Transfer to Defining Political Development Table of Contents
Transfer to Grounding Political Development Table of Contents
Transfer to next chapter
Transfer to previous chapter
Transfer to Bibliography


This work will locate political development as change in the political culture. The concept of political culture is, however, in some theoretical confusion, so we will employ an idiosyncratic definition of it. I advance a definition strange to the reader because (a) previous definitions do not satisfy the standard criteria theorists place on the concept; (b) the definition set forth here does satisfy these demands; and (c) this definition also meets the theoretical requirements for conceptualizing political development.(1) (A supplemental discussion of the concept of culture appears here.

The social order is not real but constructed, constituted in the ways people relate to one another. Humans have invented a vast variety of ways they can relate to each other: as fellow-citizens, as father and son, as robber and robbery victim, as colleague and colleague, as seller and purchaser, as writer and reader, and so on. Each life embraces numerous and quite disparate ways of relating to others.

What people commonly term institutions, mores, laws, customs, roles, languages (including slang and jargon), and lifestyles are, upon closer examination, all ways they relate to one another. Although people constantly reify institutions, saying "Congress raises taxes" or "the Post Office is so slow," only individuals act, never institutions. Institutions like Congress simply reflect a specific way people relate to one another: Congressional representatives to one another, the representatives to their constituents, and constituents to one another in terms of a political system with the representatives doing those things.

There are several perspectives from which one can look at ways of relating, but not all are equally profitable. The least profitable is to look at them as specific behavioral responses to the objective social environment. This behaviorist approach has no natural ability to capture the flexibility and adaptiveness of a way in which people relate, where vastly different environments and behaviors can be handled in the same way of relating. Conversely, different people can respond quite differently to the same environment, because their cognitive structures differ from one another, as Piaget discovered long ago.(2) A somewhat better perspective is to look at ways of relating as "action systems," in Talcott Parsons' sense of action as intentional social behavior. The philosophical difficulties of establishing intentionality make this approach only partially satisfactory, however.(3)

The best perspective is to look at ways of relating in terms of reasoning structures. This perspective recognizes the prior agency of the social actor in making her(4) environment meaningful. The actor actively identifies and at the same time interconnects aspects of her environment.(5) Her cognitive activity in doing so and in deciding on action is called "reasoning." Ordinary discourse recognizes such a preliminary process: we ask people how they see things, why they did that, and how they came to that conclusion. Our understandings of our world are often seen as objective, because for the most part people share outlooks, and the role of reasoning is accordingly obscured. Its role is revealed instantly, however, when agreement breaks down.(6)

Fixed environments may eventually induce recurrent responses, but environmental changes quickly reveal these responses' foundation in reasoning. Bureaucrats, for example, appear to employ regular, mindless bureaucratic procedures. But even obedient clients can present problems calling for interpretation, and some clients, as Danet (1971) points out, also use extra-legal appeals: sob stories, bribes, and even threats. Such appeals require the bureaucrat to re-reason her rote use of the rulebook by asking: "What is the value of following the rules when set against (for example) a monetary gain for myself?" The answer may appear obvious to the reader, but the long history of bureaucratic corruption shows it is not always obvious to bureaucrats. In short, any way of relating, including that represented by the most rule-bound bureaucracy, is founded on reasoning rather than fixed rules. Researchers must, therefore, inquire into people's understandings of their behavior - the schemas they employ - rather than their behavior alone.

When people relate to one another, either directly (as when I meet you at a conference) or in terms of the "generalized other" (as when I write this with the reader in mind), each person may choose to relate in any of the numerous ways in her repertoire. Given this variety of possibilities, for communication to occur or for an institution to be constituted demands that the interaction employ a way of relating that is publicly common. Public commonness means two things. First, the way of relating must be common to the parties involved. Thus if you are so unfortunate as to be a high school student assigned to read this, my language and references will not be common to us both, and the result will certainly not be what I intend. Second, the way of relating must be publicly common - mutually understood as the basis of interaction and thus used by all actors to orient to one another (the public focus of orientation).(7) Thus the title of this book and the sources from which you obtained it all cue the mutual basis on which our interaction is to take place. Parsons and Shils (1951:16) refer to this public commonness as "complementarity of expectations."

The political culture of a collectivity is whatever way of relating is publicly common to that collectivity.(8)

It follows that a large, diverse collectivity may well have no political culture - may not, properly speaking, be a political culture. The concept of public commonness - the actual use in interaction of a way of relating - makes analysts more aware of who does and who does not "participate in the culture." Even in such a highly selective and self-conscious institution as Congress, for example, certain members exhibit inappropriate behavior. Social science must differentiate a member of Congress's strategic power, available to all 535 members, from participation in Congress' dominant culture, which may be shared by only 534, or 533, etc. Nothing guarantees that any given agglomeration of people will have a culture. If, as in times of turmoil or rebellion, there is no such shared understanding, then no culture exists. Such times are commonly referred to as times of "cultural breakdown."

We call "subcultures" those ways of relating that are publicly common to a subgroup and that supplement rather than supplant the superordinate culture. If they do seek to supplant the superordinate culture, such cultures are called revolutionary (or deviant, depending on one's sympathies) cultures, not subcultures.

Following, and somewhat revising, Parsons' trichotomy of systems, this work distinguishes the individual system, the cultural system, and the social system. The individual system consists of those properties that characterize individuals considered in isolation (that is, without reference to their relationship to other individuals), and simple aggregates of those individual-level properties. The cultural system consists of all publicly common ways of relating. The social system consists of all objective regularities of interaction. A parallel trichotomy is made by Habermas (1979a) as a division among the linguistic domains corresponding to the validity claims of truthfulness, rightness, and truth. The claim of truthfulness is characteristic of the individual in isolation (that is, in the individual system), since no intersubjective standard of truth is involved. The claim of truth can be applied to objective descriptions of social interactions (that is, the social system): is in fact such-and-such a pattern observed or not? The claim of rightness applies only to the terms of people's mutual understanding of how the behavior (linguistic or otherwise) fits into their shared framework of interaction (that is, their cultural relationship).

The cultural and social systems differ in that the cultural system has normative significance, understood in Habermas' (1979a) "performative mode," and the social system has objective patterns of interaction, understood in Habermas' (1979a) "objective mode."(9) The cultural system is prescriptive, and its prescriptions are subject to moral evaluation; the social system is descriptive, and its descriptions are subject to scientific evaluation. The social system may result from, but can never contain, the human meaning of a normatively significant, publicly common way of relating. The cultural system can generate, but is not itself, regular patterns of social interaction.

The cultural and individual systems differ in that the individual system involves self-expressions, without necessary cognizance of others' perspectives, while the cultural system involves the establishment of interpersonal comprehension and intersubjective agreement. Individual system expressions may arise from, but are not the same as, the cultural system requirements of comprehension and agreement. The cultural modes of comprehension and agreement may give scope to, but are not governed by, individual system expressions.

This analytical division among the three systems is necessary to allow theoretical recognition of each system's distinct characteristics, especially its distinct dynamic processes. The theory therefore rigidly maintains the analytical separation of the systems in order to keep open methodologically the possibility of their differing. The distinction between individual and cultural systems, for example, allows a theoretical recognition of value dissensus and the associated breakdown of culture. Each individual knows many alternative ways of relating, among which one (not necessarily the same for every person) will be regarded as most preferred. These preferences can exist independently of social interaction, where any given way of relating may or not be publicly common. Individual system changes may not be reflected in cultural changes; changes that I experience, reflected in my self-expressions, may not directly affect the relationship we establish. And even if they do affect it, they do so in ways that depend on the interaction of our joint efforts.(10) In the context of defining development there is a special danger of unwittingly substituting theories of individual development for theories of cultural development.

The distinction between cultural and social systems allows a theoretical recognition of social system change as an independent source of cultural change. Regular patterns can become part of the cultural system simply by being recognized and desired as a point of cultural orientation - a way of creating meaning out of the jumble of life. For example, the installation of an office watercooler may, by affecting the objective pattern of people's interactions, create a new cultural object: "the 10 a.m. watercooler group." This phrase points to, makes meaningful, and thereby maintains the way the group members relate to one another. It crystallizes and raises to general consciousness a recognition of what they share, thus creating a cultural artifact out of a social system regularity. The social system force that creates the original regularity of interaction is simply thirst; the cultural object, however, once it is established, is maintained by the distinctive cultural forces of group solidarity, mutual expectations, anticipated reactions, and so on. Looking at this difference from the opposite perspective, the empirical regularities of interaction may, if unsupported by cultural understandings, break apart under the slightest accidental environmental pressure. For example, if the 10 a.m. watercooler crowd gathered only to slake their 10 a.m. thirst, they would disband if the watercooler were broken.

Political development is defined in this work as a specific form of change in the political culture of a society. The political cultural system, not the individual or social systems, is the locus of development. Of course, not all changes of the political culture are development; Chapters 3 and 4 describe what specific changes constitute development.

This position contrasts with many earlier proposals to locate development in the individual system. Such proposals saw development as the action of developed people in a society, and characterized developed people variously as economic entrepreneurs or high achievers (Schumpeter, 1949; Hagen, 1962; McClelland, 1976); as political participants (Almond and Verba, 1963); as experiencing unsatisfied higher needs (Aronoff, 1967, and, less explicitly, Maslow, 1954); and so on. Such theories locate development in the individual system and do not specify how these various isolated characteristics create different social organization or how they are virtues to be emulated.(11) They accordingly founder on the rocks of the micro-macro connection and/or of normative grounding. Development lies in how people coordinate their relations with one another - how they interact; it does not lie in individual, isolated virtue.

The social system also cannot be the locus of development because, as noted earlier, empirical regularities of interaction can alter quite readily if they are not actively maintained by the participants' cultural agreement. We cannot consider the arbitrary, vagrant patterns of noncultural interaction as the stuff of political development.


Although the individual, cultural, and social systems are analytically distinct, they can interact. Beliefs about which ways of relating are publicly common, link the individual and cultural systems. On the one hand, such beliefs are part of the individual system because they are held by individuals. On the other hand, such beliefs are part of the cultural system because, to the extent that they are in fact shared, they are its actual expression.

Researchers can thus examine these beliefs from the perspective of either system. As part of the individual system, these beliefs are like any psychic phenomenon. Researchers can examine their origins and dynamics, their variation within the population, and so on. These are the concerns of conflict-oriented symbolic interactionism (e.g., Kemeny, 1976), which explores differences in individual beliefs about the operant cultural system. As part of the cultural system, these beliefs stem from and express a common cultural system, not individual idiosyncrasies. Researchers can examine the origins of these beliefs in socialization and hegemonic control of the culture, the beliefs' internal structure (e.g., as role systems), and so on. These are the concerns of role theory and of consensus-oriented symbolic interactionism (e.g., Hewitt, 1979), which explore the nature of, and the cues eliciting usage of, the operant cultural system.

People's normative evaluations of their culture are an especially important link between the individual and cultural systems. On the one hand, such evaluations are part of the individual system: one person's evaluation does not depend of necessity upon another person's. On the other hand, shared evaluations known to be shared are part of the cultural system. If the evaluations are positive, this provides an enormous source of legitimacy for the culture, quite beyond the aggregation of isolated beliefs in its legitimacy. If the evaluations are negative, this may result in a cultural change (or a "deviant" culture). For example, if the population at large becomes convinced that the tax system is unfair, then an underground economy may spring up to avoid the system.

Shared negative evaluations cannot by themselves constitute a culture, however. Rejection of one cultural system does not mean creation of a new one; as politicians say, you can't beat somebody with nobody. Shared knowledge that many people reject the existing culture may encourage a search for a counterculture, but it does not produce one. For example, some people observe the increasing proportion of "independent" voters and call for an Independent Party. But "independent" voters are not all of a kind: they include the ignorant, the passive, the disaffected, anarcho-syndicalists, and so on. Mere shared negative valence does not produce a culture.

Although the cultural and social systems are distinguished, they are also linked. Just as individual beliefs about the cultural system link the individual and cultural systems, so do institutions(12) link the cultural and social systems. On the one hand, institutions are part of the cultural system because they embody publicly common ways of relating. On the other hand, institutions are part of the social system because they give rise to empirically regular patterns of interaction.(13)

Researchers can thus examine institutions from the perspective of either system. As part of the cultural system, institutions can be studied phenomenologically to determine what publicly common, normative expectations about relationships they represent. The analytical-theoretical focus is therefore on the nature of these expectations and only secondarily on the resulting behavior. For example, Fenno (1978) and Kingdon (1973) adopt this perspective when they describe in phenomenological terms how members of Congress relate to their constituents (Fenno) and to other members (Kingdon). As part of the social system, institutions can be studied empirically to determine their regular patterns of interaction. The analytical-theoretical focus is therefore on what regularities of behavior can be detected, and only secondarily on what normative expectations underlie them. White, Boorman, and Breiger (1975) and Chilton (1977) adopt this latter perspective when they attempt to describe the empirical relationships within various collectivities.

Let us look more closely at this form of analysis, because it is rare to have empirical regularities of interaction studied independently of prior cultural categories. White, Boorman, and Breiger (1975) analyzed Sampson's (1978) monastery data and discovered an objective sociometric pattern of three groups. Two of these were mutually exclusive: with virtually no exceptions, members had feelings of liking and esteem for their own group's members, and feelings of antagonism and disesteem for the other group's members.(14) White, Boorman, and Brieger's "blockmodeling" approach reduces the sociomatrices to three basic elements: a set of roles (e.g., for the monastery, the roles "Loyal Opposition member" and "Young Turks member"); role assignments for the actors (e.g., the assignment of each monk to one of the two groups); and role interaction patterns (e.g., a 2x2 role interaction matrix showing that positive relations lie within, and not between, the two groups). This role interpretation employs cultural system language, but nevertheless it remains part of the social system. It characterizes objective patterns of interaction, not necessarily any shared subjective interpretations producing those patterns.

White, Boorman, and Breiger's approach attempts to deduce a society's culture from its social structure. Despite its clear success in many cases, however, analysts must recognize the problematic nature of that deduction, because not all regular patterns of interaction stem from the cultural system. As the authors state it, "social structure is regularities in the patterns of relations among concrete entities; it is not a harmony among abstract norms and values" (White, Boorman, and Breiger, 1975:733).

Despite the distinctions among the three systems, their linkages do allow us to say that a given political culture induces corresponding individual and social systems. "Induces" does not mean that this correspondence must always hold, but rather that (a) one can easily conceive of the individual and social systems which would correspond in an ideal-typical sense to the political culture, and (b) there do exist some forces equilibrating the three systems. These forces are summarized in Figure 1.

Figure 1. The "Steady-State Society"

Personal evaluations of the legitimacy of the culture and its alternatives Individual understandings of cultural expectations (individual system)
Acquiescence or support
Available cultural alternatives; cues from history Publicly common ways of relating (cultural system)
Culturally regulated actions
Interpretation of behavior in cultural terms
Cues from environmental features Regular patterns of social interaction (social system)

First, individuals would be socialized. Socialization in this context means training in the culture's ways of relating and the discovery that these are publicly common. Children may initially be treated in a way different from adults, but the child is ultimately taught and expected to relate to others in the culture's way. The child also has an opportunity to witness adult interactions and learn from them. And, of course, some cultures have special institutions devoted to the teaching of children. The recent focus on "the hidden curriculum" is based on a recognition that while schools may not directly teach certain ways of relating, the power relationships embodied in schools provide an implicit lesson.(15)

Second, social actors would acquiesce in or even support the cultural way of relating by employing it to regulate their interactions. The perpetuation of a political culture demands only acquiescence - that is, a continued willingness (whether liked or not) to relate to others in the way of the political culture. All that is required is for people to choose that way of relating and to believe in its public commonness. However, acquiescence provides no strong support for a culture: acquiescence to one culture may be replaced easily by acquiescence to another through a widespread indifference to (or even active dislike for) the former. To say that a person only acquiesces in the culture implies that preferable alternatives exist. To say that a person supports the culture, on the other hand, implies that she will not readily abandon it.(16)

Third, the cultural system creates regular behavior patterns in the very expression of cultural behavior by actors. Such regular patterns will only be found in a stable culture and stable environment in which actors repeatedly interact the same way. As the environment becomes more variable, social scientists will discover regular behavior patterns only with models that are informed by the underlying cultural reasoning: less sophisticated models based on coldly literal observation of physical motion become increasingly inappropriate.

Finally, the regular patterns of the social system provide ready material for social actors to assign them cultural significance. When created by the cultural system in the first place, these regularities are of course immediately interpretable in its terms. If not created by the cultural system, however (as in the example of the thirsty workers gathering at the watercooler), the regular patterns become subject to "projective" interpretation in cultural or other terms. ("Projective" is used here in the sense of projective tests.) Thus the objective fact of a worker's unemployment may be given various interpretations: "the penalty of an unproductive workforce" (by employers); "a technical readjustment" (by economists); "the first signs of capitalist breakdown" (by radicals); or even "God's punishment of you for hitting me" (by the worker's wife). This variety of possible explanations provides the raw material for the eventual production, as hegemonic and other general forces come into play, of a culturally approved explanation.

It is convenient to start our analysis with the above "steady-state" image of an ideal-typical society in which the individual, cultural, and social systems are equilibrated to one another. This image will later allow us to examine the cultural forms that correspond to stages of individual development, thereby producing the required conception of political development. The ideal-typical society is only an analytical device, a tool for examining intersystem forces and a benchmark against which disequilibrium can be measured. The conception of political development presented here is thus simultaneously of stasis and of change. It attempts to show how cultures remain stable and also how they change. Since social equilibrium is maintained through the four dynamic social processes, we will be able to study social change in terms of alterations in these dynamic processes.

By locating culture between the individual and cultural systems, by identifying how individual beliefs about the cultural system link the individual and cultural systems, by identifying how institutions link the cultural and social systems, and by identifying the dynamic forces by which each system affects the adjoining system(s), the problem of the micro-macro connection is solved. When I say "solved," however, I mean only that the theoretical framework presented above "contains" or "tames" the problem by showing what specific modes of analysis are required to discover the micro-macro linkages at work in any specific society. Each society will have its own history, its own population, its own constraints of current custom, environment, and hegemonic control. Each society will accordingly present different research tasks, different developmental problems and, more generally, different trajectories of change. That the present perspective recognizes this variation is a virtue, not a liability.(17)


Have we confused political development with its causes, consequences, correlates, or constituents? For the first three of these the answer is clearly no. We have defined development directly, not indirectly as the cause of some identified consequence, the consequence of some identified cause, or the correlate of some other identified social entity. Whether this is the right definition of development is not at issue here; that is a matter for this work as a whole. The only issue is whether the definition is direct or indirect.

Does the definition point to what is only a constituent aspect of development, however? Is the definition unduly limiting - for example, by excluding changes in material and aesthetic culture? This is a harder problem, but the answer still appears to be no. First, the concept of "political" in political development and political culture has been drawn widely enough to embrace every social form through which people relate to one another: political, legal, economic, religious, and general social institutions. Second, the requirement of normative grounding limits us to human relationships. We can evaluate material objects as functional or dysfunctional, but we cannot evaluate them as morally good or bad. The normative evaluation inheres in the human relationship the objects are to serve, not in the objects themselves. Similarly, we can evaluate artistic productions as aesthetically pleasing or displeasing, but we cannot evaluate them morally. While art may play a part in human relationships, any normative evaluation must be of the relationship, not of the art.


Transfer to Defining Political Development Table of Contents
Transfer to next chapter
Transfer to previous chapter


1. See Chilton (1987) for a detailed discussion and justification of this definition of political culture. (Also see the supplemental exposition here.) Points (a) and (b) are made in ibid. Point (c) is merely another reason for using the definition given here, but it is not mentioned in ibid. It is interesting and reassuring that the theoretical criteria for political culture conceptions force the creation of a concept which turns out also to be necessary to overcome the rather different theoretical challenges to political development conceptions.

2.Even one person could evidence widely different responses as her cognitive structures changed. This variation of response may arise even over such obvious issues as whether liquid poured into a different container maintains its weight and volume.

3.The concept of intention immediately confronts the theorist with all the possible gradations of intentionality between "complete" and "none," e.g., Freudian slips, more-or-less unintended consequences, and so on.

4. With the kind permission of the publisher, I use female pronouns for the common gender. I find plural pronouns awkward to use, particularly in a work so concerned with distinguishing the isolated from the collective social actor. "He or she" and the like I find awkward and intrusive. Alteration of gender requires the author to keep track of whether she is currently speaking of a female or male neuter. Since our language currently possesses no gender-free personal pronouns, the choice lies between the masculine and the feminine. I hope the reader will welcome this opportunity to discover, from her own reaction to the consistent use of the female common gender, the connotations of the other usage.

5."Aspects of her environment" sounds like the actor's recognition of objective elements, but in fact the aspects are themselves constructed by the actor. The processes of identification, interconnection, and meaning-making are simultaneous effects of assimilating the world to the cognitive structure. I will point out, without further discussion, that this approach might be usefully applied to the philosophical problems surrounding intentionality.

6. It is the charm of genetic epistemology that asking dumb questions reveals reasoning differences that no one imagined could exist.

7. Brown (1977:1) recognizes this characteristic of culture when he includes "the foci of identification and loyalty" (my emphasis) and "political . . . expectations" in his definition of political culture. Note that "public" does not mean "official." Widespread bribery may in certain countries be "public" - that is, adopted without discussion and with perfect understanding by all concerned in any transaction - even as it is "officially" condemned.

8. As used in this work, political culture embraces all aspects of interpersonal culture. It is distinguished from material culture, which concerns how people relate to their physical world, but not from economic culture or social culture. Note how this broad approach to political culture is necessarily similar to this work's broad approach to political development.

9. The social system thus includes unintended consequences.

10. For example, the changes that occur in a marriage are not simply the vector sum of the changes in the spouses but arise as a consequence of what new, organic relationship the spouses can create given their individual changes.

11. For example, David McClelland (personal communication) has said he does not especially enjoy the company of people with the highest levels of n Ach.

12. The more general term would be "social forms," but it is awkward. I use "institutions."

13. As Habermas (1983:253) expresses this, "Any meaningful expression . . . can be bifocally identified, both as an observable event and as an understandable objectification of meaning."

14. The third group was an outcast group, disliked and disesteemed by both other groups.

15. See Overly (1970) and Kohlberg (1981) for a description of the hidden curriculum.

16. The sources of acquiescence and support lie to some extent in cognitive dynamics, which are discussed in Chapter 3, and the implications of these cognitive dynamics for cultural change are discussed in Chapter 5.

17. That each society must be understood within its unique historical circumstances, regardless of the overall theoretical framework we employ, is a point made at length by Abrams (1982), especially in his preface.

Page URL:
Page Author: Stephen Chilton
Link to Home Page:
Last Modified: 2003-10-20
Mail suggestions and comments, especially re. typos and other errors, to:
Honor Roll of Proofreaders and Colleagues:
This way to the UMD homepage
This way to the Political Science Department home page

The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer.
Copyright © 1999
Stephen Chilton. All rights reserved.