Political Culture

views updated Jun 08 2018

Political Culture

Political culture and socialization

The content of political cultures

The future of a theory of political culture


Political culture is the set of attitudes, beliefs, and sentiments which give order and meaning to a political process and which provide the underlying assumptions and rules that govern behavior in the political system. It encompasses both the political ideals and the operating norms of a polity. Political culture is thus the manifestation in aggregate form of the psychological and subjective dimensions of politics. A political culture is the product of both the collective history of a political system and the life histories of the members of that system, and thus it is rooted equally in public events and private experiences.

Political culture is a recent term which seeks to make more explicit and systematic much of the understanding associated with such long-standing concepts as political ideology, national ethos and spirit, national political psychology, and the fundamental values of a people. Political culture, by embracing the political orientations of both leaders and citizens, is more inclusive than such terms as political style or operational code, which focus on elite behavior. On the other hand, the term is more explicitly political and hence more restrictive than such concepts as public opinion and national character.

The concept of political culture can be seen as a natural evolution in the growth of the behavioral approach in political analysis, for it represents an attempt to apply to problems of aggregate or systemic analysis the kinds of insights and knowledge which were developed initially by studying the political behavior of individuals and small groups. [SeePolitical behavior.]

More specifically, the concept of political culture was developed in response to the need to bridge a growing gap in the behavioral approach between the level of microanalysis, based on the psychological interpretations of the individual’s political behavior, and the level of macroanalysis, based on the variables common to political sociology. In this sense the concept constitutes an attempt to integrate psychology and sociology so as to be able to apply to dynamic political analysis both the revolutionary findings of modern depth psychology and recent advances in sociological techniques for measuring attitudes in mass societies. Within the discipline of political science, the emphasis on political culture signals an effort to apply an essentially behavioral form of analysis to the study of such traditional problems as political ideology, legitimacy, sovereignty, nationhood, and the rule of law. (For a theoretical analysis of the concept see Verba in Pye & Verba 1965, pp. 512–560.)

Political culture and socialization

Intellectual curiosity about the roots of national differences in politics dates from the writing of Herodotus, and possibly no recent studies have achieved the richness of understanding of such classic studies of national temperament as those by Tocqueville, Bryce, and Emerson. But the dynamic intellectual tradition which inspired political culture studies comes almost entirely from the studies of national character and the psychocultural analyses of the 1930s and 1940s. Benedict (1934; 1946), Mead (1942; 1953), Gorer (1948; 1953; 1955), Fromm (1941), and Klineberg (1950) all sought to utilize the findings of psychoanalysis and cultural anthropology to provide deeper understanding of national political behavior. A major objection to these studies was their failure to recognize that the political sphere constitutes a distinct subculture with its own rules of conduct and its distinct processes of socialization. The practice of moving directly from the stage of child training to the level of national decision making meant that crucial intervening processes were neglected.

Stages of socialization

The notion of political culture seeks to retain the psychological subtleties of the earlier national character studies while giving appropriate attention to the distinctive features of the political sphere and to the intervening stages of personality development between childhood and induction into adult political life. This is achieved by conceiving of two stages of socialization; the first is the induction into the general culture, while the second is the more particular, and usually more explicit, socialization to political life. In some forms of analysis it is useful to distinguish an additional stage, political recruitment to special roles within the political process. These stages are not necessarily sequential; explicit political socialization can occur at a very early point, when the individual is still being socialized into his general culture.

Basic to the analysis of political cultures is the investigation of the relationships between the various stages of socialization and between the final political socialization process and the dominant patterns of behavior in the political culture. In some systems there is a fundamental congruence between the content of the various socialization processes and the existing political culture. Such congruences existed historically in the traditional political cultures of Japan, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Turkey (see Ward, pp. 27–82; Binder, pp. 396–449; Levine, pp. 245–281; Rustow, pp. 171–198 in Pye & Verba 1965). In such systems the values and attitudes internalized during the general socialization process are consistent with and reinforced by the attitudes and values stressed in the process of more explicitly political socialization; and the combined socialization processes tend in turn to support and reinforce the current political culture. Under such conditions the prospects are for the continued existence of a coherent and relatively stable political culture.

It is, however, also possible to distinguish various kinds of tensions and instabilities in political cultures according to the types of contradictions and inconsistencies in the socialization processes and between these processes and the requirements of the political system. The most dramatic examples of such contradictions are to be found in revolutionary systems in which the elite political culture is either shaped by a highly explicit and unculture-bound ideology or is the product of an exogenous historical experience such as colonialism.

In some societies the primary process of socialization tends to provide people with a strongly optimistic view of life and a deep sense of basic trust in human relations, while the later stages of political socialization emphasize cynicism and suspicion of political actors. As a result, the political culture is characterized by a critical and contemptuous view of existing political practices but is also colored by a strong Utopian faith that reform can ultimately remedy the existing situation. Thus cynicism is balanced by the expectation that reforms are worth seeking. This appears to have been the character of the cynicism which inspired the muckraking tradition in American politics. The same dynamics seem to be at work in the Philippines political culture (Grossholtz 1964). In other societies distrust of contemporary political institutions and personages is preceded by an earlier socialization process which instills a sense of fundamental distrust and suspicion, with the result that people have little faith in reformist solutions and feel that political improvement requires cataclysmic changes. Burma provides an example of this process (see Conference … 1963).

Continuity and discontinuity

Problems of continuity and discontinuity also require analysis of the relations between socialization and the political culture. Historical events within the political system may demand changes in the political culture which are inconsistent with either past or present socialization processes. In all dynamic political systems, tensions are possible because the socialization process cannot change as rapidly as the political process. This problem becomes profoundly acute when there is a sudden change in the international status of a society, for instance, when a colony gains independence. One of the basic sources of instability and ineffectualness in many newly developing countries lies precisely in the differences between the emphasis of the socialization processes which produced the various strata of the contemporary society and the attitudes necessary for operating a national political process.

Socializing agents

In shaping the political culture the political socialization process operates in terms of various socializing agents. Some of these agents, such as the family, tend to be prominent at the early phases of the socialization process, and thus their influences are most closely related to personality characteristics fundamental to the political culture. Other socializing agents, such as the mass media and political parties, tend to become critical at later stages and thus are primarily involved in influencing the more cognitive aspects of the political culture.

Much current research on different political cultures has sought to determine the relative importance of different kinds of socializing agents in shaping different aspects of the political culture and, thus, in evaluating the links between the sociological structure of the society and the political process. The family, for example, according to Hyman (1959), is peculiarly potent in the United States in determining party loyalties, while formal education, according to Almond and Verba (1963) is most vital in producing commitment to democratic values. In studies of the transitional political systems of the underdeveloped countries, it has become apparent that the intensely politicized nature of these societies is often the result of the dominant role of partisan as against nonpartisan or constitutional agents of socialization. It is noteworthy that the trend toward one-party systems in sub-Sahara Africa is closely associated with the fact that nationalist parties were the only strong agency for socializing most of the newly politically conscious masses (Hanna 1964). When nonpartisan or politically neutral socializing agents are weak, social life tends to become highly politicized, and little appreciation is likely to exist for such fundamental constitutional institutions as an impartial bureaucracy and the rule of law. Studies of the process of nation building in societies in which the mass media are weak and cannot provide an objective view of national events suggests that constitutional development cannot become readily institutionalized under such conditions (see Conference … 1963; Schramm 1964). This relationship between the socialization process and the ensuing political culture explains some basic difficulties in creating national institutions in countries where popular political consciousness was inspired by highly partisan and ideologically oriented independence movements.

Elite and mass subcultures

In all societies there are inevitably some differences between the political orientations of those who have responsibility for decisions and those who are only observers or participating citizens. A national political culture thus consists of both an elite subculture and a mass subculture, and the relationship between the two is another critical factor determining the performance of the political system. The relationship determines such crucial matters as the basis of legitimacy of government, the freedom and limitations of leadership, the limits of political mobilization, and the possibilities for orderly transfers of power.

Mass subcultures are rarely homogeneous, for there are usually significant differences between the politically attentive strata of the society and the elements who are little concerned with politics. In some cases the mass political culture is highly heterogeneous and sharp differences exist according to region, social and economic class, or ethnic community. In such cases, the pattern of relationships among the various subcultures becomes a crucial factor in describing the mass political culture.

In analyzing the extent to which the elite and mass subcultures contain complementary sets of values, it is useful to distinguish between those systems in which recruitment into the elite subculture is generally preceded by socialization into the mass subculture and those in which the channels of socialization are completely separate. In most stable, modern democratic societies the general pattern is for individuals to be socialized into the mass culture before being recruited to leading political roles, and thus the elite, in spite of gaining highly specialized skills and political knowledge, can still appreciate the basic values of the citizenry as a whole. It does not, of course, follow that in all cases people who rise out of the mass subculture will continue to be sympathetic or responsive to their background; indeed, in transitional societies leadership elements often have deep resentments against what they feel are the backward attitudes of those with whom they were once associated.

In most traditional, and many transitional, systems those destined for leadership positions tend to have quite different career lines, receive quite different forms of education, and have quite different social experiences from the mass of their followers. Even in many transitional societies the very basis of legitimacy of the leaders rests on the popular belief that they are men inherently set apart from others at birth.

A basic problem in the dynamics of political cultures relates to uneven changes in the socialization patterns of the two subcultures. Serious difficulties for the political system can arise when rulers discover that the mass subculture is no longer responsive to traditional leadership patterns but that they themselves have little skill in more modern ways of ruling. Or the opposite problem can arise when the elite subculture has been changed significantly by new patterns of elite socialization but the mass culture remains largely unchanged. Under such conditions leaders may be impatient for change, and in displaying little understanding and even outright scorn for the essential qualities of the mass culture they may create resentment in the population, who may feel that their leaders have lost their sense of the proprieties of ruling.

The content of political cultures

The content of political cultures is in large measure unique to each particular society. Studies of different political cultures therefore tend to emphasize different themes, and the ultimate test of the utility of a theory of political culture will depend upon its value for comparative and generalized analysis. Already there have been promising pioneering advances in comparative analysis in which similar qualities of political cultures have been related to a common type of political system. For example, Almond and Verba (1963) have identified the “civic culture” which underlies democratic political systems.

It would seem possible also to isolate some universal dimensions of political cultures in terms of certain inherent qualities of both political systems and the processes of personality formation. Nathan Leites (1951; 1953) has demonstrated the value of analyzing elite political behavior characterologically. It seems likely that further research will reveal that political cultures tend to manifest definable syndromes that are related either to recognized patterns of personality development or to general patterns of historical development, or to both. At this stage of knowledge it is possible only to suggest certain universal problems or themes with which all political cultures must deal in one manner or another.

Scope and function of politics

Every political culture must define for its society the generally accepted scope or limits of politics and the legitimate boundaries between the public and private spheres of life. Scope involves definition of the accepted participants in the political process, the range of permissible issues, and the recognized functions of both the political process as a whole and the separate agencies or domains of decision making which collectively constitute the political process.

The scope of participants is in most systems formally defined by the requirements of citizenship, but in all systems there are usually also formal or informal limits relating to age, sex, social status, training, family connections, and the like which govern the recruitment process.

Similarly, in most political cultures certain issues are recognized as being outside the domain of politics or the jurisdiction of particular parts or agencies of the political process. The relationship of issues and functions can be highly specialized in the sense that particular issues are recognized as being the special responsibility of special forms of decision making, such as electoral, parliamentary, bureaucratic, juridical, or technocratic expertise.

In democratic political cultures there is usually a clear sense of the appropriate boundaries of political life, explicit recognition of new issues as they arise, and respect to some degree for functional specialization in the handling of issues and for the relative autonomy of the different domains of political decision making. In totalitarian cultures there are few established boundaries of the political sphere of activity, explicit knowledge that all issues can become political, and some respect for functional specializations but little for the autonomy of the different domains. In transitional systems there are usually no clearly accepted boundaries of political life, but the impotence of politics provides actual limits: there is an expectation that all matters can become politicized, and there is little functional specialization or autonomy in the various domains of political decision making. [SeeDecision making, article onPolitical aspects.]

Concepts of power and authority

Political cultures, in providing concepts about the nature and properties of power and authority, may differ according to (1) the basis for differentiating power and authority; (2) the modes by which the one may be translated into the other; (3) the assumed limits of the efficacy of power; (4) the elements or components of legitimate power, e.g., physical force, popular support, moral justification, legal sanctions, etc.; and (5) the degree of diffusion of centralization of power and authority. [SeeAuthority; Power.]

The process of legitimizing power has a critical bearing on the performance of a political system [seeLegitimacy]. Usually legitimization involves restraining the uses of potential power and placing limits upon the range of actions of particular institutions and power holders. This has been particularly true in Western political cultures and in the development of American constitutional theory in relation to the division of powers. These restraints of legitimacy sometimes take an absolutist form, with the result that no single institution or political actor can perform decisively and with full efficiency. In a few political cultures the process of legitimizing power proceeds in the opposite direction, so that legitimacy is conferred only upon those who can and do act decisively and effectively. This is particularly true in countries which have experienced a period of national humiliation as a result of weakness in international affairs. For example, the very effectiveness of the Chinese communists has been one of the most critical factors in giving the Peking government a sense of legitimacy in the eyes of its subjects. In democratic political cultures there are often ambiguous feelings about the need to restrain all power and the need for legitimate power to be effective. In transitional societies it is often difficult for any forms of power to become legitimized because all seem to have so much difficulty in being effective.

In all political cultures, concepts about power and authority have deep psychological dimensions because of the fundamental role of parental authority in the early socialization process. The skills that children develop in coping with family authority tend to provide a lasting basis for adult styles in dealing with authority. Thus, in some cultures it is widely assumed that authority can best be constrained by stressing issues of justice and fairness in a spirit of friendly informality, while in others the style is that of winning favor by displaying complete and abject submission.

Political integration

In varying ways and in differing degrees, political cultures provide people with a sense of national identity and a feeling of belonging to particular political systems. Basic to the problems of the integration of the political system is that of establishing a sense of national identity, and the problem of national identity is in turn a function of the process by which individuals realize their own separate senses of identity. This basic relationship between national identity and personal identity provides a fundamental link between the socialization process and the integration of the political process [seeIdentification, political].

Integration also involves the relationships of the various structures involved in the political process, and hence is related to the problems of specialization of function among decision-making groups discussed above.

A third aspect of integration concerns the manner in which various subcommunities, ethnic or regional groups, or subcultures are related to each other. Political cultures differ according to the extent to which they permit such minorities to preserve their separate identities while meeting the expected standards of integration. [SeeIntegration.]

Status of politics and politicians

In traditional societies, religion, war, and government provided the elite, and the art of ruling was seen as having a sacred origin. Leadership carried high visibility, and those who shared in decision making could claim glory and greatness. Modern political cultures, reflecting an increased division of labor and the rise of secular considerations, tend to accept politics as only one of many professions and to debase the role of politician, even while still extolling the supreme importance of state and nation.

A political culture must establish the generally acceptable rewards and penalties for active political participation. In traditional societies the high status of leaders also meant that those with power could legitimately expect high material rewards. With the emergence of other professions and the contraction of the political sphere, the material rewards of those who enter public life decreased, and they were increasingly expected to make personal sacrifices for performing public services. The political culture, in controlling the accepted balance between rewards and penalties for those entering public life, also tends to control the quality of people recruited. In democratic political cultures the desire to shackle power produces the requirement that those who seek power should have no self-interests but only serve the interest of others; and the suspicion that this is not always the case lowers popular esteem for politicians as a class. Political cultures, in creating the distinctions between statesmen and politicians, provide another basis for rewarding and controlling those who seek power [seePolitical recruitment and careers].

Evaluating performance

All political cultures contain standards for evaluating the effectiveness and competence of those performing specialized roles in the political system. Such standards generally depend upon popular views as to how national and community-wide problems should best be solved. In traditional cultures, problem solving was usually associated with the correct performance of rituals, and hence evaluation of performance was strongly influenced by skills displayed in ceremonies. Although modern political cultures recognize the central place of rationality in problem solving, there tend to be great differences among cultures in what is accepted as being rational. Judgment about skill in leadership is also influenced by the extent to which a society values the personal magnetism of leadership or the abilities of technical specialists and experts. Changes in the evaluative dimension of political cultures occur as new skills and professions are recognized as being relevant for solving national problems.

The evaluative aspect of political cultures must also reflect the inescapable fact that politics deals with future contingencies which lie beyond the range of ready prediction. Each political culture must provide some basis of faith in the forecasting powers of acceptable leaders. Traditionally, this faith was usually placed in the mystical and charismatic powers of personal leadership. In other cultures either divine or secularly inspired doctrines are presumed to be endowed with all necessary predictive powers. In still other cultures the very massiveness and essentially esoteric operation of bureaucracies and the complex machineries of government are enough to generate a popular faith that those in power have a grasp of the future. The ultimate test of leadership in all cases is skill in maintaining popular faith in the leader’s capacity to deal with all possible contingencies. [SeeLeadership, article onPolitical aspects.]

The affective dimension of politics

Possibly no other social activity touches upon such a wide range of emotions as politics, and every political culture seeks to regulate the expression of acceptable public passions and to deny legitimacy to others. Above all, since politics invariably involves struggles over power, personal aggression is a basic emotion that all political cultures must deal with by making some forms of aggression legitimate and by defining areas and times in which its expression is permissible.

This function of political cultures is related to but goes beyond the need of providing integration to the system and a spirit of collective identity. It involves the degree to which the inherent drama of power and decision is either accentuated or muted. Essentially, the affective dimension of the political culture is determined by the ways in which people are legitimately permitted to realize psychic satisfaction from active participation in politics.

The coherence and stability of political cultures are constantly threatened by the fact that people may turn to political action for intensely private and psychologically personal reasons, and thus seek satisfactions which are completely unrelated to the social or collective functions of politics. Such people may have little interest in the public goals or purposes of the movements they support, since their satisfaction comes mainly from the spirit of involvement and the drama of participation. Harold Lasswell first pointed out this phenomenon (1930; 1948), which was also observed by Almond in communist movements (1954).

Balance between cooperation and competition

Politics rests upon collective actions which in turn depend upon a basic spirit of trust and a capacity for cooperation. At the same time politics involves conflict and competition. Cultures must therefore strike an acceptable balance between cooperation and competition, and the capacity of political cultures to manage this problem usually depends on how the basic socialization process handles the problems of mutual trust and distrust in personality development. [SeeConflict; Cooperation.]

A necessary prerequisite for the building of complex human organizations is a strong sense of human trust. Where the basic culture instills in people a profound sense of distrust and suspicion, collective action becomes difficult, and competition tends to get out of hand and become profoundly disruptive. On the other hand, general cultures which do emphasize the building of personal trust may have to be balanced by political cultures which emphasize the need for suspicion in the management of public institutions. For example, it has been suggested that in the United States the basic socialization process does emphasize to a peculiarly high degree basic trust in human relations, but that American political culture stresses the need to distrust institutions, to check their powers, and to demand strict accountability of all public officials. In many transitional societies we find the opposite pattern, in that the socialization process instills deep distrust of human relations while at the same time people are asked to have complete and uncritical faith in their public institutions. The pattern has been observed in India (Carstairs 1957), Ceylon (Wriggins 1960), Burma (see Conference … 1963), and Italy (Banfield 1958).

The future of a theory of political culture

As the foregoing discussion shows, there is an increasing body of propositions that seeks to relate aggregate and individual behavior in different political systems, so that it is now possible to talk of the growth of a theory of political culture. However, it is also appropriate to note several criticisms of this theory which reflect its current early stage of development.

It has been suggested that the concept represents little more than a new label for old ideas. To a degree, this is a valid observation but one that ignores the central purpose of the theory, which is to search for a new way of connecting psychological theory to the performance of the total political system.

At present the mere term “political culture” is capable of evoking quick intuitive understanding, so that people often feel that without further and explicit definition they can appreciate its meanings and freely use it. The very ease with which the term can be used, however, means that there is considerable danger that it will be employed as a “missing link” to fill in anything that cannot be explained in political analysis.

This danger of tautology is particularly great in precisely the area which is now the most important for the future development of the theory—the relationship between political culture and political structures or institutions. If the concept of political culture is to be effectively utilized, it needs to be supplemented with structural analysis, but the difficulty is that political structures can be seen on the one hand as products reflecting the political culture, while on the other hand they are also important “givens” which shape the political culture.

These are problems which must be surmounted if the theory of political culture is to realize its early promise. The prospect is excellent that current research is going to set aside most of these objections and greatly advance the utility of a political culture theory. Recent systematic comparative research, based on survey methods, promises to clarify further the relationship between the political socialization processes and numerous dimensions of the political culture. The work of Gabriel A. Almond and Sidney Verba in identifying the components of the democratic political culture has already stimulated new attempts to evaluate the factors affecting democratic development throughout the world. In the 1960s Verba was directing a study applying some of the hypotheses of The Civic Culture to India, Japan, Nigeria, and Mexico. The basic concepts of The Civic Culture have been utilized by Ward in analyzing Japanese developments, by Scott for Mexico, by Rose for England, and by Barghoorn for the Soviet Union (see pp. 83–129; 330–395; 450–511 in Pye & Verba 1965). Other research on the political and psychological inhibitions to economic growth is suggesting further critical dimensions to the modern political culture, whether democratic or not (McClelland 1961; Hagen 1962).

Even in its current state, the theory of political culture represents a significant advance in the direction of integrating psychology and sociology with political science to produce a richer and fuller understanding of politics.

Lucian W. Pye

[Directly related are the entriesCulture; Government; Socialization, especially the article onpolitical socialization. Other relevant material may be found inModernization; National character; Political anthropology; Political sociology; Societal analysis.]


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Benedict, Ruth 1946 The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Carstairs, Morris 1957 The Twice Born. London: Hogarth

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Lasswell, Harold D. (1930) 1960 Psychopathology and Politics. New ed., with afterthoughts by the author. New York: Viking.

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Political Culture

views updated May 29 2018

Political Culture


Although insights into political culture have been part of political reflection since classical antiquity, two developments in the context of the French Revolution laid the groundwork for modern understandings. First, when members of the Third Estate declared We are the people, they were overturning centuries of thought about political power, captured most succinctly by Louis XIVs infamous definition of absolutism: Letat, cest moi (I am the State). Henceforth, sovereignty was seen to reside in society rather than in the monarch and his divine rights. A century later, Max Weber turned this political claim into a scientific one when he defined legitimacy as that which is considered to be legitimatenot only by elites but by the population in general; to understand the political power of the state, social science must therefore attend to its reception and sources in society. Second, when Jean-Jacques Rousseau retheorized the social contract as one in which individual interests were taken up in an overarching General Will of the collectivity, he raised the question of how social solidarity could be maintained in the absence of recourse to divine right. His answer was civil religion, symbols and rituals that establish and dramatize the sense of collective belonging and purpose. A century later, Émile Durkheim took up these themes when he questioned whether modern, complex societies could generate sufficient solidarity to function in a stable manner. Durkheims interest in what he called collective effervescence (generated in and through communal rituals) and collective representations (embodied in symbols as well as more abstractly in collective conscience) extended Rousseaus concerns and has underwritten contemporary temporary analyses of political culture as the sets of symbols and meanings involved in securing and exercising political power.

Contemporary work on political culture, however, dates more directly to the mid-twentieth century, particularly in the United States. In the wake of World War II (19391945), social scientists were motivated to explain why some nations had turned to authoritarianism while others supported democratic institutions. Before and during the war, anthropologists such as Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict were proponents of a culture and personality approach, which asserted that members of different societies develop different modal personalities, which in turn can explain support for different kinds of political programs and institutions. In a somewhat different vein, the German exile philosopher Theodor Adorno and colleagues undertook a massive study during the war into what they called, in the title of their 1950 work, The Authoritarian Personality, continuing earlier research by critical theorists into the structure of authority in families, which they believed had led Germans to support authoritarian politics and social prejudice. In a similar vein, Harold Laswell described a set of personality traits shared by democrats, including an open ego, a combination of value-orientations, and generalized trust.

Perhaps the most important work on political culture in this period was Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verbas 1963 The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations, which combined Laswells description of the democratic personality with at least two strands of social science theory at the time. First, the predominant sociological theory in the United States was that of Talcott Parsons, who explained social order in terms of institutions that inculcated individuals with coherent sets of norms, values, and attitudeswhat Parsons called culturewhich in turn sustained those institutions through time. In contrast, the so-called behavioral revolution in political science argued that such accounts neglected extra-institutional variables as sources of social order (a concern that could be traced back to Montesquieu in the mid-eighteenth century, who sought external factorsin his case climateto explain the different forms of law in history); in Parsons, moreover, critics charged that norms, values, and attitudes were more often simply assumed as necessary integrative features of social systems rather than measured empirically (hence the appeal to behaviorism, which in psychology held observability to be the only relevant criterion for science).

The major point of Almond and Verbas comparative study was to address the role of subjective values and attitudes of national populations in the stability of democratic regimes. This fit clearly within the behavioral revolution because it turned to extra-institutional variables (norms, values, and attitudes) to explain political outcomes. Nonetheless, the work was presented as a study of political culture, defined as the aggregate pattern of subjective political dispositions in the populace, thus incorporating and, indeed, operationalizing, the Parsonsian concept of culture. On the basis of extensive survey research, The Civic Culture theorized three basic orientations toward political institutions and outcomes: parochial, where politics is not differentiated as a distinct sphere of life and is of relatively little interest; subject, in which individuals are aware of the political system and its outcomes but are relatively passive; and participant, where citizens have a strong sense of their role in politics and responsibility for it. The Civic Culture rated five countries on these qualities, finding Italy and Mexico to be relatively parochial, Germany to be subject, and the United States and the United Kingdom to be participant political cultures.

Subsequent work in this tradition by Ronald Ingelhart and others has shown that the effect of basic satisfaction with political life and high levels of interpersonal trust (what would later be called social capital) are analytically distinct from economic affluence, thus arguing forcefully that democracy depends on cultural as well as economic factors. Contemporary authors such as Samuel Huntington have extended this kind of argument about norms, values, and attitudes to the world stage, where they describe a clash of civilizations in terms of basic cultural differences understood in this way.

Nevertheless, there have been many criticisms of the approach developed by Almond and Verba and their colleagues. These ranged from methodological concerns about the survey instruments to the claim that the approach normatively privileged American-style democracy as the model against which all others must be judged. Still others argued that political culture was being used as a residual category for all that cannot be explained by other theories, and thus has no theoretically defensible conceptual ground of its own. Most trenchant, however, were charges that the way Almond and Verba defined political culturein terms of subjectivityeviscerates the importance of culture as symbols and meanings: Without a richer understanding of symbols, meanings, rituals, and the like, critics charged, political culture could not be distinguished conceptually from political psychology: What theory may be found in anyones head is not, one set of critics charged, culture. Culture is interpersonal, covering a range of such theory. Political culture is the property of a collectivity (Elkins and Simeon 1979, pp. 128129).

Indeed, since the 1970s, political culture theory has been radically transformed by a more general cultural turn in social science, brought about by such influences as the symbolic anthropology of Clifford Geertz and the rise of semiotics, structuralism, and poststructuralism in European anthropology and literary theory. In contrast to older subjectivism, as well as to those who ignore culture altogether, newer work on political culture in the 1980s and 1990s argued that, in Geertzs words, culture is public because meaning is (Geertz 1973, p. 12). This work reformulated political culture as a system of meanings sui generis, as a form of structure in its own right, constituted autonomously through series of relationships among cultural elements (Somers 1995, p. 131), or as codes, which could be either manifest or deep. In this view, political culture can be measured only crudely by survey analysis; instead, it must be excavated, observed, and interpreted in its own terms as an objective structure, on the analogy of language.

However, the rise of various structuralisms in political culture analysisemphasizing the Rousseau-Durkheim more than the Montesquieu-Weber axishas required some modifications since the 1990s, when structuralist approaches in general have fallen somewhat out of favor. More recently, many historians, sociologists, and anthropologists have embraced a practice approach that emphasizes meaning making rather than meaning systems. While in no way a return to the earlier subjectivism in political culture theory, the practice approach recognizes the limitations of structuralism, in which agents seem to drop out of the picture, or serve only as enactors or carriers of structure. Instead, recent work has emphasized the activity through which individuals and groups in any society articulate, negotiate, implement, and enforce competing claims they make upon one another and upon the whole. Political culture is, in this sense, the set of discourses or symbolic practices by which these claims are made (Baker 1990, p. 4).

In sum, political culture theory makes empirical sense out of the French Revolutions claim that sovereignty derives from society rather than the state. One temptation with this recognition, however, is to assume that while states are about power, societies are about meaning and the reception of power. One solution, inspired by Michel Foucault, among others, has been to declare society the true locus of power. The problem is that this misses the ways in which states do indeed set agendas for societies. Recent analyses have thus returned to the political culture of the state (e.g., Bonnell 1997). But they do so without supposing that societies are mere recipients of such productions.

In contrast to much work in political sociology, which has drawn a facile distinction between merely symbolic politics and real politics, recent political culture theory has thus demonstrated that social life is an ongoing reproductive process. New political culture analysts in particular have focused not only on how political acts succeed or fail to obtain some material advantage but also on how in doing so they produce, reproduce, or change identities. The struggle for position that constitutes politics, we now understand, is always simultaneously strategic and constitutive: As Lynn Hunt has written, Political symbols and rituals were not metaphors of power; they were the means and ends of power itself (Hunt 1984, p. 54). Interpreting them and understanding how they are generated and how they work is thus of paramount importance.

SEE ALSO Almond, Gabriel A.; Civilizations, Clash of; Culture; Dahl, Robert Alan; Discourse; Foucault, Michel; French Revolution; Geertz, Clifford; Huntington, Samuel P.; Ideology; Institutionalism; Kariel, Henry S.; Lasswell, Harold; Norms; Parsons, Talcott; Philosophy, Political; Political Science; Postmodernism; Power; Semiotics; Social Capital; Sociology, Political; State, The; Symbols; Verba, Sidney


Baker, Keith M. 1990. Inventing the French Revolution: Essays on French Political Culture in the Eighteenth Century. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Bonnell, Victoria E. 1997. Iconography of Power: Soviet Political Posters under Lenin and Stalin. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Elkins, David J., and Richard E. B. Simeon. 1979. A Cause in Search of its Effect, or What Does Political Culture Explain? Comparative Politics 11 (2): 127145.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures; Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books.

Hunt, Lynn. 1984. Politics, Culture and Class in the French Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Somers, Margaret. 1995. Whats Political or Cultural about Political Culture and the Public Sphere? Toward an Historical Sociology of Concept Formation. Sociological Theory 13 (2): 113144.

Jeffrey Olick

Tatiana Omeltchenko

Political Culture

views updated May 23 2018

Political Culture

Political culture, a concept popular among scholars, takes an anthropological approach to political life. In other words, rather than concentrate on systematic political theories, the study of political culture is attuned to cultural symbols and "unstated premises." Studies of political culture often boil down to identifying the implicit rules of political behavior in a given context—the boundaries of legitimate, effective political action. Political culture has been particularly useful for studying the early Republic because only at the end of this period did anything much resembling the familiar U.S. party system take shape.

conspiracy theories

The books often said to have inaugurated the study of political culture among historians of early America were Bernard Bailyn's Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967) and its companion volume, The Origins of American Politics. Locating the sources of American political thought in a then little-read collection of tracts from the fringes of British politics, Bailyn exposed the founding fathers as conspiracy theorists whose campaign against the British imperial regime was full of hysterical rhetoric and outlandish beliefs, most of them revolving around a secret British design to impose an unconstitutional tyranny on the American colonies—or, as worried American slaveholders tended to put it, to reduce America to slavery. Living far from the centers of a British authority that was rarely exercised before the 1750s, Americans came to regard power itself as a fearsome, evil, hungry thing with an "endlessly propulsive tendency to expand itself beyond legitimate boundaries."

Colonial Americans still considered themselves Britons, but their reading and often limited experience of the mother country led many of them to believe that the free British constitution had been corrupted by what historians now know were the beginnings of the modern parliamentary system: the consolidation of power in the hands of a "prime" minister who controlled a majority in the House of Commons. Many came to see America as the last bastion of British constitutional liberty and their own local governments as reflecting the "true" British constitution. When the British tried to tighten up

the governance of the empire a bit, seriously enforcing their languishing customs laws and asking their now-wealthy colonies to contribute some tax revenue for the first time, Americans saw something far more sinister at work. Building on what by 1776 was a long tradition of over-the-top charges against the British, Thomas Jefferson made the Declaration of Independence into a long conspiracy theory about the king himself, charging him with introducing slavery and causing America's racial problems with both blacks and Indians.

The success of conspiracy theories in recruiting popular support for the Revolution, and the lurid fears of political power that underlay the theories, made such scare-mongering a permanent part of American political culture. Nearly every major social and political development of the period would generate such theories, which were often central to the political messages and methodologies of major movements in this period and all the early national political parties from the Federalists and Democratic Republicans to the anti-Masons, Whigs, and Know-Nothings. The major conspiracy theory "villains" in the early Republic included the French revolutionaries, the Masons, both the Jeffersonian Republicans and the opposing Federalists, the Irish, the Catholic Church, Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, the Bank of the United States, the abolitionists, southern slaveholders, and more. It often seemed that an all-out plot to subvert liberty was the only thing that could motivate large numbers of Americans to political action.

Historians have differed over whether conspiratorial thinking should be considered a psychological problem, a genuine political philosophy, or something else. What can be said with certainty is that, from the very beginning of American political history, Americans have been notably moralistic and Manichean in their approach to political debate, tending to see politics as a war between the forces of light and darkness, order and chaos, good and evil.

republican virtue, political character, and antipartyism

Directly related to the outsized fears of conspiracy and corruption was a somewhat paradoxical set of political ideals that many historians have come to label "classical republicanism." These notions had their origins in a certain idealized view of classical antiquity that was encouraged by many of the favorite political texts. Classical republican thought was communitarian in orientation, holding that representative government and republican liberty were safe only when both leaders and citizens virtuously abstained from self-interested behavior and acted for the common good. In terms of political culture, however, republican virtue demanded individualism, more commonly rendered in this period as "independence": a virtuous statesman could never submit his own political conscience to interest, ambition, or external pressure if his actions were to have legitimacy or influence.

Virtuous citizens were also necessary in a republic, and citizens showed their virtue by always putting self-interest and passion aside and choosing virtuous "characters" to lead them. During and after the Revolution, there was much concern among the Patriot leaders about the possible corruption of the citizenry. The anti-British protestors of the 1760s organized boycotts of British luxury goods out of a desire to pressure British merchants, but from that time on there were recurrent campaigns against luxurious living in general, as Patriot agitators like Samuel Adams sought a moral and political regeneration they believed went hand in hand. The first Continental Congress proclaimed a moral code for the new nation that banned theaters, horse racing, and cock-fighting, and local controversies over luxury items and frivolous entertainment broke out periodically thereafter. Dr. Benjamin Rush proposed a system of public education that would "render the mass of the people more homogeneous, and thereby fit them more easily for uniform and peaceable government."

Obviously these conformist political values were not especially friendly to the later American ideal of participatory democracy. The ideal of republican virtue affected political behavior, especially among the members of the Virginia dynasty. A virtuous republican could never actively seek power: candidates did not "run" for office, they were asked by others to "stand." Though lifelong politicians almost to a man, the founders went to great lengths to convey their utter disinterest in political power or financial gain to any who would listen.

The quest for republican virtue made early American political culture rather schizophrenic concerning such basic elements of democratic politics as parties and campaigning. Though many parts of America had experienced vigorous political competition along clear partisan lines since colonial times, most early American leaders did not regard this as a normal or acceptable state of affairs. Thomas Jefferson expressed the feelings of many early American leaders about the idea of joining a political party: "Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent. If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all." Nevertheless, Jefferson soon became the figurehead of the country's first political party. And antipartyism remained a common sentiment even as parties became the norm. Americans congratulated themselves on the seeming collapse of national party divisions during the "Era of Good Feeling" in the 1810s, then promptly rejoined them with renewed fervor in the decades that followed while always remaining open to reformers' attacks on the corruption and divisiveness of parties. The contradictions are symbolized by the fact that one of the most organizationally aggressive and innovative national parties, the anti-Masons, had antipartyism as a major part of its message.

Antipartisanship shaped actual political behavior as well as attitudes. Candidates for high office could not be seen as active public participants in their own campaigns during this period. (Even the nakedly ambitious Aaron Burr, who campaigned aggressively for the Democratic Republicans in 1800, had to stand for office in a district far away from the scene of his campaign activities in New York City.) Presidential candidates made no national speaking tours until the middle of the nineteenth century, and even then the practice was widely criticized. High officeholders had to rely on friends and surrogates, including newspaper editors, if they wanted to seek broad public support for their actions or win a higher office.

While newspapers, congressional debaters, and other partisans carried out public battles over ideology and policy, American statesmen themselves operated in a highly pressurized environment in which political battles seemed to be more about personal character and "honor." In the absence of any agreed-upon standards or mechanisms for dealing with questions of personal integrity, like ethics laws, aspersions on a statesman's character, and many other political quarrels, were settled according to prevailing social mores. Aaron Burr's killing of Alexander Hamilton in a duel was only one of many political duels and near-duels in the early Republic, though it was somewhat unusual in ending with an actual death. The political duel was largely limited to a subculture of gentlemen politicians who had once been military officers. If someone beneath that station insulted a gentleman or tried to issue a challenge, he was more likely to get "cowhided" in the street than to be dueled.

Violence, however, remained an important part of American political culture throughout this period. Teams of thugs at polling places were an integral part of the "get out the vote" (or keep down the vote) efforts in many cities. Rioting mobs were also an occasionally critical political factor, and at several key points, a tool. The Sons of Liberty encouraged mobs to intimidate local British officials during the Stamp Act crisis, a campaign of terror that included the dismantling of Massachusetts Chief Justice Thomas Hutchinson's mansion. During the 1830s prominent politicians in the North and South helped organize mobs that shut down abolitionist meetings and destroyed abolitionist newspapers and pamphlets. Abolitionist editor Elijah P. Lovejoy was murdered during one of these riots in 1837.

celebratory politics

Although classical republican virtue was a deep strain in American political culture, it was hardly universal. The "disinterestedness" it required could be practiced only by the wealthiest, best-placed politicians in any case, and it had little to say about the more active and democratic forms that early on became a basic part of American political life. Governments that were in the end based on public opinion and popular voting inevitably spawned practices that sought to marshal those forces one way or another. It was only at the end of this period that the familiar institutions of the American party system really took shape.

In the early Republic, therefore, popular political culture was necessarily creative, adaptive, and variable. Because the early political parties were organizationally almost nonexistent, the work of building support for them was conducted by scattered groups of local activists, with little centralized direction or funding. Necessarily reliant on local resources and personnel, these typically self-appointed activists simply made partisan use of whatever existing traditions, institutions, and practices they could, including many that were long-standing features of Anglo-American culture. Among these were holiday celebrations, parades, taverns, toasts, songs, town meetings, petitions, militia company training days, and various products of local printing presses, including broadsides, handbills, almanacs, poems, pamphlets, and, especially, the small-circulation local and regional newspapers that sprang up everywhere after the Revolution.

Some of the most interesting political artifacts of this type are the plethora of songs published on the back pages of partisan newspapers and sometimes as sheet music or in songbooks, many of which were presumably sung in taverns or at partisan gatherings. The musical output included not only "Jefferson and Liberty" and "The People's Friend," but also such unlikely numbers as "Adams and Liberty," "Huzzah Madison Huzzah," and even "Monroe Is the Man." Especially popular among local partisans were innumerable sets of new lyrics to popular tunes such as "Yankee Doodle," "Hail Columbia," and the "Anacreonic Song," better known today as the United States national anthem.

Each region of the country had its own particular local practices that were drawn into partisan politics and became part of a distinctive regional political culture. In the South, the famous court-day barbecues were transformed from rituals of noblesse oblige into competitive partisan debates, initiating the Southern stump-speaking tradition. In the cities and larger towns, fraternal orders, voluntary associations, and militia companies were politicized, with the so-called Democratic Republican societies and the Tammany Society being two of the best-known examples on the Republican side. These groups formed the beginnings of the highly disciplined neighborhood-based political organizations that would in time become known as urban political "machines."

In New England, where churches and the clergy had always played an unusually prominent role in public life, many aspects of religious culture were adapted to partisan use. The Congregational establishment was heavily and intemperately Federalist, and its members did not hesitate to put partisan political instructions into their sermons. At the same time, the traditions of the jeremiad and the publication of sermons gave rise not only to a large number of published political sermons and books by the clergy, but also the practice of secular politicians giving and publishing formal orations that often took on a distinctly homiletic tone.

Although always locally controlled and thus highly varied in tone and content, certain practices were nearly universal in this political culture. Among the most important were the holiday celebrations that dotted the civic calendar, each of which brought many of the elements mentioned above together into a single political event. For Republicans, the most important day was the Jefferson-centric Fourth of July, which they had championed as a more republican and democratic alternative to Washington's birthday or government-mandated thanksgiving and fast days. The highlights of such banquets were the toasts, drunk at the end and accompanied by cheers or cannon blasts if possible. Afterward, an account of the celebration would be published in a sympathetic local newspaper, including a verbatim transcript of the toasts. No mere drinking game, political banquet toasts served, and were intended to serve, as informal platforms for the community, party, or faction that held the gathering.

One form of political statement that was unique to Jefferson's Democratic Republicans and befit a party claiming to champion ordinary farmers and mechanics was the creation and presentation of an outsized foodstuff. As the city's Democratic Republicans prepared for their first March 4th celebration (the anniversary of Jefferson's election to the presidency) in 1801, "a monstrous large ox" was festooned with flowers and ribbons and the logo "Jefferson and Burr" between its horns and then processed through the streets, "followed," as one outraged Federalist lady remembered it, "by such a despicable rabble as you never saw." The Baptists of Cheshire, Massachusetts, established the mature version of the fad with the half-ton mammoth cheese that Elder John Leland had delivered to Thomas Jefferson on New Year's 1802, bearing the inscription: "THE GREATEST CHEESE IN AMERICA, FOR THE GREATEST MAN IN AMERICA." Be they edible or tuneful, all of these homely, locally produced tributes were part of a significant, democratizing shift in the culture of American political leadership that occurred after 1800. The imagery and iconography surrounding Washington depicted a stern patriarch bestride a warhorse, lifted to heaven by choirs of angels, or enrobed and enthroned in the clouds like Zeus. The images of Jefferson that circulated, however, were simple portraits, and the language used to praise him often strikingly intimate. As one song put it in 1801: "Invited, by the friendly voice, / Of freemen, in a prudent choice; / Kind JEFFERSON, with love replete, / Accepts, th' important helm of state."

This was not "merely" a verbal or linguistic change; it reflected and authorized concrete changes in the way that politics was conducted at the local, retail level. Even some Federalists learned to approach voters in a different way after Jefferson's accession. Following the Republicans' lead, it was now imperative for all political activists—whether in how they wrote, spoke, or personally behaved when they encountered citizens in taverns, public meetings, polling places, or homes—to approach the people as friends and equals, not as children or subjects to be guided.

See alsoAlmanacs; Congregationalists; Declaration of Independence; Democratic Republicans; Era of Good Feeling; Federalist Party; Fourth of July; Holidays and Public Celebrations; Jefferson, Thomas; Liberty; Music: Patriotic and Political; Newspapers; Poetry; Presidency, The: Thomas Jefferson; Press, The; Print Culture; Revolution: Social History; Rhetoric; Sons of Liberty; Stamp Act and Stamp Act Congress; Taverns .


Bailyn, Bernard. The Origins of American Politics. New York: Vintage, 1970.

——. Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Enlarged ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992.

Baker, Jean H. Affairs of Party: The Political Culture of Northern Democrats in the Mid-Nineteenth Century. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983; New York: Fordham University Press, 1998.

Beeman, Richard, Stephen Botein, and Edward C. Carter II, eds. Beyond Confederation: Origins of the Constitution and American National Identity. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.

Formisano, Ronald P. "The Concept of Political Culture." Journal of Interdisciplinary History 31 (winter 2001): 493–526.

——. The Transformation of Political Culture: Massachusetts Parties, 1790s-1840s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Freeman, Joanne B. Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001.

Gendzel, Glen. "Political Culture: Genealogy of a Concept." Journal of Interdisciplinary History 28 (1997): 225–250.

Goldberg, Robert Alan. Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001.

Hofstadter, Richard. The Idea of a Party System: The Rise of Legitimate Opposition in the United States, 1780–1840. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.

Horn, James, Jan Ellen Lewis, and Peter S. Onuf, eds. The Revolution of 1800: Democracy, Race, and the New Republic. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002.

Ketcham, Ralph. Presidents Above Party: The First American Presidency, 1789–1829. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.

Pasley, Jeffrey L. "Conspiracy Theory and American Exceptionalism from the Revolution to Roswell." Paper read at Bernard Bailyn festschrift, Harvard University, May 21, 2000. Available at http://conspiracy.pasleybrothers.com/CT_and_American_Exceptionalism_ web_version.htm

——. "The Tyranny of Printers": Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001.

Pasley, Jeffrey L., Andrew W. Robertson, and David Waldstreicher, eds. Beyond the Founders: New Approaches to the Political History of the Early American Republic. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Rosenbaum, Walter A. Political Culture. New York: Praeger, 1975.

Waldstreicher, David. In the Midst of Perpetual Fetes: The Making of American Nationalism, 1776–1820. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Withington, Ann Fairfax. Toward a More Perfect Union: Virtue and the Formation of American Republics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Jeffrey L. Pasley

political culture

views updated May 17 2018

political culture The norms, values, and symbols that help to legitimate the political power system of a society (for example, in the United States, the constitution, democracy, equality, the flag). When a political culture collapses or is thrown into doubt, a crisis of legitimacy is created, as happened in Central Europe and the former USSR in 1989–91. Political culture, like culture in general, is made up of fragments of received knowledge which people in a given society take to be truth. Scandals, revelations, failures, and political disasters can quickly undermine citizens' faith in the whole system. For this reason the preservation of political culture is a major preoccupation of politicians and state bureaucrats at every level.

The modern use of this term dates from the period after the Second World War. Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba's The Civic Culture (1963) is a classic comparative study of political attitudes and democracy in five countries, aiming to show how cultural development and political development move hand in hand. The value of the concept does not depend on this particular political agenda. More recent research has tried to distinguish between ‘real’ political cultures (which citizens actively believe in and support) and ‘imposed’ political cultures (which are no more than artificially created ideologies imposed on citizens by threat or force). A question for the future is how once-powerful political cultures like those of the United States and the old Soviet Union will adapt to the centrifugal pressures of ethnicity and nationalism.

culture, political

views updated Jun 27 2018

culture, political See POLITICAL CULTURE.

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