David J. Elkins and Richard B. Simeon, “A cause in search of its effect, or what does political culture explain?” Comparative Politics 11 (1979), pp. 127-146.

‘Summary: sets out a definition of political culture that is meant to overcome the deficiencies of previous definitions. Outlines the limitations of political culture’s explanatory power: (1) against Almond and Verba, political culture should not be used to explain broad, vague DVs such as democracy; (2) culture is a permissive rather than causal variable. Argues that in future studies, the DV should be clearly and precisely defined, and that DVs should never be shifted mid-analysis.


Definition: political culture is defined as “a shorthand expression for a ‘mind-set’ which has the effect of limiting attention to less than the full range of alternative behaviours, problems, and solutions which are logically possible” (128) Note: “culture does not explain the particular choices which individuals make. Its explanatory power is primarily restricted to ‘setting the agenda’ over which political contests occur.”  (131)





*consistency of political culture across the unit may vary, however, as “the range of assumptions or unconscious premises coexisting within a culture may be extremely narrow, highly consistent, and strongly interrelated… [as in] a traditional, relatively isolated tribe. Or, the culture may encompass a very wide range of contrasting views, not necessarily consistent or compatible, perhaps not even interrelated, but rather divided into ‘water-tight compartments’ as may be the case with so-called consociational democracies.” (128)

*the notion of political culture “implies a particular unit of analysis. [It] is the property of a collectivity – nation, region, class, ethnic community, formal organization, party, [etc.]. Individuals have beliefs, values, and attitudes but they do not have cultures.” (129)

*the use of political culture as a tool should “be reserved for explaining political difference between collectivities, when structural… explanations can be shown to be insufficient. By corollary, cultural, institutional explanations are not competitors but collaborators… we should look for their joint effects.” (143)

*structural explanations can refer to stratification (i.e. “the different proportions of individuals possessing certain positions or social characteristics: income levels, ethnicity, age, gender, urbanization, [etc]”) or they can refer to political institutions (130)

*in terms of stratification, “national culture is at work only when people in the same social categories, but in different nations, hold different assumptions. When a structural control eliminates the differences, then that control variable identifies a collectivity whose cultural attributes may be important” (130)

*in terms of political institutions, when political institutions do not themselves account for the differences, we’ll again turn to see if culture is playing a role. What’s more, even if institutions do explain the difference, we may be able to explain the presence or absence of certain institutions using culture. (see 130-131)

*structural and institutional explanations should therefore be examined prior to looking at cultural explanations! (see 136)

*it is a “second order” explanation. (139)

*the content of political culture can include a variety of outlooks, including assumptions about the orderliness of the universe, fatalism, political efficacy, human nature and community (see pg 132)

*“the content of culture differs markedly from personality, since it refers to basic premises of action or guiding assumptions about the world, while personality refers to behaviour patterns or to behavioural dispositions” (134)

*personality is “an individual’s characteristic strategies of adaptation to his environment and inner needs,” and culture is part of that environment (134)

*the homogeneity/heterogeneity of available assumptions in a culture (which may include conflicting assumptions) determines the scope for individual variation based on personality, as do socialization and roles (see 134-135)

*practically speaking, the logic of cultural explanations requires that it be comparative (since “logically, culture cannot be used to explain variations within the unit”) and “culture as an explanation is seldom direct and seldom operates alone. Rather it is generally permissive and almost always acts in conjunction with other variables.” (140)

*Elkins and Simeon then offer a number of suggestions about the application of political culture:

*first, against many of the classic political culture studies, including Almond and Verba and Putnam, they argue that while “cultural factors have been used to understand very broad system characteristics [e.g. stability, democracy, authoritarianism, and level of economic and political development]… [they] propose that this level of analysis should not remain a preoccupation of students of culture, because, as dependent variables, such phenomena are simply too broad and vague” (140-141)

*second, they point out that while “some scholars have pointed to culture to explain individual attitudes and behaviour… [they] doubt that it can do so alone” since culture is permissive, not causal (141)

*third, “political culture is likely to help explain certain characteristics of political institutions,” how they are used and how they are sustained (e.g. US congress and the norm of reciprocity)

*lastly, political culture can effect policy formation in both a procedural sense (i.e. “culture would affect the ways policy makers interact and their style of behaviour” (142)) and in a substantive sense (i.e. “culture may help to explain the scope and content of government activity. These depend partly on the distribution of assumptions about the role of the state, about the desirable balance between public and private activity, and about collective versus individual decisions.” (143))

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