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21 November 2005

The Field of Political Behavior

When I was a graduate student my department interviewed a senior faculty member for a position in American politics. During a meeting with grad students the candidate asked us to describe our research projects. When I mentioned my interests, s/he responded that I should give up on political behavior since it is "dead field." I was shocked. That was a decade ago.

I suppose it depends on how one defines "political behavior." Recalling only the work done at Michigan in the 1960s is quite different from assessing the field as it stands today. I'm not sure how the story will end, but the last 10 years have been a great success for the field. The new work on heuristics, partisanship, campaign advertising, electoral systems, network effects, and information has kept the field vital. The growing acceptance of field and lab experimentation, and the rise of new survey methodologies like the Annenberg data, TESS, and Knowledge Networks have helped to keep the study of mass behavior fresh. The Elections, Public Opinion, and Voting Behavior (EPOVB) section is one of the largest APSA organized sections. The NES has new funding and purpose. There is always room for improvement. Dormant subfields such as socialization need to be revitalized. Survey technology will continue to evolve as land lines are replaced by cell phones and internet communication. But I am convinced that political behavior is far from a "dead field."

Posted by Barry Burden at November 21, 2005 1:42 PM


Hmm... I more often get the question "what is political behavior?" Not dead, just not fitting in the whole "rat choicers versus touchy-feely-types" warfare.

And, I'm convinced everything in political science is cyclical; hopefully, for my sake, interest in political sophistication and information-holding is on an upswing!

Posted by: Chris Lawrence at November 21, 2005 11:36 PM

Interestingly, the questions that I get asked tend to concern the consequences of mass political behavior: (When) does mass behavior affect elite actions? What does a certain type of behavior mean for the political system? How do politicians learn what the people want?

I think Barry's right -- the field feels very much alive. At the same time, the type of research we do often seems to be of the form "How do citizens behave?" or "Why do they behave in the way they do?". We spend plenty of time looking for the effects of elite activity on mass behavior in order to answer these questions, yet my sense is that we know a lot less about the reverse relationship. Anyone have any suggestions for readings I could give my anonymous questioners?

Posted by: Phil Jones at November 22, 2005 10:44 PM


Think of it this way: what would you point to as the seminal works in political behavior that have been published in the last 20 years? Not that there has not been good work, but seminal, paradigm shifting work.

Zaller? That's now a decade old. The congressional elections work of the early 1980s? Two decades.

I think the claims that the field is dead are partially a function of political science's preference for "newness," and behavior is one of th most established and mature fields of inquiry in the discipline. And I think it's partially because some of it's primary advocates have decided that individual opinions are just too difficult to explain, and have instead moved off into aggregate analysis or analysis of actual election returns.

Posted by: paul at November 28, 2005 6:02 PM