Political Behavior

, Volume 35, Issue 3, pp 453–479 | Cite as

What does “Political” Mean to You?

  • Jennifer FitzgeraldEmail author
Original Paper


How do regular people define the term “political”? This original study gives Americans and Canadians an opportunity to express their interpretations of the concept. It identifies a great deal of inter-personal variation in terms of how many and what kinds of topics people perceive as the stuff of politics. And this variation comes in predictable patterns: the findings reveal correlations between socio-political attributes (such as gender, nationality and ideology) and the boundaries people draw around the political domain. The study also provides insight into the ways people distinguish the political from the non-political in their minds. And importantly, individuals’ interpretations of the term “politics” relate systematically to other measures of self-reported political behavior including political interest and frequency of political discussion. These results can be used to refine survey analysis and to broaden knowledge of day-to-day citizen politics.


The political Categorization Comparative political behavior Validity United States Canada 



This research was made possible by an Innovative Seed Grant Award from the Vice Chancellor of Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The author thanks Ceren Altincekic, Vanessa Baird, Andy Baker, Anne Brown and the ISO, Hilde Coffé, Amber Curtis, Fay Fitzgerald, Dawn Kindsvater, Anand Sokhey and Jennifer Wolak for their various contributions to this project.


  1. Almond Gabriel, & Sydney Verba, (1963). The civic culture. Boston: Little Brown.Google Scholar
  2. Asch, S. E. (1952). Social psychology. New York: Prentice-Hall.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bambra, C. (2005). Cash Versus Services: “Worlds of Welfare” and the Decommodification of Cash Benefits and Health Care Services. Journal of Social Policy, 34(2), 195–213.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bartels, L. M. (2002). Beyond the running tally: partisan bias in political perceptions. Political Behavior, 24(2), 117–150.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bennett, L. L. M., & Bennett, S. E. (1989). The impact of socialization and political dispositions. American Politics Research, 17(1), 105–122.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bennett, S. E., Flickinger, R. S., & Rhine, S. L. (2000). Political talk over here, over there, over time. British Journal of Political Science, 30(1), 99–119.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Berelson, B. R., Lazarsfeld, P. F., & McPhee, W. N. (1954). Voting: a study of opinion formation in a presidential campaign. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  8. Bolsen, T., & Fay Lomax Cook, (2008). Trends: public opinion on energy policy. Public Opinion Quarterly, 72(2), 364–388.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Bratton, M. (2010). Anchoring the “D-Word” in comparative survey research. Journal of Democracy, 21(4), 106–113.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Bratton, M., Mattes, R., & Gymah-Boadi, E. (2004). Public opinion, democracy and market reform in Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Burns, N., Schlozman, K. L., & Verba, S. (2001). The Private Roots of Public Action: Gender, Equality, and Political Participation. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  12. Campbell, A., Converse, P. E., Miller, W. E., & Stokes, D. E. (1960). The American voter. New York: John Wiley.Google Scholar
  13. Canache, Damarys (2012). Citizens’ Conceptualizations of Democracy: Structural Complexity, Substantive Content, and Political Significance. Comparative Political Studies Online First: January 24.Google Scholar
  14. Canache, D., Mondak, J. J., & Seligson, M. A. (2001). Meaning and measurement in cross-national research on satisfaction with democracy. Public Opinion Quarterly, 65(4), 506–528.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Canes-Wrone, B., & Shotts, K. (2004). The conditional nature of presidential re-sponsiveness to public opinion. American Journal of Political Science, 48(4), 690–706.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Caruso, E. M., Mead, N. L., & Balcetis, E. (2009). Political partisanship influences perception of biracial candidates’ skin tone. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(48), 20168–20173.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Clarke, H. D., Kornberg, A., MacLeod, J., & Scotto, T. (2005). Too close to call: political choice in Canada, 2004. Political Science and Politics, 38(2), 247–253.Google Scholar
  18. Conover, P. J., Crewe, I. M., & Searing, D. D. (1991). The nature of citizenship in the United States and Great Britain. The Journal of Politics, 53(3), 800–832.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Conover, P. J., & Searing, D. D. (2002). Expanding the envelope: citizenship, contextual methodologies, and comparative political psychology. In J. H. Kuklinski (Ed.), Thinking about political psychology (pp. 89–114). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Conover, P Johnston, & Searing, D. D. (2005). Everyday Political Talk. Acta Politica, 40, 269–283.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Conover, P. J., Searing, D. D., & Crewe, I. (2002). The deliberative potential of political discussion. British Journal of Political Science, 32(1), 21–62.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Conover, P. J., Searing, D. D., & Crewe, I. (2004). The elusive ideal of equal citizenship: political theory and political psychology in the United States and Great Britain. The Journal of Politics, 66(4), 1036–1068.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Converse, P. (1975). Public opinion and voting behavior. In F. Greenstein & N. Polsby (Eds.), Handbook of political science: nongovernmental politics. Reading: Addison-Wesley.Google Scholar
  24. Cook, T. D., & Campbell, D. T. (1979). Quasi-experimentation: design and analysis issues for field settings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.Google Scholar
  25. Cook, F. L., Michael, X. D. C., & RJ, Lawrence. (2007). Who deliberates? Discursive participation in America. In S. W. Rosenberg (Ed.), Deliberation, participation and democracy: can the people govern?. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  26. Curtis, J., & Lambert, R. (1976). Voting, election interest, and age: national findings for English and French Canadians. Canadian Journal of Political Science, 9(2), 293–307.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Dalton, R. J., Beck, P. A., & Huckfeldt, R. (1998). Partisan cues and the media. American Political Science Review, 92(1), 111–126.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Dalton, R. J., Shin, D. C., & Jou, W. (2007). Understanding democracy: data form unlikely places. Journal of Democracy, 18(4), 142–156.Google Scholar
  29. Davidov, E., Schmidt, P., & Billiet, J. (2011). Cross-cultural analysis: methods and applications. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  30. Delli Carpini, M., & Keeter, S. (1996). What Americans know about politics and why it matters. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  31. Eliasoph, N. (1998). Avoiding politics: how americans produce apathy in everyday Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Esping-Andersen, G. (1990). The three worlds of welfare capitalism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  33. Everitt, B. S. (1975). Multivariate analysis: the need for data, and other problems. British Journal of Psychiatry, 126, 237–240.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Gamson, W. A. (2002). Talking politics. New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  35. Glenn, N. D., & Grimes, M. (1968). Aging, voting, and political interest. American Sociological Review, 33(4), 563–575.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Hall, P. A., & Soskice, D. (Eds.). (2001). Varieties of capitalism: the institutional foundations of comparative advantage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  37. Hansen, S. B. (1997). Talking about politics: gender and contextual effects on political proselytizing. Journal of Politics, 59(1), 73–103.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Hayes, B. C., & Bean, C. S. (1993). Gender and local political interest: some international comparisons. Political Studies, 41(4), 672–682.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Hibbing, M. V., Ritchie, M., & Anderson, M. R. (2011). Personality and political discussion. Political Behavior, 33(4), 601–624.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Hooghe, M., & Stolle, D. (2004). Good girls go to the polling booth, bad boys go everywhere. Women & Politics, 26(3–4), 1–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Huckfeldt, R. (2007). Unanimity, discord, and the communication of public opinion. American Journal of Political Science, 51(4), 978–995.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Huckfeldt, R., Beck, P. A., Dalton, R. J., & Levine, J. (1995). Political environments, cohesive social groups, and the communication of public opinion. American Journal of Political Science, 39(4), 1025–1054.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Huckfeldt, R., & Mendez, J. M. (2008). Moths, flames, and political engagement: managing disagreement within communication networks. The Journal of Politics, 70(1), 83–96.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Inglehart, M. L. (1981). Political interest in West European Women: an historical and empirical comparative analysis. Comparative Political Studies, 14(3), 299–326.Google Scholar
  45. Iyengar, S. (1990). Framing responsibility for political issues: the case of poverty. Political Behavior, 12(1), 19–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Jennings, M. K. (1983). Gender roles and inequalities in political participation: results from and eight-nation study. Western Political Quarterly, 36(3), 364–385.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Jones-Correa, M. A., & Leal, D. L. (2001). Political participation: does religion matter? Political Research Quarterly December, 54(4), 751–770.Google Scholar
  48. Jowell, R., Roberts, C., F, R., & Eva, G. (2007). Measuring attitudes cross-nationally: lessons from the European Social Survey. London: Sage.Google Scholar
  49. Kenny, C. B. (1992). Political participation and effects from the social environment. American Journal of Political Science, 36(1), 259–267.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Kershaw, P. (2004). ‘choice’ discourse in BC Child Care: distancing Policy from Research. Canadian Journal of Political Science, 37(4), 927–950.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. King, G., Tomz, M., & Wittenberg, J. (2000). Making the most of statistical analyses. American Journal of Political Science, 44(2), 341–355.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Klofstad, C. A. (2009). civic talk and civic participation: the moderating effect of individual predispositions. American Politics Research, 37(5), 856–878.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Kuklinski, James H., and Norman L. Hurley (1996). It’s a Matter of Interpretation. Ch. 5 in Diana C. Mutz, Paul M. Sniderman, Richard A Brody, eds., Political Persuasion and Attitude Change. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.Google Scholar
  54. Kwak, N., Williams, A. E., Wang, X., & Lee, H. (2005). Talking politics and engaging politics. Communication Research, 32(1), 87–111.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. La Due Lake, R., & Huckfeldt, R. (1998). Social Capital, Social Networks, and Political Participation. Political Psychology, 19(3), 567–584.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Lane, R. E. (1962). Political Ideology: Why the American Common Man Believes What He Does. Glencoe: The Free Press of Glencoe.Google Scholar
  57. Lau, R. R., Sears, D. O., & Jessor, T. (1990). Fact or artifact revisited: survey instrument effects and pocketbook politics. Political Behavior, 12(3), 217–242.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Lodge, M., & Hamill, Ruth. (1986). A partisan schema for political information processing. The American Political Science Review, 80(2), 505–520.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Lupia, A., & Philpot, T. S. (2005). Views from inside the net: how websites affect young adults’ political Interest. Journal of Politics, 67(4), 1122–1142.Google Scholar
  60. Mondak, J. J. (1993). Public opinion and heuristic processing of source cues. Political Behavior, 15(2), 167–192.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Mondak, J. J., Hibbing, M. V., Canache, D., Seligson, M. A., & Anderson, M. R. (2010). Personality and civic engagement: an integrative framework for the study of trait effects on political behavior. American Political Science Review, 104(1), 85–110.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Mutz, D. C. (2006). Hearing the other side: deliberative versus participatory democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Nisbet, M. C. (2005). The competition for worldviews: values, information and public support for stem cell research. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 17(1), 90–112.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Nisbet, M. C., & Myers, T. (2007). Trends: twenty years of public opinion about global warming. The Public Opinion Quarterly, 71(3), 444–470.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Page, B. I., & Shapiro, R. Y. (1983). Effects of public opinion on policy. American Political Science Review, 77(1), 175–190.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Preacher, K. J., & MacCallum, R. C. (2002). Exploratory factor analysis in behavior genetics research: factor recovery with small sample sizes. Behavior Genetics, 32, 153–161.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Putnam, R. D. (1993). Making democracy work: civic traditions in modern Italy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  68. Reeskens, T., & Hooghe, M. (2008). Cross-cultural measurement equivalence of generalized trust. Evidence from the European Social Survey (2002 and 2004). Social Indicators Research, 85, 515–532.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Ridout, T. N., Shah, D. V., Goldstein, K. M., & Franz, M. M. (2004). Evaluating measures of campaign advertising exposure on political learning. Political Behavior, 26(3), 201–225.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Rosenstone, S. J., & Hansen, J. M. (1993). Mobilization, participation, and American democracy. New York: MacMillan.Google Scholar
  71. Sears, D. O., & Valentino, N. A. (1997). Politics matters: political events as catalysts for preadult socialization. American Political Science Review, 91(1), 45–65.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Seligson, M. (2004). Comparative survey research: is there a problem? APSA-Comparative Politics Newsletter, 15, 11–14.Google Scholar
  73. Stolle, D., & Gidengil, E. (2010). What do women really know? a gendered analysis of varieties of political knowledge. Perspectives on Politics, 8(1), 93–109.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Straits, B. C. (1991). Bringing strong ties back in: interpersonal gateways to political information and influence. Public Opinion Quarterly, 55(3), 432–448.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Taber, C. S., Cann, D., & Kucsova, S. (2009). The motivated processing of political arguments. Political Behavior, 31(1), 137–155.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Verba, S., Burns, N., & Schlozman, K. L. (1997). Knowing and caring about politics: gender and political engagement. Journal of Politics, 59(4), 1051–1072.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Verba, S., Schlozman, K. L., & Brady, H. E. (1995). Voice and equality: civic voluntarism in American politics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  78. Walsh, K. C. (2004). Talking about politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  79. Wyatt, R. O., Katz, E., & Kim, J. (2000). Bridging the spheres: political and personal conversation in public and private spaces. Journal of Communication, 50, 71–92.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Zaller, J. R. (1992). The nature and origins of mass opinion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Political ScienceUniversity of Colorado at BoulderBoulderUSA

Personalised recommendations