Political Party Systems

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Political parties have been defined both normatively, with respect to the preferences of the analyst, and descriptively, with respect to the activities in which parties actually engage. Normative definitions tend to focus on the representative or educational functions of parties. Parties translate citizens' preferences into policy and also shape citizens' preferences. Parties are characterized as "policy seeking." Thus, Lawson (1980) defines parties in terms of their role in linking levels of government to levels of society. She states, "Parties are seen, both by their members and by others, as agencies for forging links between citizens and policy-makers." Von Beyme (1985, p. 13) lists four "functions" that political parties generally fulfill: (1) the identification of goals (ideology and program); (2) the articulation and aggregation of social interests; (3) the mobilization and socialization of the general public within the system, particularly at elections; and (4) elite recruitment and government formation.

Descriptive definitions usually stay closer to Max Weber's observation that parties are organizations that attempt to gain power for their members, regardless of constituent wishes or policy considerations. Parties are characterized as "office seeking." "Parties reside in the sphere of power. Their action is oriented toward the acquisition of social power . . . no matter what its content may be" (Weber 1968, p. 938). Schumpeter ([1950] 1975) applies this type of definition to a democratic setting. He argues that parties are organizations of elites who compete in elections for the right to rule for a period. Or as Sartori (1976, p. 63) puts it, "a party is any political group identified by an official label that presents at elections, and is capable of placing through elections (free or nonfree), candidates for public office."

The present article employs a descriptive definition but also investigates how well parties perform functions described in the normative definitions. Thus, a party system may be characterized as the array or configuration of parties competing for power in a given polity. The focus here will be almost exclusively on Western-style democracies.


Von Beyme (1985) suggests three main theoretical approaches to explain the emergence of political parties: institutional theories, historical crisis situation theories, and modernization theories. (Also see LaPalombara and Weiner 1966.)

Institutional Theories. Institutional theories explain the emergence of parties as largely due to the way representative institutions function. Parties first emerge from opposing factions in parliaments. Continuity, according to such theories, gives rise to stable party constellations based on structured cleavages. These theories seem most relevant to countries with continuously functioning representative bodies, such as the United States, Britain, Scandinavia, Belgium, and the Netherlands. However, institutional theories do not explain developments well in some countries, such as France, because continuity of parliament has been absent, and the parliament's strength and independence has come repeatedly into question. The timing of the franchise is also relevant, but its effect is indeterminate because a party system has often been partly established before the franchise was fully extended. Moreover, liberal bourgeois parties that have helped establish parliamentary government have often been opposed to extending the franchise to the lower classes, while leaders such as Bismarck or Napoleon III have sometimes extended the franchise in nonparliamentary systems for tactical political reasons (von Beyme 1985, p. 16). Likewise, Lipset (1985, chap. 6) argues that a late and sudden extension of the franchise has sometimes contributed to working-class radicalism because the lower classes were not slowly integrated into an existing party system. Voting laws can also affect the structure of the party system. Single-member districts, with a first-pastthe-post plurality winner, as in the United States and in Britain, are said to encourage a small number of parties and ideological moderation (competition for the center). National lists, with proportional representation (PR), are said to encourage multipartism (fractionalization) and ideological polarization. However, PR may have this effect only if it is implemented concurrently with the extension of the franchise, because already-established parties may otherwise be well entrenched and leave little room for the generation of new parties. Lijphart (1985) notes that voting laws may also affect other features of political life, such as voter turnout and efficacy or system legitimation, but that these effects have not been extensively investigated.

Crisis Theories. Critical junctures in a polity's history may generate new political tendencies or parties. Crisis theories are especially associated with the Social Science Research Council's (SSRC's) project on Political Development (e.g., LaPalombara and Weiner 1966; Grew 1978). According to SSRC scholars, five such crises can be identified in political development: the crises of national identity, state legitimacy, political participation, distribution of resources, and state penetration of society. The sequence in which these crises are resolved (if only temporarily) and the extent to which they may coincide can affect the emerging party system. Thus, Britain's well-spaced sequence contributed to the moderation of its party system. The recurrent piling up of crises in Germany from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, and the attempt to solve problems with penetration (strong-state measures) contributed to the fragmentation, polarization, and instability of its party system. The piling up of all five crises in mid-nineteenth century America contributed to the emergence of the Republican Party—and the second party system. From a slightly different perspective, von Beyme (1985) notes three historical crisis points that have generated parties. First, the forces of nationalism and of integration during the nation-building process have often taken on roles as political parties. Second, party systems have been effected by breaks in legitimacy as a result of dynastic rivalries, as between Legitimists, Orleanists, and Bonapartists in mid-nineteenth century France. Third, the collapse of parliamentary democracy to fascism has produced characteristic features in the party systems of post-authoritarian democracies: "a deep distrust of the traditional right; an attempt to unify the centre right; [and] a split on the left between the socialists and the Communists" (p. 19).

Modernization Theories. Some theories, following the tenets of structural functionalism, argue that "parties will not in fact materialize unless a measure of modernization has occurred" (LaPalombara and Weiner 1966). Modernization includes such factors as a market economy and an entrepreneurial class, acceleration of communications and transportation, increases in social and geographic mobility, increased education and urbanization, an increase in societal trust, and secularization. LaPalombara and Weiner argue that the emergence of parties requires one, or both, of two circumstances: citizens' attitudes may change, so that they come to perceive a "right to influence the exercise of power," or some group of elites or potential elites may aspire to gain or maintain power through public support. Clearly, not all elements of modernization are necessary, since the first party systems (in the United States and Britain) emerged in premodern, agrarian, and religious societies. Also, not all modernization theories are functionalist. Thus, Moore (1966) and others have suggested the emergence of a bourgeoisie increases the probability of the emergence of democracy.

Probably the most influential theory of the origins of party systems is by Lipset and Rokkan (1966) and Lipset (1983). While ostensibly anchored in Parsonsian functionalism, theirs is a comparative-historical approach that borrows from each of the categories listed here. According to Lipset and Rokkan, the contours of the party systems for western European states can be understood in the context of the specific outcomes of three historical episodes. The three crucial junctures are (1) the Reformation, "the struggle for the control of the ecclesiastical organizations within the national territory"; (2) the "Democratic Revolution," related to a conflict over clerical/secular control of education beginning with the French Revolution; and (3) the opposition between landed and the rising commercial interests in the towns early in the "Industrial Revolution." A significant fourth struggle between owners and workers emerges in the later stages of the Industrial Revolution. Lipset and Rokkan suggest that the shape of current party systems was largely determined during the stages of mass mobilization in the pre–World War I West.

Following Lipset and Rokkan, von Beyme (1985, pp. 23–24) lists ten types of parties that have emerged from this historical development: (1) liberals in conflict with the old regime, that is, in conflict with: (2) conservatives; (3) workers' parties against the bourgeois system (after c. 1848) and against left-wing socialist parties (after 1916); (4) agrarian parties against the industrial system; (5) regional parties against the centralist system; (6) Christian parties against the secular system; (7) communist parties against the social democrats (after 1916–1917) and anti-revisionist parties against "real Socialism"; (8) fascist parties against democratic systems; (9) protest parties in the petty bourgeoisie against the bureaucratic welfare state system (e.g., Poujadisme in France); (10) ecological parties against a growth-oriented society. No one country contains all ten sorts of parties, unless one includes splinter groups and small movements.


Even under a purely office-seeking definition, parties in a democracy must have some connection to society since they have to appeal to voters' material or ideal interests. Yet the connection between the party system and social structure or social values is rather weak in most countries—and much weaker than would be expected under a theory that sees parties as mediating between society and the state. In many cases, organizational or institutional factors may be much more important than social factors in determining party strength.

Social Cleavages. The party types listed above clearly have some connection to divisions or cleavages in society. Parties may seek to represent social classes, religious denominations, linguistic communities, or other particular interests. Three types of politically relevant social cleavages may be identified:

  1. Positional cleavages correspond to a party supporter's place in the social structure. This may be an ascriptive position into which one is born, such as race, ethnicity, or gender, or it may be a social structural position, such as social class or religious denomination, which one might be able to change in the course of a lifetime. Of course, the distinction between ascriptive and social structural position is not absolute, but may itself be partly determined by social norms. Also, against Marxist expectations, class determinants of party support are generally overshadowed by racial, ethnic, religious, regional, or linguistic determinants, when these are also present. One explanation for this finding is that, while one can split differences on class (especially monetary) policies, similar compromises are much more difficult where social "identity" is concerned.
  2. "Behavioral" cleavages, especially membership, generally have a greater impact on party support than positional cleavages. Studies have shown that while working-class status is mildly correlated to support for leftist parties, union membership is quite strongly correlated. And while religious denomination is correlated to support for religious parties (e.g., Catholics and Christian Democrats in Germany), strength of belief or church attendance is much more strongly correlated.
  3. Ideological cleavages are preferences, values, worldviews, and the like, which may not correspond entirely to one's position in society. Indeed, ideological orientations may overshadow positional cleavages as a determinant of partisan preferences. For instance, several of the ostensibly working-class communist parties of western Europe have traditionally drawn large percentages of their support from middle-class leftists.

Not all cleavages or issues that exist in a society are politically relevant at any given time, or if they are, they may not correspond to party support. One can distinguish between latent and actual cleavages around which politics are mobilized. Some cleavages may remain latent for a very long time before becoming politicized. For instance, women's issues had been relevant for decades before the "gender gap" emerged in the elections of the 1980s. One can also consider the process of politicization as a continuum that begins when a new social division or issue emerges, develops into a (protest) movement, then a politicized movement, and ends—at an extreme—with the creation of a new political party or the capture of an existing party. Of course, this process may be halted or redirected at any stage.

Party Loyalty and Party System Change: Alignment, Realignment, Dealignment. Parties may persist over time, and the party system alignment may be stable. There are several possible reasons for this:

  1. The social cleavages around which a party was built may persist.
  2. Voters may grow up in a stable party system and be socialized to support one or another party. Studies show that when a new cleavage line emerges in party alignment, it begins with the youngest generations. These generations then carry their new party loyalties with them throughout their lives, though perhaps to a decreasing extent if the events that originally motivated them fade over time. Likewise, older generations tend to resist alignments along newly emerging cleavage lines because they remain loyal to the parties they began to support in their own youth.
  3. Parties may become organizationally entrenched and difficult to dislodge. Even if cleavages or issues emerge that cause voter dissatisfaction with existing parties, these parties may have the organizational resources to outmaneuver new movements or parties. They may be able to "steal" the new parties' issues and absorb or coopt their constituencies, or they may be able to stress other issues that distract voters from the new issues.

However, newly emerging cleavage structures may overwhelm these inertial tendencies. The party system may respond in three ways to new social cleavages. The first two are processes of party "realignment":

  1. New parties may be formed to appeal to the new constituencies. A classical example is the emergence of the British Labour Party in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when the Liberals and Conservatives did not pay sufficient attention to the concerns of the growing working classes. The more recent emergence of Green parties in some European countries is another example. The creation of the American Republican Party in the 1850s shows the explosive impact a new party can have: Lincoln's election precipitated the South's secession.
  2. Existing parties may change their policies to appeal to new constituencies. For instance, existing parties seem now to be in the process of killing the European Greens by adopting their issues. Perhaps the best example of this process is found in American history. Bryan's Democrats moved to absorb the Populist Party, and Al Smith's and Franklin Roosevelt's Democrats moved to absorb the growing urban ethnic constituencies (Burnham 1970; Chambers and Burnham 1975).
  3. If neither of these changes occurs, there may be a period of "dealignment" in which much of the population—especially new constituencies—is alienated from all parties, and turnout or political participation declines. New constituencies may organize themselves into pressure groups or social movements that fail either to form new parties or to capture existing parties. Existing parties may become internally more heterogeneous and polarized, single-issue actions may proliferate, referenda may increase, and citizen action groups may simply bypass parties. Scholars since the mid-1960s have debated whether Western polities are going through a period of realignment or dealignment (Dalton et al. 1984). Of course, both processes may be occurring: dealignment may be a way-station on the road to party realignment.


Certain structural features of the party system may be important independently of parties' connections to society.

Representativeness. The electoral system determines how votes are translated into seats in the legislature. The results can vary widely. At one extreme, a system of proportional representation (PR) with a single national list enables even tiny parties to get representatives into the legislature. Thus, if 100 parties each received 1 percent of the vote, each would receive 1 seat in a 100-seat legislature. Such systems put no obstacles in the way of party system fragmentation. At the other extreme, first-past-the-post plurality voting with single-member constituencies tends to overrepresent larger parties and underrepresent smaller parties. Thus, if party A won 40 percent of the vote in every district, and parties B and C each won 30 percent of the vote in every district, party A would get all the seats in the legislature, and parties B and C would get none at all. Such systems discourage party system fragmentation. Still, regionally concentrated minority parties tend to be less underrepresented than minority parties whose support is spread across all districts. If 100 parties were completely concentrated in each of 100 districts, the electoral system could not prevent fragmentation. Some election systems combine features. German voters have two votes, one for a district candidate and one for a party list. If any candidate receives a majority in his or her district, that candidate gets a seat. The remaining seats are allocated proportionately according to the list votes. Furthermore, a party must receive at least 5 percent of the national vote to get any seats from the list portion. This system attempts to reduce party system fragmentation and at the same time to reduce overrepresentation and underrepresentation. It was once thought that PR reduces government stability and endangers democracy. However, recent research gives little support for this proposition: "electoral systems are not of overriding importance in times of crisis and even less in ordinary times" (Taagepera and Shugart 1989, p. 236).

Volatility. Party system volatility, or fluctuations in electoral strength, encompasses several different processes (Dalton et al. 1984; Crewe and Denver 1985). It includes the gross and net flow of voters between parties, as well as into and out of the electorate because of maturity, migration, death, and abstention. It also includes realignment and dealignment: changes in the electoral alignment of various constituencies, and the overall weakening of party attachments. Scholars have long debated whether electoral volatility contributed to the collapse of democracies in the 1930s, especially the mobilization of first-time or previously alienated voters. Recently, Zimmermann and Saalfeld (1988) concluded that volatility encouraged democratic collapse in some, but not all, countries. Studies also show that most postwar antidemocratic "surge" parties draw support disproportionately from voters who are weakly attached to parties or weakly integrated in politically mobilized subcultures such as labor, religious, or ethnic organizations. Yet volatility and protest do not always flow in an antidemocratic direction. On the contrary, they are also normal components of democratic politics. Few would argue that the New Deal realignment harmed American democracy or that most new-left or ecology movements are antidemocratic. In order for volatility to cause trouble for democracy, it must be accompanied by antidemocratic sentiments. Indeed, massive vote switching among democratic parties may be the best hope for saving democracy during a crisis. Everything depends on the propensity of voters to support antidemocratic parties.

Fragmentation. In the wake of World War II, some scholars argued that the fragmentation of party systems, partly caused by proportional representation, contributed to the collapse of European democracies. In a fragmented party system, they argued, there are too many small parties for democratic representation and effective government. Citizens are confused and alienated by the large array of choices. Because parties have to form coalitions to govern, voters' influence over policy is limited, and they become further disenchanted with democracy. With so many small parties, governing coalitions can be held hostage to the wishes of very minor parties. Empirical studies show some support for these theses. Fragmentation is associated with reduced confidence in government and satisfaction with democracy. Governments in fragmented party systems tend to be unstable, weak, and ineffective in addressing major problems. However, other scholars argue that party-system fragmentation is not the main culprit. Fragmentation contributes to problems, but other factors are more important. Since fragmented party systems are often composed of blocs of parties (as in, e.g., the Netherlands and Italy), voters have less difficulty reading the terrain than alleged. Besides, party system polarization may contribute to governmental instability and ineffectiveness more than to fragmentation. Scholars have looked at this possibility in both the interwar period and the postwar period. While the evidence is not overwhelming, it tends to support the thesis.

Polarization. Sartori's model of "polarized pluralism" (1966, 1976) is the most influential account of party system polarization. In a polarized party system, according to Sartori, a large (but not majority) party governs more or less permanently in unstable coalitions with various other parties. At least one extremist (antisystem) party is in quasi-permanent opposition. Extremist parties are sufficiently unacceptable to others that they cannot form alternative coalitions, but they are strong enough to block alternative coalitions that do not include themselves. Sartori argues that this leads to stagnation and corruption at the center, frustration and radicalization at the periphery, and instability among governing coalitions. He cites Weimar Germany, Fourth Republic France, and contemporary Italy as examples. Much empirical evidence supports Sartori's model. Polarization is associated with illiberal values in postauthoritarian democracies such as West Germany, Austria, Italy, and Spain.

The dynamic may also work in reverse. When intolerant and distrustful relations among political actors were institutionalized by constitutional guarantees in some postauthoritarian countries, they became crystallized in a polarized party system. Cross-national research shows that polarization harms other aspects of democracy, as well. Polarization is negatively related to democratic legitimation and trust in government, and is positively associated with cabinet instability. However, other elements of Sartori's model have been disputed. In particular, studies in the early 1980s of Italy—the model's current exemplar—called into question Sartori's claim that polarized pluralism generates extremism and thus harms democracy. These studies claimed that the Italian Communists had moderated and that the centrist Christian Democrats had become less intolerant of them. However, the studies' own evidence were not entirely persuasive, and subsequent developments—while not reversing course—do not present a decisive break with earlier patterns.


Single-party government in Western democracies is relatively rare (Laver and Schofield 1990). The multiparty systems of most countries necessitates coalition government. Even in two-party America, a president and Congress of different parties produce a kind of coalition government. (Indeed, internal party discipline is so weak in America, as well as in some parties in Italy, Japan, and other countries, that one can characterize parties themselves as coalitions of political actors.) Most work on coalition government attempts to predict which parties get into office. One of the most influential theories predicts that "minimum connected winning" (MCW) will form most often. This theory combines office-seeking and policy-seeking approaches, predicting that parties will form bare-majority coalitions (so that the spoils can be divided among the smallest number of winners) among contiguous parties on the ideological dimension (so that there is not too much disagreement about policy). MCW theory succeeds fairly well in predicting coalitions in unidimensional party systems, but less well in multidimensional systems, which are often fragmented, polarized, and/or based on rather heterogeneous societies. Likewise, research suggests that in unidimensional systems, offices are most often allocated among the winning parties proportionately to their electoral strength. In multidimensional systems, however, offices are allocated less according to parties' electoral strength than according to their "bargaining" strength, that is, how much they are needed to complete the majority. Thus, if three parties won 45 percent, 10 percent, and 45 percent of the vote, the small party would have just as much bargaining strength as either of the larger parties.

Research also shows that party-system fragmentation and polarization and the presence of antisystem parties all contribute to cabinet instability. Theorists have sometimes posited that cabinet instability leads to instability of democracy—that it may reduce governments' capacity to solve problems effectively, and that this may reduce the regime's legitimacy. Yet research gives only mixed support for this conjecture. Investigators have found that cabinet instability tends to depress the electorate's evaluation of "the way democracy works," but its effects on other measures of democratic legitimation and confidence in government are inconsistent. Research on contemporary democracies shows that cabinet instability is related to civil disorder and governmental ineffectiveness. But research on the period between the world wars indicates that cabinet instability cannot be definitely tied to the collapse of democracy. Cabinets in France and Belgium were as unstable as those in Germany and Austria, but only the latter democracies collapsed (British and Dutch cabinets were more stable). Why is cabinet instability not more clearly tied to problems for democracy? One possibility is that cabinet instability simply reflects the severity of problems. Just as electoral volatility may reflect citizens' desire for change, cabinet instability may reflect elites' flexible response to the problems. Neither of these need reflect a desire for a regime change, simply for a policy change. Indeed, cabinet immobility might be more damaging to effectiveness and democratic legitimation if problems are severe enough. In this respect, cabinet instability, like electoral volatility, probably has an indeterminate effect on democratic survival.

Oversized grand-coalition governments also have ambiguous effects on liberal democracy. The most important theory is Lijphart's (1977, 1984) model of "consociational democracies," plural societies with high levels of intercommunal conflict. In such polities, parties are unwilling to go into opposition because they risk losing too much and because party strength—closely tied to the size of the ascriptive communities—changes too slowly to make their return to office likely. Thus, formal opposition could lead to more extreme conflict. The alternative is a grand coalition government of all major parties, combined with a degree of federalism and proportional allocation of state services according to party or community size. Since potential conflict is too dangerous, open opposition is delegitimated and suppressed. In this respect, consociational procedures are intended to be a method for reducing extreme underlying intercommunal conflict through contact among opponents (at the elite level), which promotes trust. If these measures succeed, the "game among players" can move to one in which moderate conflict and tolerance of opponents becomes legitimated. This appears to have succeeded in the Netherlands and Austria, and failed most miserably in Lebanon. On the other hand, if grand coalitions are formed in societies without extreme underlying conflict, they may initiate a vicious circle of intolerance and delegitimation. To form a grand coalition, prosystem parties generally move closer to the center of the policy spectrum than they would otherwise do. This move may leave their more militant (but still prosystem) constituents politically homeless, and they may seek harder positions in a more extremist party or movement. These constituents do not so much abandon their party as the party abandons them. Thus, if a grand coalition submerges a moderate competitive structure, it can generate polarization. The grand coalition government of 1966–1969 in West Germany, a country with little intercommunal conflict, was probably largely responsible for the rise of antisystem voting at the time. If the grand coalition government had not ended fairly quickly, it might have caused serious problems for West German democracy.


Research on political parties and party systems has continued to stream unabated in the 1990s, yet many of the basic principles outlined above continue to hold true. Three important research areas may be mentioned. First, scholars have sought to understand the role of party systems in democratization, especially in central and eastern Europe, but in other regions as well. Second, the study of political extremism has been knit more closely with the study of party systems. Third, recent stock taking in the field of political legitimation has highlighted the importance of party systems.

The "third wave" of democratization, beginning with transitions in southern Europe in the mid-1970s, and continuing with transitions in Latin America, East Asia, and central and eastern Europe, is one of the most important social and political developments of the last quarter of the twentieth century. Scholars seeking explanations for the relative success or failure of democratic transition and, especially, consolidation have generally highlighted the importance of well-functioning party systems. Thus, Huntington (1991, chap. 6) argues that party-system polarization is one of the greatest hazards to democratization (also see Di Palma 1990; Lipset 1994). Theorists of democratic transitions have pointed to the importance of "pacting" between authoritarian-regime soft-liners and democratic-opposition moderates, and to the exclusion of regime hard-liners and antiregime extremists (O'Donnell and Schmitter 1986; Karl and Schmitter 1991). The importance of moderation during the transition period, prior to the legalization of a party system, parallels the importance of moderation of a party system within an existing democracy (Weil 1989). Empirical studies of democratization in Latin America (Remmer 1991), Central and Eastern Europe (Fuchs and Roller 1994; Toka 1996; Wessels and Klingemann 1994), and East Asia (Shin 1995) tend to support this thesis—as do general, comparative treatments of democratization (Linz and Stepan 1996).

The study of political extremism has taken party systems into account more fully in the 1990s than had perhaps previously been the case. Earlier studies often characterized extremism in terms of psychological predispositions, socialization, or economic dislocations. These accounts tended to focus on personal distress—sometimes in absolute terms, but sometimes in terms of reference groups and relative deprivation—and were often couched in functionalist theories of social dislocation in the course of social modernization. A later wave of extremism research focused more on resource mobilization within social movements. It was not deprivation (absolute or relative) that created extremism, according to this view, but the ability to organize. A third wave of extremism research has emphasized political "opportunity space," gaps or niches in the opposition structure, which political entrepreneurs can fill if they are skillful. Extremism often arises not so much because conditions have worsened, nor because groups have newly organized, as because existing parties within the party system have vacated certain ideological positions and opened competitive opportunities or niches for extremists. Mainstream parties may vacate these niches because they enter or leave office, or because they feel they need to compete more effectively with another party. The reader will notice that it is not so much that these three accounts contradict each other as that they are nested, with the first most specific and the last most general. Perhaps the most important recent study of right-wing extremism in Western polities is Kitschelt and McGann (1995). Other useful recent collections of essays include Weil (1996) and McAdam and colleagues (1996).

Studies of legitimation, confidence, and trust continue to attend to the effects of parties and party systems. Recent surveys of the literature show that party systems do not always or uniformly have an influence, but when they do, a moderate opposition structure is most conducive to these forms of political support. Polarization, grand coalitions, and "cohabitation" ("divided government" in America) do not tend to promote legitimation, confidence, and trust (see Fuchs et al. 1995; Listhaug 1995; Listhaug and Wiberg 1995).

Finally, a few recent general contributions to the literature may be listed. Important recent books that bring the field up to date include Ware (1996) and Mair (1997). Also, a new journal devoted to political parties and party systems, Party Politics, from Sage Publications, began publication in 1995 and has become a major outlet for scholarship in this field.


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