Monday, December 3, 2012

NEVIS REVIEW No 5, Sec I, Part B ; Ref # 5.1.(B)

Section I 
Ref# 5.1.(B)
Dec 3, 2012

Political culture
(Part B) Political culture: General theoretical framework

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 XIV’s infamous definition of absolutism: “L’etat, c’est 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 legitimate—not 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. Durkheim’s 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 Rousseau’s concerns and has underwritten con-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 (1939–1945), 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 Verba’s 1963 The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations, which combined Laswell’s 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 attitudes—what Parsons called culture— which 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 factors—in his case climate—to 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 Verba’s 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 culture—in terms of subjectivity—eviscerates 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 anyone’s 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. 128–129).

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 Geertz’s 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 analysis—emphasizing the Rousseau- Durkheim more than the Montesquieu-Weber axis—has 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 Revolution’s 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.