal of political behavior is private, and at the most complex levels it is deliberately secret. Direct observation—whether of the citizen in the voting booth or the diplomat in interstate negotiations or the top-level decision maker at the apex of a political structure—is impossible. Moreover, there is likely to be an inverse relation between an actor’s importance in the political system and his accessibility to research. As a result, the data of political behavior analysis are to a large degree secondary and phenomenological, creating problems of accuracy and validity that are difficult to handle. Even where political behavior is relatively open and public, as in deliberative bodies in democracies, the large number of actors constituting the collectivity whose behavior must be observed tends to defy direct observation, necessitating reliance on interviews. For both of these reasons—the paradox of privacy in presumably public action and the complexity of the action systems of interest to the observer of politics—political behavior analysis continues to rely largely either on inferences drawn from what political actors are willing to reveal or on inferences drawn from observable stimuli or from consequences of political actions.

The problem of aggregation

Problems also arise out of the relationship between discrete and aggregate data. What may be true of aggregates need not be true of the individuals who compose them. Generalizations from aggregate data have been found untenable when tested against information about the behavior and attitudes of individuals (Miller 1955/1956). In other words, the use of aggregated data is likely to conceal a good deal of the variance in the behavior of individuals, which the use of discrete data reveals. Yet aggregate data are often the only kind of behavioral data that are available. On the other hand, even if individual data are available and aggregated so that statements about collectivities can be made, such aggregation may still do violence to findings about individual behavior. Aggregation has, of course, the advantage of showing what variance remains to be explained. But what is meant empirically by a group’s loyalty, a party’s cohesion, or an organization’s morale has not been answered. It is seldom clear whether such conceptions refer to a “group property” that is independent of the behavior of the individuals composing a group or to the aggregated characteristics of individuals.

The intensity–extensity problem

Political behavior research is also challenged by the gap between intensive case studies and more extensive, systematic analysis. A number of questions arise. Although there are many case studies of political behavior in all substantive fields of political science, the grounds on which the cases are selected are usually obscure. In other words, the assumptions of random sampling in the selection of cases are not met, with resultant difficulties for either the typicality or significance of findings. The researcher’s substantive interests or convenience seem to be the guiding criteria. Most case studies deal with exciting, spectacular, and perhaps critical situations rather than with more modal ones. Moreover, few case studies are cast in a theoretical framework that is geared to the problem of cumulative knowledge. Finally, although case studies are said to be rich sources of hypotheses for future systematic research, few follow-up studies are ever made (for an exception, see J. Robinson 1962). How can the relatively few but intensively studied cases be integrated into systematic research? That question remains on the agenda of future work in political behavior analysis.

The problem of comparability

The accumulation of political behavior research makes sense only if, in due time, different studies of a systematic nature can be compared. Yet such comparability is difficult to achieve because indexes used by different researchers are often ambiguous and unstable. Because either conceptual or empirical equivalence between indicators is lacking, it is questionable just what it is that is being compared. Comparison, as a result, does not differ very much from the common-sense comparison of the layman. Comparative analysis has largely failed to remove from undisciplined and possibly arbitrary determination of similarities and differences those elements that are either irrelevant to comparison or perhaps even spurious. Moreover, comparison has not been systematic in the selection and control of the data from which inferences about the existence of uniformities and regularities are to be made. Agreement among analysts about the indicators that are to be used for specific concepts and about which controls and what degree of control should be minimally required is a desideratum of political behavior analysis that is yet to be attained.

The problem of change

Most political behavior research is cross-sectional, dealing with the actions of individuals, collectivities, or aggregates at one point in time or over a relatively short period. As a result, most political behavior research has been ahistorical, the justification often being that the discovery of functional rather than causal relations is the objective of inquiry. But avoidance of the causal challenge does not solve the problem of studying change through time. It is, of course, possible to compare the behavior of cross sections or individuals through time and venture inferences about change from such comparison. But the method is unsatisfactory because changes may be in opposite directions and compensatory, making only for marginal results that indicate little or no change. Furthermore, if the time span is short, as it often is, it is likely to reflect a sequence of possibly “unique” events and make for spurious inferences about causation. The dilemma of studying change through time must ultimately be solved by longitudinal studies. Longitudinal research on political behavior, using the individual as the unit of analysis, is probably the most dependable technique of studying the process of cause and effect, for it permits description of the direction, degree, rate, and character of political change.

These are only some of the problems facing political behavior analysis. To point them up is hardly a sign of the weakness of the discipline. Rather, it is a precondition of scientific growth and development.


The emergence of political behavior analysis occasioned a number of controversies in political science as a whole. Some of these disputes stemmed from personal misunderstanding or distrust, but others centered on fundamental disagreements over the nature and functions of a science of politics in society. Quite often, controversies deriving from irreconcilable premises, on the one hand, and those based on misunderstanding, on the other hand, were confused, making for uneasy coalitions among opponents and proponents of the new trends. Charges and countercharges tended to deepen rather than resolve often fictitious cleavages (Charlesworth 1962).

That political behavior analysts spoke in a language strange to the ears of more traditional scholars was certainly one source of suspicion. Other sources of difficulty were that political behavior analysts seemed happy with using in their research what traditionalists considered “gadgets” and “gimmicks”; that they seemed to be dealing in trivialities; that they sometimes exhibited a lack of respect for conventional scholarship; and that they turned their backs on problems of value and prescription. In some respects, all of these charges contained elements of truth, although from the perspective of the behavioralists they were largely made for the wrong reasons.

On the other hand, proponents of behavioral analysis were critical of the mainstream of political science and its major tributaries because the discipline did not seem to measure up to the requirements of a genuine science of politics (Easton 1953). Traditional political scientists were charged with hopelessly confusing statements of fact and statements of value; grossly neglecting the subtle problems that beset the move from evidence to inference; dealing in global statements for which there was only flimsy proof at best; advocating reforms and proposing policies that pretended to be based on knowledge where there was little or none; using concepts that were immune to research operations; or indulging in tautological explanations or armchair speculations.

This type of mutual harassment has largely disappeared in the middle 1960s. Rather than criticizing traditional scholarship, political behavior analysts are devoting their energies to the research tasks at hand. In particular, the largely fictitious gap between behavioral and institutional analysis separating empiricists has been closed (Ranney 1962). Analysts of both institutions and public policies have come to appreciate the utility of behavioral research for their own concerns. One could conclude that the mainstream of political science has been successfully channeled in a direction that accepts different emphases—institutional, behavioral, legal, and historical—as mutually complementary rather than divergent. Increasing sophistication about the relationship between empirical research of all kinds and the problems of public policy has reconciled both the science-oriented and the policy-oriented students of the political process [seePolicy sciences]. Behavioral analysis has become self-consciously theoretical, and theoreticians have become increasingly aware of their responsibility to make their work empirically relevant. Resolute resistance to political behavior analysis as one mode of inquiry in political science is now largely restricted to a small group of theorists who believe that all important political questions can be answered only by insight into and deduction from philosophical premises involving some conception of “the nature of political man” (Storing 1962).

There remain, of course, disagreements within the camp of political behavioralists, but these disagreements relate to problems of strategy and tactics in theory and research rather than to fundamental questions of knowledge. There are those who would start with the accumulation of raw facts and let the facts speak for themselves. There are those, at the other extreme, who believe that political behavior analysis will not get off the ground unless it begins with rigorous deductive-logical, if not mathematical, models of political systems and processes. By far the largest contingent among political behavioralists begins with somewhat less rigorous theoretical formulations of problems in the real world of politics and lets theoretical and empirical work fertilize each other. In general, whether favoring the inductive or the deductive theoretical outlook, most political behavior analysts agree that theory is not knowledge but only a tool for gaining knowledge, just as facts are not knowledge but only raw materials that must be translated into statements acceptable as probably true because they have been tested in the crucible of empirical research.

Heinz Eulau

[See alsoPolitical science.]


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Political Behavior

views updated May 08 2018


Older people generally resemble young and middle-aged adults in their political attitudes, partisan attachments, and behavior. There are more differences within age groups than between them. When age group differences do appear, they may reflect common traits and interests developed through the life-course processes of aging; or they may originate in the historical circumstances affecting a particular birth cohort; or, they may arise from social trends and events that affect all people during specific historical periods. Disentangling these life-course, cohort, and period effects in order to explain age group differences is difficult. Sometimes, all three types of these phenomena may be at work.

Political attitudes and orientations

People of all ages are deeply divided in their ideological and partisan orientations, but these divisions do not tend to pit older and younger people against each other. Although older people are commonly thought to be more conservative than younger people, most of the evidence refutes this notion. Studies in the United States and cross-nationally generally conclude that age group differences in political values are due primarily to cultural and environmental conditions affecting a cohort's socialization, and not to universal life-course changes.

Stability in political attitudes and orientations generally increases with age, and affiliation with a political party tends to remain firm throughout life. The distribution of partisan loyalties within a cohort of young adults generally persists as the cohort moves into old age. The historical circumstances present as a cohort becomes of voting age, coupled with partisan preferences that individuals acquire from their parents, primarily determine that partisan distribution.

Moreover, many older persons tend to have stronger or more intense partisan attachments than individuals in younger age groups (MacManus). A long-standing life-course hypothesis is that the longer individuals identify with a party, the stronger their partisanship. Yet, the relative strength of partisan attachment observed among the elderly in recent decades may be due to cohort effects rather than life-course phenomena. The baby boom cohort in the United States is less identified with the major political parties than preceding cohorts at comparable ages, and this is even more the case among postbaby boom cohorts (Alwin).

Voting behavior

Older people vote at higher rates than people in younger age groups. Studies of voting participation over several decades have shown that voter turnout is lowest among young adults, increases rapidly up to ages thirty-five to forty-five, and then continues to increase (more slowly), declining only slightly after the age of seventy or eighty in the United States (Miller and Shanks), and at somewhat younger ages in other industrial nations (e.g., see Myers and Agree). Consequently, the percentage of the total vote cast by older people in elections is greater than their proportion of the voting-age population. In the 1996 U.S. presidential election, for example, people age sixty-five and older made up 16.5 percent of the voting age population, but cast 20.3 percent of the vote; the turnout rates were 32 percent among those age eighteen to twenty-four, 49 percent among those age twenty-five and forty-four, 64 percent among those age forty-five to sixty-four, and 68 percent among those sixty-five years and older (Binstock, 2000).

Why do older people turn out to vote at higher rates than middle-aged and younger people? Although the connection between age and voting participation has been investigated a great deal, overall the reasons for this relationship remain a source of controversy. Alternative explanations for age group differences in turnout have helped to define the issues, but they have not resolved them.

Some scholars (e.g., Miller and Shanks) hypothesize that the relatively high voting rate of older Americans during the past several decades can be attributed to the movement of successive birth cohorts through the life course. They focus on the contrasting participation rates of the cohort that was first socialized to U.S. politics during the New Deal, and subsequent cohorts whose political attitudes and behavior have been shaped by the effects of historical periods and specific political events that they have lived through (e.g., Vietnam and Watergate) at different ages. Supporting this view is the fact that during these decades the rates of age-group participation have been dynamic, not static, as the various cohorts have entered different stages of the life course. From the 1972 election through the 1996 election, the participation rate of persons age sixty-five and older increased by 6.5 percent, while the rates for all other age groups declinedby 9 percent for those forty-five to sixty-four, 21.5 percent for those twenty-five to forty-four, and 34.7 percent for those eighteen to twenty-four years old (Binstock, 2000). But other analysts (e.g., Rosenstone and Hansen; Teixera) suggest that the contribution of cohort replacement to voting turnout rates may be overestimated. Moreover, a study of voting turnout in Sweden and Germany over four decades found age-group differences to be similar to those in the United States, despite the fact that cohorts in these three nations experienced different political events distinctive to their respective countries (Myers and Agree).

The alternative explanation is that age group differences in voting participation are attributable to life-course effects that correspond to changing characteristics, needs, and incentives of people as they grow older. One contributing factor is that interest in politics (as well as knowledge about it) increases with age and declines only slightly at advanced old ages (Strate, Parrish, Elder, and Ford; also see MacManus). Another contributing factor to the higher voting rate of older personsrelated to interest in and knowledge about politicsis age-group differences in voting registration, an essential precursor to voting. Persons who are comparatively well informed about politics and public affairs are more likely to register and vote (Flanigan and Zingale). A study of voter registration and turnout in U.S. national elections (Timpone) found that increased age (from age eighteen to eighty-eight) is monotonically related to being registered and that another aging-related factor, length of residence in one's own home, also has a substantial influence. An additional explanation for the relatively high voting rates of older people is that as they reach old age they have more of a personal stake in government programs, such as Social Security, that provide old-age benefits. Still another contributing factor is the relatively strong partisan attachments of older people (discussed above), because there is a well-established connection between the strength of political party identification and higher rates of voting (Flanigan and Zingale; Rosenstone and Hansen).

Although older people vote at a high rate, they are as diverse in their voting decisions as any other age group, despite the frequent efforts of political candidates to sway them with campaign issues focused on government old-age programs. The votes of older people generally divide along the same partisan, economic, social, gender, and other lines as those of the electorate at large. Accordingly, the various cohorts of older Americans during the past fifty years, for example, have tended to distribute their votes among presidential candidates in roughly the same proportions as other age groups do; exit polls show sharp divisions within each age group, and very small differences between age groups (see Campbell and Strate; Binstock, 1997a). A great deal of empirical evidence indicates that the situation is similar throughout Europe (Walker and Naegele). One exception to this general pattern in the United States is that older partisans are less likely than younger ones to abandon their political party to vote for an independent candidate (Flanigan and Zingale) because of their comparatively stronger attachment to their parties than younger age groups. This tendency was clear in the 1980, 1992, 1996, and 2000 U.S. presidential elections, in which an independent received more than a negligible percentage of votes. The older the age group, the less heavily it voted for the independent candidate (Connelly).

Organized political action

In the second half of the twentieth century, developed nations throughout the world witnessed the establishment of old-age-based political organizations, and a tremendous expansion in their number, the size of their memberships, and their visibility. These have been stable and enduring organizations, and some of them have substantial bureaucracies, in contrast, for example, with occasional ad hoc U.S. groups and movements that sought government income assistance for older Americans prior to the passage of the Social Security Act of 1935. In the United States alone, there are over one hundred national organizations focused on aging policies and concerns, sometimes referred to as the "gray lobby." These include mass membership groups representing older people in general or subgroups of the elderly, single-issue advocacy groups, and organizations of professionals and service providers (see Day; Van Tassel and Meyer). Although the United States has probably seen the largest number of older people organized into the most numerous and diverse array of such groups, aging-based political organizations have also emerged in Australia (Kendig and McCallum), Canada (Gifford), Japan (Campbell), and throughout Europe (Walker and Naegele).

The proliferation of stable old-age political organizations can be traced to several factors. First, the existence of policies on aging, in itself, tends to create old-age-based political organizations and action (Hudson). The expansion of old-age benefits that took place following World War II gave the elderly and those who serve them a substantial stake in protecting what they had gained. In the United States, for instance, perceptions that old-age benefit programs were in financial and political jeopardy in the late 1970s and early 1980s led directly to the formation of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) and a broad coalition of old-age-based organizations, Save Our Security. Second, grants and contracts from government agencies, as well as foundations, have propelled the growth of existing interest groups and the emergence of new ones. And third, the stability and growth of these organizations have been effectively promoted by a variety of incentives that attract members and maintain political legitimacy.

Clark and Wilson's incentive systems theory of organizationsdistinguishing among material, associational or solidary, and purposive incentives (which may overlap within a given organization)provides a useful framework for distinguishing among types of old-age organizations. Among U.S. organizations that are primarily characterized by purposive incentives are NCPSSM and the United Seniors Association; a number of organizations focused on improving the status of elderly minority group members (e.g., the National Hispanic Council on Aging); trade associations of service-providers to older people (e.g., the National Association of Nutrition and Aging Services Providers); and the Alliance for Retired Americans, the Older Women's League, and the National Association of Retired Federal Employees.

The archetype of an old-age interest group that has been maintained and has grown primarily through material incentives that attract mass memberships is AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons). For a $10 enrollment fee it provides publications, drug and travel discounts, assistance in filing taxes, and driver training programs, and offers its members insurance programs, investment funds, and a variety of other "affinity" products. With these incentives it achieved a membership of about 36 million and total revenues of $485 million in 1999 (AARP), and it is currently promoting membership enrollment internationally. AARP also provides associational incentives in the form of local chapters, but only 3 percent of the membership is involved in them (Day). In addition, it expends about 11 percent of its revenue on lobbying and public policy research (AARP). But the staff and volunteer leaders have long recognized that the organization's large membership is inherently diverse in political views. They try to avoid taking stands on what they regard as relatively divisive issues and, for example, have been largely inattentive to the needs of the poorest and most disadvantage elderly. Nonetheless, on several occasions in recent years the leadership's issues positions have generated angry dissent from members and substantial resignations (Binstock, 1997b).

Even as no one organization can fully represent the diversity of the elderly, the groups themselves are diverse in terms of constituencies, tactics, decision-making procedures, and are often divided on old-age policy issues. Coalition building, like that exemplified by the forty-organization Leadership Council of Aging Organizations in the United States, has been a political strategy for these organizations to help them cope, somewhat, with the problems of diversity. Yet the effectiveness of these coalitions tends to be limited because they often have internal divisions on a number of important issues (Day).

What has been the impact of old-age based organizations in bringing issues to the agenda and influencing their outcomes? Although there is no credible evidence of old-age voting blocs or voting cohesion in the United States, the mass membership groups, in particular, do have some role in the policy process. Public officials find it both useful and incumbent upon them to invite such organizations to participate in policy activities. In this way public officials are provided with a ready means of having been "in touch" with tens of millions of older persons, thereby legitimizing subsequent policy actions and inactions. This also symbolically legitimizes the old-age organizations and gives them several types of power. First, they have easy informal access to public officials and their staffs. Second, they are able to obtain public platforms in the national media, congressional hearings, and national conferences and commissions dealing with old-age policy issues. Third, the mass membership groups can mobilize their members in large numbers to contact policymakers and register displeasure when changes are being contemplated in old-age programs. Fourth, and perhaps the most important form of power available to the old-age groups is the "electoral bluff." Although these organizations have not demonstrated a capacity to swing a decisive bloc of older voters, the perception of being powerful is a source of political influence. Incumbent members of Congress are hardly inclined to risk upsetting the existing distribution of votes that puts them and keeps them in office by calling the bluff of the elderly or any other latent mass constituency.

Nonetheless, these forms of power have been quite limited in their impact. The old-age interest groups have had little to do with the enactment and amendment of major old-age policies such as Social Security. Rather, such actions have been largely attributable to the initiatives of public officials who were focused on their own agendas for social and economic policy. Support in Congress for old-age benefits has been linked more to perceptions of need and deservingness than to group or constituency pressures (see Cook and Barrett). The power of old-age interest groups has been largely defensive, aimed at protecting existing programs. Even so, these organizations have not been able to prevent significant (though not radical) policy reforms that have been perceived to be adverse to the interests of an artificially homogenized constituency of "the elderly" (see Binstock, 1994; Day).

Robert H. Binstock

See also Cohort Change; Consumer Organizations in Aging; Generational Equity; Gerontocracy.


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political behaviour

views updated May 14 2018

political behaviour The term refers to any form of (individual or collective) involvement in the political process, or any activity which has political consequences in relation to government and policy. This broad definition embraces both legitimate forms of political participation (such as voting in elections, activism in interest groups, or social movements) and illegitimate political activities (including coups d'état, terrorism, and revolutions (see REBELLIONS)). While formal participation aims at containing social conflict within the extant political system, so that the political order remains stable, dissent which cannot be channelled via existing political structures is likely, not only to pursue changes in policy, but also to challenge the political order itself. The study of political behaviour also embraces the study of inactivity and apathy, as well as the analysis of political ideologies, values, and attitudes as the basis of participation and non-participation in the political sphere.

behaviour, political

views updated Jun 11 2018

behaviour, political See POLITICAL BEHAVIOUR.