Political Culture Research Paper

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At the broadest level, political culture refers to the meanings attributed to politics. All aspects of meaning, subjective and intersubjective, related to politics are included in this broad perspective—including the definition of what constitutes or determines the boundaries of the political. A central concern is the role of political culture in the transformation of power into authority, and in challenges to authority. Political culture constitutes the socially constructed and tenuously shared meanings which endow or challenge legitimacy in the political institutions, offices, and procedures of a polity. At the cognitive level, political culture defines and explains or questions the rules of the political game, and at the normative level it justifies or denies the authority of those who play it and of the institutions within which the players interact. Political culture is employed to establish or contest the legitimate boundaries of collective identity. It defines a ‘we’ against a ‘them’ and marks the centrality and marginality of various groups within the social unit. At any given historical period, a political culture will likely be characterized by a fairly limited repertoire of particularly salient themes that express the values and goals most sacred to the collectivity through key symbols, myths, rhetorical strategies, and rituals accessible through the analysis of discourse. Most contemporary approaches to political culture consider a consensus on values unlikely to occur and unnecessary for the viability of polities. The public need only resonate to common symbols to which they may ascribe radically different meanings. Even in the best of circumstances the shared meanings of political culture are highly tenuous. Like a fragile spider’s web, its symbolic themes are stretched in multiple directions through contested interpretations. Political culture, for all its fragility, is essential for the survival of society and civilization.



1. The Politics Of Culture And The Culture Of Politics

Contemporary approaches to political culture derive from two Western intellectual traditions. One emphasizes politics—viewing it as a neutral adjudicator of conflicts including those in the realm of culture. The second tradition, descending from Montesquieu and de Toqueville, views politics and governance as cultural constructs. The first tradition is expressed by Harold Lasswell’s (1960) inquiry into who gets what, when, and how. The second is illustrated by Michel Foucault’s (1966) concern with multiple ways in which power is implicated in the constitution of all areas of social life. In this second tradition the definition of the political and the location of its boundaries is framed as a fundamental cultural question. Political culture encompasses both approaches—the politics of culture, and the culture of politics. Although the term ‘political culture’ is used primarily by political scientists and historians (Gendzel 1997), interest in the relationship between politics and culture—including the investigation of the extent to which each constitutes an autonomous realm—is of interest in fields in which the practitioners use the term less frequently; for example, anthropology, sociology (Swidler 1984), and cultural studies.

2. Components Of Political Culture

Symbols are the threads from which the web of culture is spun. Sherry Ortner (1973) distinguishes between elaborating and summarizing symbols. The latter, deriving their power primarily from their emotional resonance, tend to be sacred (in the broad sense)— acting as objects of reverence. The national flag is treated with such reverence as to constitute a fetish in American civil religion. The Western Wall in Jerusalem, a place of sacred centrality in Israeli political culture, and the Black Madonna of Czestochowa in Poland constitute powerful summarizing symbols.

Elaborating symbols work in the opposite direction. They provide vehicles for sorting out complex and undifferentiated feelings and ideas, thereby making them comprehensible, communicable, and translatable into orderly action. Given their cognitive nature, they play a more dominant role in ideology. Root metaphors have conceptual elaborating power. Their value derives from providing categories for comprehending order in the world. ‘Exile’ from and ‘return’ to the ‘Holy Land’ provide the root metaphor of Zionism—the dominant discourse (master narrative) of Israeli political culture (Aronoff 1989). Key scenarios are specific guides that provide maps for socially valued action. The Horatio Alger myth is a such a guide to achieve the idealized American success story.

The myths that endow power with legitimacy are challenged constantly by iconoclasts who call them into question and undermine them, thereby tearing the web of cultural meanings. Old truths are constantly reinterpreted as political realities change, and new cultural traditions are invented by myth-makers who repair the web and drape emergent groups with the mantle of authority. Political myths are narratives which rely on the nonrational for their emotive power. Myths present more lucid and compelling images than do more abstract principles. The more compelling the image, the more powerful the myth’s appeal. Because a myth makes hidden connections between disparate ideas based on unconscious premises, public discourse in mythical form is relatively immune from rational criticism that points out its logical contradictions, or evidence which disconfirms it. When such a pattern of discourse dominates a polity, it is usually a powerful force constraining political change. Yet, political myths also play crucial roles in times of crisis and can be used—especially in rituals through which myths are enacted—to achieve even revolutionary change (Kertzer 1988). Solidarity and the Catholic Church utilized the Pope’s visit to Poland effectively to orchestrate public rites and political rituals which undermined the hegemony of the Polish People’s Republic (Kubik 1994). Political rhetoric, as in the case of the Pope’s sermons, also constitutes an important component of political culture.

Collective memory and amnesia are molded and expressed through invented traditions which are revitalized cultural forms, such as nationalism, portrayed as continuations of more ancient customs. These elements of political culture articulate a society’s self-definition and destiny. Political cultures are effectively reified when the ‘reality’ they define becomes taken for granted by their publics as natural or divinely ordained. This ‘reality’ explains and justifies (or challenges) ideologically the allocation of resources, prestige, and power in the polity. Ideologies are more concrete and rationalized versions of the general political culture articulated by groups to give legitimacy to their identities and to justify their goals. The endurance of dominant (hegemonic) political cultures at any point in time varies depending on their effectiveness in providing models for dealing with societal problems. Political cultures are dynamic because they are embedded in changing historical, social, economic, cultural and political environments that shape them, and which are in turn shaped by them. The relationship between these variables is dialectical, making the determination of causality highly problematic.

Political cultural divisions can be understood as competing temporal and spatial perceptions. Contested interpretations of myths of origin and aspects of history forgotten and remembered selectively reveal contrasting imaginings of political community. Analysis of the relationship between the cultural construction of past, present, and future, and political ideology reveals the link between contested collective memories and competing visions of nationhood. Temporal and spatial perceptions vary within and across political cultures. Social and political boundaries are related to, but not always identical to, actual geographic frontiers of the state (Lustick 1993). Alterations of the physical borders of a state, filtered through temporal cultural frames, shape citizens’ senses of personal and collective security, which in turn influence their political sentiments and positions.

3. Disciplinary And Interdisciplinary Approaches

At the apex of the post-World War II behavioral revolution, the first systematic multinational comparative study of political culture based on the new research method of sample surveys was published. Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba’s The Civic Culture (1963) had a major impact on the comparative study of political culture, leading to replications, adaptations, extensions, and criticisms of both theory and methodology. By the 1970s and early 1980s, the role of the political culture approach had diminished considerably in political science. Since the mid-1980s the concept has regained stature, during a time when the role of culture in the social sciences and humanities has undergone far-reaching reinterpretation.

At the analytical level, rational modes of thought can be attributed to the cognitive dimension of political culture, and nonrational modes relate to the normative. Most political scientists, including some students of political culture, assume the rationality of political actors and essentially ignore the nonrational dimension—with notable and important exceptions. Rational choice and formal modeling approaches have strengthened this bias, making many political scientists unreceptive to cultural approaches. Reactions against attempts to make the rational actor paradigm hegemonic in the discipline, however, and the resurgence of identity politics—most dramatically in the manifestations of xenophobic nationalism and ethnic cleansing—have contributed to the renewed interest in the role of political culture. David Laitin (1998), who shows how political culture is part of an equilibrium in a coordination game, is one of several scholars who combine rational choice and political cultural approaches. The revival of interest in political culture is most apparent in the field of comparative politics (Ross 1997), but the concept has also gained importance in international relations, particularly in the areas of conflict resolution and strategic culture (Katzenstein 1996).

The two major approaches to political culture are semiotic (via anthropology) and cognitive (via social psychology). Richard Wilson (2000) subdivides them into five approaches. Hermeneutics, influenced by the work of Clifford Geertz, is an important bridge between traditional and postmodern approaches. The interpretative semiotic approach (characterized in the introduction to this research paper) has been very influential in the social sciences and humanities—the boundary between these two having become increasingly blurred in recent decades. James C. Scott (1990) utilizes this approach to investigate the boundaries of the political. The culture theory approach builds upon the work of Mary Douglas. Developed by Michael Thompson, Richard Ellis and Aaron Wildavsky (1990), it postulates a universal division of polities into four ideal-type subcultures based on two criteria. Analysis focuses on the contestation within polities between competing subcultures, and explains change in terms of their different competencies and biases.

Social character is the third approach influenced by anthropology, but it also draws heavily from social psychology. It emerged from studies of culture and personality, and national character. Personality variables are analyzed in terms of types of significant value orientations, including attitudes toward and dependence upon authority, fear of disorder, and various religious and ideological positions. These studies generally are based on the analysis of the relationship between norms and behavior in specific cultural contexts. Although a few scholars define types of broad civilizations, most, like Robert Putnam’s (1993) influential study of civic traditions in Italy, focus on selected case studies. The social learning approach, based more directly on psychological theories, utilizes social surveys to analyze values and beliefs to explain the role of socialization in determining values and behavior. Ronald Inglehart’s (1997) work on the relationship between generational change and postmaterialist values illustrates this approach well, following the tradition of The Civic Culture. Other cognitive approaches incorporate Piaget’s theories and conceptualize value orientations very differently from social character studies. Analysis focuses on the reciprocal relationship between individual development and social life. In some of this work moral reasoning and development is at the center of analysis.

Ironically, although political science borrowed the concept of culture from anthropology, contemporary perspectives in anthropology challenge the utility and integrity of the concept, and either avoid the term culture or bracket it with quotation marks to signal its problematic nature (Brightman 1995). Postmodern approaches deconstruct political culture by defining all cultural phenomena in terms of domination and contestation for power. Many practitioners of cultural studies use euphemisms for culture to explore the relationship between power and the imaginative expression of culture. Much innovative work on political culture crosses disciplinary boundaries.

4. Changes In Focus And Recent Developments

Contemporary understanding of political culture builds on the foundations of Karl Marx’s notion of reification, Max Weber’s analysis of legitimation, and Michel Foucault’s insights into the cultural definitions of the political and his analysis of power in institutional discourses. Many scholars utilize Antonio Gramsci’s conceptualization of hegemony, Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger’s formulation of the invention of tradition, Pierre Bourdieu’s notions of habitus, doxa, and cultural capital, which reveal how power is inscribed in the scripts of everyday life, and Jurgen Habermas’s concept of the public sphere. Feminist theory has also influenced contemporary formulations by calling attention to the gendered aspects of political culture. Volumes edited by Nicholas B. Dirks, Geoff Eley, and Sherry B. Ortner (1994) and by Victoria E. Bonnell and Lynn Hunt (1999) are excellent examples of such contemporary, cross-disciplinary approaches. Their appearances in two of the half dozen important interdisciplinary series on politics and culture established by major university presses are indicative of this trend.

Although there are important exceptions to these broad generalizations, traditional and contemporary approaches can be contrasted in several major respects. Traditional approaches define political culture in terms of attitudes and values, whereas more contemporary approaches view culture in terms of scenarios and discourses. The former conceive of political culture as reified, holistic, discrete, clearly bounded, coherent systems; while the latter view boundaries as fragmented, tenuous, and contested. Older approaches view traditions as objective or ‘natural’ and assume continuity, while newer approaches perceive traditions as ‘invented’ social constructions and assume they are dynamic because actors have (limited) options. Some traditional approaches were ahistorical, while most contemporary approaches ground analysis in historical contexts. Contemporary students of political culture examine the mechanisms of transmission of political culture and strategies of boundary maintenance. Traditional approaches focus on goals, while contemporary approaches focus on strategies of action and the incompatibility of strategies of various actors. The analysis of limited repertoires of cultural options available to actors seeks to conceptualize the dialectic of system and practice.

5. Current Areas Of Research And Future Directions

An important area of research is state and society relations (Migdal 1989). The disintegration of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the new states of Central and Eastern Europe give renewed currency to interest in civil society, democracy, state and institutions, political communication and meaning, and collective action (Berezin 1997). The ongoing attempt to determine whether there may be certain cultural prerequisites for democracy has been chastened by postmodern and postcolonial critiques of the Western biases in such investigations. More culturally informed reformulations of traditional areas have resulted in the study of New Social Movements and the New Institutionalism (Powell and DiMagio 1991).

Interest in civil religion and in the relationship between religion and politics (including fundamentalism) has increased. Benedict Anderson’s (1991) notion of the nation as an imagined community is one of the many publications on collective identity which, in addition to nationalism, examine ethnicity, race, gender, and sexual preference. Studies of political rituals, rhetorical strategies, strategic discourse, commemorations, museums, political funerals—including the reburial of the remains of previously buried ‘heroes’—are areas of considerable innovation. The study of the cultural dimension of processes of globalization and localization (including migration) is another frontier for the study of political culture from its increasingly interdisciplinary perspective. The conceptual threads connecting the different approaches to political culture are as tenuous as the webs of meaning constituting political culture. Yet, the fragility of both does not lessen their importance.


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