Political Culture: Meaning, Features, Types, and Significance

Political culture refers to the attitudes, beliefs, values, and norms that underlie a political system and guide political behavior. It provides an organizing framework for collective political action by fostering shared understandings about how the political system works and creating common identifications, orientations, and behaviors among citizens. The concept emerged in the 1950s and 1960s through the pioneering work of scholars such as Gabriel Almond, Sidney Verba, and Lucian Pye who sought to understand how subjective political culture shapes objective institutions and processes.

This article will explain the meaning and main features of political culture, outline the major types, and analyze the significance of political culture for democracy, development, and stability. It will also examine key debates and dilemmas like clashes between civic and ethnic nationalist cultures. Political culture is an expansive concept encompassing diverse elements from constitutions and election rituals to deep assumptions about authority and community. By influencing what is politically possible and “normal,” over time political cultures shape institutional configurations and policy trajectories.

Meaning and Main Features

Political culture refers to the subjective perceptions, attitudes, norms, values, behaviors and symbols that define a political system. It provides frameworks for interpreting the political world and determining appropriate actions. Almond and Verba’s pioneering study defined political culture as “the political system as internalized in the cognitions, feelings and evaluations of its population” (1963). As Lucian Pye described it, political culture provides “the emotional and attitudinal environment within which the political system operates” (1965). It consists of the informal norms, cognitive schemas, emotional dispositions, and symbolic repertoires that undergird formal structures.

The main features of political culture include:

  • Sharedness – Political cultures construct collective worldviews and shared orientations that cut across divisions. This fosters a sense of common belonging and identity.
  • Persistence – Core elements of political culture endure over generations and are instilled through childhood socialization. This lends stability and continuity.
  • Holism – Political culture constitutes a system where elements cohere with each other. Changes in one part reverberate through other parts.
  • Subjectivity – Political culture resides in subjective perceptions and is not always rational or consistent. Public moods matter alongside formal rules.
  • Intangibility – Much of political culture is invisible and taken for granted. Symbols, rhetoric and rituals quietly shape assumptions.
  • Ambiguity – Diverse and conflicting currents coexist within political cultures. Tensions between parts persist rather than definitively resolving.

These attributes make political culture a powerful force that profoundly influences political life.

Types of Political Culture

Scholars have constructed various typologies of political culture based on key dimensions such as attitudes toward the political system and political participation. Three major types of political culture identified by Almond and Verba are:

Parochial – Citizens are only vaguely aware of government institutions and do not see politics as able to influence their lives. This creates indifference and apathy. Mostly found in traditional pre-industrial societies.

Subject – Citizens have knowledge of the political system and obey its commands as passive subjects. Participation is limited to voting and obeying laws rather than influencing decisions. Prevalent in authoritarian societies.

Participatory – Citizens are actively engaged with the political system and feel efficacious in shaping outcomes. High interpersonal trust promotes participation and compromise. Considered most supportive of democracy.

Another well-known typology from Daniel Elazar focuses on citizens’ perceptions of the role of government. It distinguishes between:

  • Individualistic culture – Government intervention in society and economy should be minimal. Priority is given to individual rights and private initiative. Common in Western frontier regions of US.
  • Moralistic culture – Government has a role promoting the collective welfare but should be driven by the public interest rather than special interests. Citizens are motivated by desire to advance the greater good through civic participation and social capital. Found in progressive states.
  • Traditionalistic culture – Government authority is accepted as necessary to maintaining existing social order, hierarchy, and traditions. Leaders are expected to govern based on inherited customs and established morals. Most prevalent in the feudal-influenced American South.

More recent scholarship examines tensions between liberal and republican conceptions of citizenship:

  • Liberal/procedural culture – Emphasizes rights, autonomy, tolerance, pluralism and limited government. Citizenship entails respecting others’ freedoms, voting, and obeying laws. Fosters individualism.
  • Civic republican/communitarian culture – Stresses collective deliberation and active participation aimed at advancing public good. Citizenship requires involvement in public affairs and nurturing communal bonds. Promotes solidarity.

Another important distinction is between civic and ethnic forms of nationalism as sources of identity and orientation:

  • Civic nationalism – Shared commitment to common political principles, institutions and laws is the primary basis for nationhood. Individuals of diverse ethnic backgrounds can embrace common citizenship. Culture is inclusive and assimilationist.
  • Ethnic nationalism – Shared language, ancestry, customs, traditions and religion constitute the predominant basis for national identity. This can foster intolerance of minority groups and immigrants. Culture is exclusive and nativist.

These ideal types help categorize and explain differences between political cultures observed in empirical studies across various contexts.

Significance of Political Culture

Political culture powerfully influences political stability, quality of governance, regime legitimacy, policy reforms, democratization, development patterns, and prospects for peace or conflict. Key impacts include:

Stability – Shared political cultures foster social cohesion and unify diverse groups under common symbols and identities. This engenders systemic stability and ordered power transitions following established norms. Political cultures disrupted by sudden shocks like war or democratization face greater volatility.

Legitimacy – Political cultures shape perceptions of what constitutes legitimate authority and political order. Authority following prevailing norms and identities is internalized by citizens as intrinsically right and lawful, conferring legitimacy. Actions violating ingrained political culture tend to be seen as illegitimate.

Governance – Political culture impacts quality of governance and corruption. Cultures of public service and civic engagement motivate better governance. Clientelist and parochial cultures sustain corruption and disengagement. Traditional cultures may foster economic development but hinder inclusiveness and adaptation.

Reform – Possibilities for reform depend on cultural assumptions. Change violating core political culture norms faces resistance even if rationally needed. Reform strategically crafted to resonate with existing political culture is more feasible and sustainable.

Democratization – Democratic transitions and consolidation are influenced by compatibilities with existing political culture. Cultures of participation and pluralism assist democratization while parochial, traditionalistic and authoritarian cultures hinder it. Transitions shape new democratic political cultures over time.

Peace – In diverse societies, inclusive civic political cultures sustain inter-group accommodation and peace. Discriminatory ethnic political cultures divide societies and breed instability and violence, especially in transitional contexts. External democratization attempts often underestimate difficulties reforming exclusionary political cultures.

Development – Development paths and policies are filtered through political culture lenses. Cultures emphasizing communal obligations and public good can enable inclusive development guided by shared interests. Individualistic cultures facilitate market dynamism but may encourage economic inequality and polarization.

These impacts across a spectrum of outcomes demonstrate the foundational importance of political culture for explaining political behaviors and possibilities.

Challenges and Debates

The political culture concept has been critiqued for being too vague, static, homogenizing, and for underemphasizing structural influences over cultural ones. Political culture inherently simplifies complex realities. Key issues debated include:

  • Difficulties of comparison across societies and measuring impacts precisely using a qualitative concept.
  • Tensions between cultural coherence and contradictions. Subcultures based on class, ethnicity, religion, region, gender and ideology coexist uneasily within national political cultures.
  • Overlooking power relations. Political culture often rationalizes unequal and dominant interests rather than supporting democratic ideals.
  • Dilemmas of representation. Whose perspectives define a given political culture – elites, average citizens, marginalized groups, men, women? What dissonances exist between official and vernacular political cultures?
  • Interactions with formal institutions. Political culture influences institutions but is also reshaped by institutional reforms over time. Causality goes both ways.
  • Agency for change. Under what conditions can strategic actors reshape political culture to enable reforms rather than just reflecting existing culture?
  • Globalization challenges. Transnational identities and norms compete with national political cultures. Communication technologies speed cultural change and diffusion.

Ongoing empirical study and conceptual refinement continues around such issues. Political culture remains a vital framework for explaining continuity and change in political life.

References

Almond, G. A., & Verba, S. (1963). The civic culture: Political attitudes and democracy in five nations. Princeton University Press.

Elazar, D. J. (1972). American federalism: A view from the states. Thomas Y. Crowell Company.

Inglehart, R. (1988). The renaissance of political culture. The American Political Science Review, 82(4), 1203-1230.

Inglehart, R., & Welzel, C. (2005). Modernization, cultural change, and democracy: The human development sequence. Cambridge University Press.

Laitin, D. D. (2007). Nation, states and violence. Oxford University Press.

Putnam, R. D. (1976). The comparative study of political elites. Prentice Hall.

Pye, L. W. (1965). Introduction: Political culture and political development. In Pye, L. W., & Verba, S. (Eds.), Political Culture and Political Development. Princeton University Press.

Schedler, A., & Sarsfield, R. (2007). Democrats with adjectives: Linking direct and indirect measures of democratic support. European Journal of Political Research, 46(5), 637-659.

Welzel, C. (2013). Freedom rising: Human empowerment and the quest for emancipation. Cambridge University Press.

Harrison, L. E., & Huntington, S. P. (Eds.). (2000). Culture matters: How values shape human progress. Basic Books.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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