Category Archives: epistemic networks

what if political parties structure our thinking for us?

Presumably, each person should hold a structured set of political opinions. For instance, if you want more government spending without any new taxes, you should be OK with deficits (unless you dispute that deficits will result). If you want a specific right for yourself, you should support the same right for other people, because fairness demands equal protection (unless another worthy principle overrides that conclusion). If you think individual liberty is a high priority, you should oppose censorship (unless you think restricting speech is necessary for a different reason). Each of your beliefs should predict several others, forming a tight network.

In the early 1960s, Philip Converse argued that most Americans’ beliefs were hardly structured at all (Converse 1964). Knowing what a person believed about x would not help you predict what that person believed about y.

Converse’s article has been cited more than 12,000 times and has generated a large literature. Some studies have confirmed his basic finding (e.g., Kinder & Kalmoe 2017). Some use different methods or datasets to challenge his conclusion by finding structure (e.g., Boutyline & Vaisey 2017 or Levine 2022). Some have contested Converse’s interpretation. For instance, maybe people are ambivalent about issues, holding views on both sides. A multiple-choice survey misses their ambivalence and gives a misleading impression that people are inconsistent when they really feel conflicted (Zaller & Feldman 1992).

There is also a line of research that finds that most Americans (Achen & Bartels 2016, p. 268; Sniderman 2017) and Europeans (Galina 2023) hold structured political beliefs, but their structures come from the leaders of their political parties.

It may not be self-evident what a conservative or a progressive party should think about each new topic, from COVID vaccination to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to bailing out a bank in Silicon Valley. But parties do form views, and their voters generally follow suit. Most people’s lists of issue positions mirror those of their party’s leaders. A given person’s ideas may or may not cohere, but they probably correlate closely with the positions of that person’s party.

I do not think that this research settles the empirical issues. The reality is complicated, with many dynamics at work. There are methodological challenges, such as the limitations of surveys that I mentioned earlier. And it’s not completely clear what causes what. (Maybe party elites are affected by their grassroots members or by some third force, such as celebrities.) Nevertheless, I believe there is at least some important truth to the theory that parties organize people’s thinking for them–or, I should say, for us. As Paul Sniderman puts it, “parties organize the choice environment” for voters “and define what goes with what” (Sniderman 2017 p. 71).

How should we assess this situation? Is it good or bad, and does it require some kind of remedy?

One way to think about those questions is to choose a model for understanding political parties. Here are three, amongst others:

  1. Activists and leaders of political parties are highly interested in issues. Most people defer detailed consideration of issues to the leadership of their preferred party. That makes good sense, in the same way that it’s often wise to delegate a decision to a committee of passionate volunteers. Supporters of a party can assess its general direction and use “voice” (becoming involved in the party’s decisions) or “exit” (leaving the party or just voting for a different one), if they are dissatisfied (Hirshman 1970). Perhaps a given political system needs more voice–more participatory opportunities within each party–or more viable parties, so that voters can exit more easily. But we should not be worried by the general finding that people take their cues from party leaders. People are wisely delegating the nitty-gritty work of political analysis to those who enjoy it most. Voters are learning from the more extensive thinking of party leaders.
  2. Party leaders are politicians, defined as people who want and pursue political offices for themselves. They will choose positions on issues to improve their chances of winning. Their self-interest is not shared by ordinary people, who want good outcomes. Insofar as people take their cues from party leaders, they are being used as means to the politicians’ personal ends. In a better democracy, more of us would exhibit individual structures of ideas, and political leaders would have to cater to our views, not the reverse.
  3. Parties basically reflect social interests. In a given system, there may be a party for the farmers, for the urban middle classes, for the observant Catholics, and for a linguistic minority. In the USA, the electoral system forces the concatenation of interests into two umbrella parties, but they are basically coalitions of such interests. Therefore, voters will primarily seek a party that protects the interests that they consider most important (not necessarily material ones). However, a party must also take positions on many other issues. Leaders choose positions that maximize their party’s political appeal and leverage so that they can protect the voters’ core interests. Voters assess parties as tools for protecting their interests, and as long as they are basically satisfied with a given party, they will mimic its specific issue stances.

I think the truth is some mix of these ideas, depending on the political system. After all, countries differ in respect to how many parties they have, whether and to what degree their major parties are ideologically or demographically distinguished, whether coalitions are built inside parties or among them, whether parties exercise discipline over politicians, to what extent intellectual work is conducted inside the parties compared to other sectors of the society, and which kinds of people constitute the party “elites.” (In the USA, official members of the party committees are less influential than nominally nonpartisan pundits and celebrities.)

As usual, empirical evidence is relevant to our political judgments, but it is insufficient. What should we do if “parties organize the choice environment”? Sniderman clarifies the empirical literature and offers some important normative guidance. But his argument makes me want to think harder about how specific parties in specific political systems play their structuring roles and whether their approaches to choosing and combining positions are acceptable.

See also: Mapping Ideologies as Networks of Ideas; are Americans ‘innocent of ideology’?; what if people’s political opinions are very heterogeneous?; two theories of American political parties; social class inversion in the 2022 US elections, etc.

References: Achen, C. H., Bartels, L. M. (2016), Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government; Princeton University Press; Boutyline, A., & Vaisey, S. (2017), Belief network analysis: a relational approach to understanding the structure of attitudes, American journal of sociology, 122(5), 1371-1447; Converse, P.E. (2006) The nature of belief systems in mass publics, Critical review 18.1-3 (2006): 1-74; Kinder D.R. & Kalmoe, N.P. (2007), Neither liberal nor conservative: Ideological innocence in the American public, University of Chicago Press; Gallina, M (2023), Solving the (false) dilemma: an ecological approach to the study of opinion constraint,” Political studies; Hirschman, A. O. (1970), Exit, voice and loyalty: responses to decline in firms, organizations, and states (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press); Levine, P (2022), Mapping ideologies as networks of ideas, Journal of Political Ideologies: 1-28. Sniderman P.M. (2017), The Democratic Faith: Essays on Democratic Citizenship (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press), Zaller, J. & Feldman, S. (1992), A simple theory of the survey response: answering questions versus revealing preferences, American Journal of Political Science, 36:3: 579-616

Mapping Ideologies as Networks of Ideas

Newly published (behind a firewall): Peter Levine (2022) Mapping ideologies as networks of ideas, Journal of Political Ideologies, DOI: 10.1080/13569317.2022.2138293.

This is an early publication from my main current scholarly project. I am concerned that several streams of research and intellectual conversations are converging on the same conclusion: people just aren’t very thoughtful or rational about politics. This stance discourages efforts to enhance democracy and the public sphere. However, the most prevalent measurement tools–standard opinion surveys–are systematically biased against detecting the complexity and individuality of individuals’ political views. Various colleagues and I are experimenting with alternative quantitative methods that involve directly asking people about the connections among their distinct beliefs and analyzing the results as networks. This sole-authored article is a pilot study aimed at validating the method.


Individuals in a non-representative sample of 93 US progressives were asked which social outcomes they valued and then asked about the relationships among these opinions. Did each outcome provide a reason for a different one? Would each outcome cause a different one? If each outcome came to pass, would it make them more likely to support another outcome? Network diagrams derived from these responses represent portions of these individuals’ ideologies, understood as structures of political thought. Scrutiny of the network diagrams and analysis of the aggregate data suggest that most respondents carefully and reasonably identified relationships among their own ideas. Features of their networks predicted their assessments of five prominent politicians. This exploratory study paints a strikingly different picture of the sample than what would emerge from more conventional methods, such as factor analysis. Instead of a group that looks ideologically homogeneous on a unidimensional scale or that exhibits a low level of ideological coherence (because very few of their ideas are correlated), this method displays a collection of people who hold diverse and complex structures of thought. The method should be replicated with representative samples to explore the variation and significance of such structures.

See also: what if people’s political opinions are very heterogeneous?;  individuals in cultures: the concept of an idiodictuonideologies and complex systemsdon’t let the behavioral revolution make you fatalistic, etc.

seeking a religious congregation for a research study

I am seeking a congregation (of any religion, denomination, tradition, size, and location) for a research study. My interest is in testing a new method that I have been developing with colleagues that could apply to any community. I would give the congregation’s leadership–or its full membership–easy-to-understand findings about shared values and areas of disagreement within their congregation that should have practical value for planning events and programs.

Please consider whether this project might interest a congregation to which you belong or one that you know. Inquiries are welcome. More details follow:

I would ask the clergy or other leader(s) of the congregation to encourage members to take anonymous online surveys. The minimum would be two: a short survey with open-ended responses followed by a multiple-choice survey a week or two later that is based on the first one. I would be interested in repeating the multiple-choice survey months later to understand change, although that’s optional. If it’s practical, I would also like to visit and observe informally to get a feel for the community.

I would publish a scholarly study that would refer to the congregation anonymously (e.g., “a Protestant church in the Northeastern USA”). I would also provide the congregation with concise findings in PowerPoint format and would be happy to discuss them. No money would change hands. The congregation would own the PowerPoint and would not be obliged to publish or share it in any way. No individuals would be obligated to take the surveys, and I would expect only some people to do so. No identifiable information about individuals would be shared either within or beyond the congregation.

I could provide more detail about the method, but in brief, we don’t simply ask people their opinions about values, beliefs, and norms. Instead, we ask them how their personal opinions relate to each other. For instance, do they value A because they value B? Do they think that A causes B? From those responses, we generate network diagrams of the beliefs of each respondent and of the community as a whole. In this study, the questions would focus on religion and the congregation as a community, not on politics (unless respondents happen to bring up political matters).

Typically, each person’s responses are unique—a nice illustration of the uniqueness of human beings and how much we lose when we assign people to categories. Yet we typically see clusters of agreement and disagreement that can otherwise be overlooked. Understanding these patterns should provide ideas for visitors, readings, events, discussion groups (etc.) that would be valuable for the specific congregation.

what if people’s political opinions are very heterogeneous?

Here is what I will call a “top-down” theory of public opinion: Everyone should assess the most important issues of the day. An example might be the federal budget. Individuals are entitled to their personal beliefs or preferences about taxation, spending, and deficits; nevertheless, these three topics have an objective logical structure. If you want lower taxes and no deficits, you must favor spending cuts. If you want more spending, you must support either tax increases or bigger deficits. It is a civic obligation to think through your own complete view of these issues.

Analyzing a nationally representative survey of such matters should reveal that: a) most citizens hold opinions about them, and b) everyone recognizes the same underlying logic, even as they disagree about priorities. Citizens should vote according to their priorities, and the majority should prevail.

If, however, a) and b) are false, then democracy is flawed. Perhaps people should learn more and pay more attention, or the political system should offer greater clarity, or perhaps democracy is simply a false ideal.

Philip Converse’s “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics” (1964) has been enormously influential (cited more that 11,000 times). He does not employ exactly the framework with which I began this post, but his analysis suggests that democracy is a flawed ideal.

Analyzing surveys of political specialists, such as congressional candidates, Converse finds that these respondents meet both tests mentioned above. Professional politicians and other experts hold opinions on the great issues of the day that fit together in similar ways, even as they debate the contested questions. However, according to Converse, surveys of representative Americans reveal scant opinions and no consistent structure among opinions. Ordinary people are not, therefore, in a position to weigh in on the debates of the day.

Converse doesn’t use network analysis, but I can convert his core findings into network maps. (For those interested, I turned every tau-gamma coefficient above .05 in Converse’s Table 7 into an edge in these graphs.)

Congressional candidates share the following model of the political debate ca. 1962.

Whether candidates are Democrats or Republicans is strongly related to their views of federal interventions on education, housing, and employment, and those issues are linked together. Military aid to foreign countries is not connected–it stands alone as a topic. (“FEPC” means the proposed Fair Employment Practices Commission.)

Meanwhile, this is the result of using the same method with Converse’s data from representative adults at the same time:

There are no links at at all among the ideas (meaning no coefficients > .5). Converse suggests that people are not in a position to play the role expected in a “civics class” theory of democracy, assessing and voting on the issues of the day.

Now here is a rival, “bottom up” theory: The social world is enormously complex. Responsible people may hold opinions on myriad issues, and no one can have a view about everything. Even if we focus on a single domain, such as the federal budget, it is highly complex. Federal spending includes funds for many different purposes. Each federal program has a financial cost, but it also has moral significance, behavioral impact, symbolic meaning, likelihood of success, etc. If people are diverse and free, they will naturally form many different structures of opinions about the range of topics that they have considered so far.

Imagine a sample of people, each of whom holds a thoughtful and carefully considered view of public issues and connects each opinion to other opinions in rigorous ways. However, each person holds a unique structure. Then, if researchers contact each person and ask a short list of survey questions (out of the innumerable questions that they could ask), and the aggregate survey data is analyzed using the methods pioneered by Converse, it will reveal no significant links at all. The heterogeneity of individuals’ beliefs will yield very low coefficients at the group level. Their graph will look just like the second graph above–not because they are tuned out of politics or undisciplined in their thinking, but because they differ.

Converse (p. 44) explicitly acknowledges this possibility. He notes that if people’s opinions become “increasingly idiosyncratic” as they move away from the elite, we will find “little aggregative patterning of belief combinations” in their data, because they will not know “what goes with what” (presumably, according to the elites) and will “therefore put belief elements together in a great variety of ways.”

However, Converse counters with a different kind of evidence. According to his analysis of longitudinal data from the American National Election Studies from 1958-60, most people’s opinions on most issues change as if by sheer chance as time passed. This implies that they do not hold “well knit but highly idiosyncratic belief systems” (p. 47). Instead, they have no “meaningful beliefs” at all (p. 51). The exceptions are various small and specialized “issue publics” who hold stable opinions about specific concerns, including many Blacks and some White Southerners on questions of race.

On this point, I would only note that an enormous number of longitudinal studies have been conducted since 1962, and some find stability over time (e.g., Kustov, Laaker & Reller 2021), unexplained–and perhaps random–change (Jaeger, M. M. 2006), or a mix of the two, depending on this issue (Kiley & Vaisey 2020). For instance, according to the last of those studies, the proportion of individuals who change their opinions about abortion is extraordinarily low. Converse’s blanket claim that most people’s opinions on most issues change randomly seems overstated.

I do not assume that all of my fellow Americans (or anyone else) holds complex and rigorous mental models of politics. Some people hardly hold any opinions, or cannot connect their opinions together, or do so in illogical ways. My point is that we cannot tell from aggregate data what proportion of people hold thoughtful views unless we assume that all worthy views must manifest the same structure. Converse uses scare quotes around the word “proper” when he mentions “the sophisticated observer’s assumption of what beliefs go with other beliefs,” but if we seriously doubt that elites understand the “proper” arrangement, then we should expect regular people to exhibit great diversity.

In that case, we should seek to understand the heterogeneous structures of ordinary people’s views. This kind of research has three important purposes:

  1. It may counter the very low assessment of public capacity that is fashionable now in political science, deriving from Converse. That skepticism may prove self-reinforcing, since experts who doubt the public’s ability to reason will not be motivated to defend or improve democracy.
  2. It may yield specific findings about structures of thought shared by sub-groups. Those insights will be invisible as long as we only we ask whether the public shares the structures assumed by political elites.
  3. It offers a perspective on political institutions. Even if many people hold worthy but heterogeneous structures of ideas, we probably still need mass elections to address prominent topics, such as whether to raise or cut taxes. I support that kind of democracy. But it will always be frustrating, because the structure presented by elites will fail to match the reasonable structures in many people’s minds. Fortunately, we can complement mass majoritarian democracy with other forms of participation. Civil society provides an enormous range of specialized groups, and individuals can choose to join the groups that match their personal ideologies, exit ones that don’t, advocate for adjustments within the groups they belong to, and compete for new members. Meanwhile, relatively small and relatively discursive bodies, such as local town meetings or Participatory Budgeting sessions, offer individuals opportunities to share their idiosyncratic views in public. We might understand those venues as opportunities for deliberation that can yield wiser judgments. Or we might understand such venues as places where people can display their uniqueness, as Hannah Arendt advocated. Thus a “bottom up” theory supports decentralization, pluralism, or polycentricity.

See also: Moral and Political Discussion and Epistemic Networks; modeling a political discussion; individuals in cultures: the concept of an idiodictuon; ideologies and complex systems; don’t let the behavioral revolution make you fatalistic, polycentricity: the case for a (very) mixed economy, etc. I also acknowledge Jon Green, Nic Fishman, Sarah Shugars, and others who are working in this general domain today.

Moral and Political Discussion and Epistemic Networks

Yesterday, I got to give an International Society for Quantitative Ethnography (ISQE) Webinar on “Moral and Political Discussion and Epistemic Networks.” I really enjoyed the questions and conversation. This is the video of the whole event:

Abstract: An individual holds linked beliefs about political or moral issues, which we can model as a network. How these ideas are linked together influences the person’s actions and opinions. When individuals discuss, they share some portions of their respective networks of which they are conscious at the time. Some network structures are better than others for discussion: overly centralized or scattered networks are problematic. Individuals tend to demonstrate similar network structures on different issues. Thus, relying on certain kinds of networks is a character trait. People, with their respective networks of ideas, are also embedded in social networks. An idea is more likely to spread depending on features of both the social network and the idea networks of the people who interact. As a whole, a population may develop a shared network structure. An idea that is widely shared and frequently central in individuals’ networks becomes a norm. Institutions are partly composed of such norms. A community or a culture is a single network with disagreement. Ultimately, all such networks interconnect. This theory has implications for politics, ethics, and research methodologies.

Additional ISQE webinars are listed here.