Concept of Political Culture

Culture, Values and the
Quality of Democracy

José Eduardo JorgeJosé Eduardo Jorge

EnglishDefinition of political culture. Impact of political culture on the quality of democracy. Origins and evolution of the approach. Main theories. The progress of the field in the 1990s. Our Program from 2001 to the present


¿What is Political Culture?

Political culture includes values, beliefs and patterns of behavior that are relevant to the political process and prevalent among individuals and groups in a society. The growing interest in this scientific field coincides with the recent history of expansion of democracy. A distinct set of cultural orientations seems to be essential for the stability, depth and efficacy of the system, to the same degree as economic or social factors, the decisions made by elites or the international environment.

We should not conceive political culture as a motionless entity, or a «cause» that «determines» the political life of a country. It is a variable that maintains complex interactions with the economy, the social structure and the political-institutional sphere, but within this system of mutual influences there are some predominant causal directions that we can discern.

Progress in this field has accelerated in recent decades due to the diffusion of transnational surveys and case studies, which have allowed researchers to gather systematic information about the political culture of societies of almost every cultural heritage and at all levels of economic development.

My main interest in the political culture approach resides in that it can enhance our knowledge of low quality democracies – a widespread phenomenon, typical of Latin America, produced by the Third Wave of democratization – and probably suggest new ways to improve them.

The Study of Political Culture

The political culture approach was born as a scientific discipline more than half a century ago. Works by Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba (1963), Harry Eckstein (1961, 1966) and Edward Banfield (1958) are among the main pioneering studies. The notion resurfaced in the 1980s, driven by the global wave of democratization (Inglehart, 1988; Eckstein, 1988; Almond & Verba, 1989). Contrasting with the limitations of the transition paradigm (Carothers, 2002), it helped to account for the problems of many new democracies, whose quality did not meet the initial expectations.

One result of this renewed interest was the expansion of transnational surveys that include detailed indicators of political culture as part of their objectives. Periodic surveys such as the World Values Survey (WVS), the European Social Survey (ESS) and regional Barometers, allow researchers to work with massive databases about the political culture of most countries – and for a number of societies, with time-series data starting at the early 1980s.

The progress of the approach became notorious in the 1990s. Among the most influential works of this period are those of the sociologist Ronald Inglehart (1997, 1990) – the founder of the WVS – and the political scientist Robert D. Putnam (1993, 2000). Recent important analyses are Inglehart & Welzel (2005), Dalton & Welzel (2014), Welzel (2013) and Diamond (2008). The Theory of Basic Human Values, which was developed by Shalom H. Schwartz (1992) within social psychology, was adopted by the ESS in the early 2000s (Schwartz, 2009, 2007, 2006) and has now joined the field.

The study of political culture is an interdisciplinary terrain at the crossroads of political science, sociology, anthropology, psychology and mass communication research. It involves a set of interrelated theories, hypotheses and concepts. The Postmodernization Theory, which has been developed by Inglehart and subsequently also by Christian Welzel, emphasizes the political impact of Emancipative or Self-Expression values. Through the concept of Civic Community, Putnam derived the consequences for democracy of the Social Capital paradigm. This same approach has produced alternative hypotheses that diverge from Putnam’s theses and a relevant subfield of research focused on the phenomenon of interpersonal trust.

Other formulations and analyses extend some aspects of the foundational Civic Culture model advanced by Almond and Verba, as well as of David Easton’s views on the Political System, which stress the importance of responsive institutions and the support from citizens for the stability of a political regime. Schwartz’s Theory of Basic Human Values links democracy to specific cultural values at the level of society.

The different viewpoints converge on the task of identifying a nucleus of basic components of political culture, their connections with the political and institutional spheres and their mechanisms of formation and change. The main focus of inquiry is the role of political culture in the emergence, stability, depth and effectiveness of democracy.

This is also the goal of the Research Program on Democratic Political Culture that I have conducted from 2006 to the present day in Argentine universities (see especially Jorge, 2010a, 2016, 2015a, 2014a, 2012a, 2012c, 2010c, 2008a, 2007, 2006, 2004, 2002; Jorge et al., 2015a, 2015b, 2013). It has been preceded by a series of studies and actions that I carried out in the sphere of civil society and university from 2001 to 2005.

The program includes until now six Research Projects. The current one is “Argentine Political Culture, Social Trust and Democratic Values,” National University of La Plata (UNLP), 2016-2017. It was preceded by the following projects: 11/P238 “Civic Community and Social Capital,” UNLP, 2014-2015; 11/P218 “Political Culture and Mass Media,” UNLP, 2012-2013; SIB-2000 “Media, Citizenship and Democracy,” National University of the Northwestern of the Province of Buenos Aires (UNNOBA), 2012-2013; P-0415 “Political Culture in the Northwestern Region,” UNNOBA, 2009-2011; PID-P001 “Political Culture in the Greater La Plata Region,” UNLP, 2006-2009.

Our line of research makes use of methodologies and databases of the major transnational surveys on political culture, especially the World Values Survey and the European Social Survey. As part of the projects, we also conduct our own Regional Surveys in order to test particular hypotheses at the individual level, examine in depth specific topics, and directly compare political culture data at the sub-national level with those of the transnational surveys.

Specific goals of our program are to make progress in theoretical development and integration, test hypotheses concerning the formation and change of political culture, and study Argentine political culture and its regional differences. We are now extending the focus of research to other Latin American societies and their relative position in the global stage.

The basic hypothesis of the political culture approach is that democracy – and, in fact, any stable political regime – requires a compatible culture that serves it as a support. The so called “congruence hypothesis” was first advanced by Eckstein (1961, 1966).

The convergence of viewpoints on this thesis does not imply unanimity. There is an intense debate about what are the basic elements of democratic political culture, their mutual connections and their causal links to the economy, social structure and institutions.

Components of Political Culture

As all scientific notions, the concept of political culture stems from a systematic delimitation of observed phenomena.

Culture itself can be defined in different ways, all of them equally valid according to the purposes of the analysis. The anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn conceived culture as the whole way of life of a community, or even the part of the environment that people have created. As maintained by Ralph Linton, it exists «in the minds» of the members of a society. It is the sum of their shared ideas, emotional reactions and patterns of behavior. On the contrary, the psychologist Shalom H. Schwartz states that culture is «outside» the individual: it refers to the «press» to which individuals are exposed by virtue of living in a social system (Schwartz, 2009).

A too broad definition of culture would not serve our purposes. If culture encompasses everything – including legal codes and political institutions – it would explain very little (Huntington, 2000, p. xv). Agreeing with this criterion, I define it as the values, beliefs and patterns of behavior that are shared by the members of a society (Jorge, 2010a, 2015a).

The political culture of a given society is an analytic subset of the culture of that community. It includes shared values, beliefs and behavior patterns that influence the political process. Political culture involves potentially a very broad range of features. Some of them are political in a narrow sense: confidence in institutions, ways and degrees of political participation, types of demands that people direct at the political system, etc. Others are general cultural traits that have an impact on the political sphere: beliefs about the roles and status of genders, level of interpersonal trust, rules of cooperation, etc.

Not all of these cultural features are equally important. Some components of political culture are more fundamental than others. For example, the opinions that people hold about the virtues and desirability of democracy – as measured in survey studies by some usual indicators of support – seem to be less relevant to the stability and quality of the system than the degree to which basic values associated with freedom, egalitarianism or respect for others are widespread.

Among values, beliefs and behavior patterns, the former are the most fundamental components of political culture. It is likely that the core of the political culture system in a society consists in a small set of very basic values.

The centrality of values extends to culture in general. Schwartz underlines that «the prevailing value emphases in a society may be the most central feature of culture» (Schwartz, 2006, pp. 138-9). They produce coherence among the different cultural manifestations (Schwartz, 2009). The ways social institutions are organized, as well as its policies and daily practices, express underlying value emphasis. Cultural traits that are incompatible with prevailing values generate tension, criticism and pressures for change.

On the other hand, it is possible to consider the political process in a broader or a narrower sense. It can be circumscribed to the workings of the formal institutions of the system – the executive, the parliament, the parties, etc. – or seen as a continuous activity that involves the participation of citizens, as individuals or members of groups and civic associations, through public deliberation and diverse channels and mechanisms of competition, aggregation and articulation of contending interests (Ibid., p. 30). As a result, there are potential variations in conceptual and operational definitions of democracy, as well as possible finer distinctions in the degrees of democracy (Ibid., pp. 39-53).

Normative issues are an essential dimension of politics. The question of what is the «best» political regime, which Plato and Aristotle already asked, has no scientific answer. Nor there is a universally accepted definition of democracy, even if the convergence of views has increased in recent decades.

But the question of whether an accurately defined political regime requires or not a congruent culture that sustains it can indeed be answered scientifically. One way is to do “natural experiments” through a comparative analysis of countries based on data from surveys and other statistical sources.

The political culture approach represents a critical viewpoint. Since it helps to clarify what are the values that underlie political attitudes, practices and regimes, it can contribute to the normative debate and may confront us with uneasy factual truths.

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