Course level: Bachelor

Fall term
University of Zurich

Introductory Lecture, co-taught with Marco Steenbergen

This course provides an overview of the most important forms of mass political behavior: participation (turnout, protest, voting) and public opinion (attitudes, beliefs, and values). The course stands out through its combination of both macro- and micro-level perspectives and the blending of political sociological and psychological approaches. In other words, when we look at individual-level behavior (the typical perspective of political psychology), we pay particular attention to the context (groups defined by class, education, or ideology, as well as nations, etc. as the approach of political sociology) in which individuals are embedded. This allows us to understand political behavior in terms of cultural and structural determinants, but also in terms of individual-level factors, including neuro-political forces. In addition to theoretical breadth, you will encounter the key methodologies for understanding behavior (official statistics, surveys, and experiments).

After an introductory part, the course is organized along a narrative of evolving political conflicts and partisan alignments (a term used to denote attachments between social groups and political parties that endure over decades) since the early 20th Century in Western Europe and North America. We begin with the classical dividing lines around religion and economic class that have shaped party systems in these contexts until the 1960s. In parallel, we discuss the individual-level underpinnings of these divisions in terms of values, ideologies, preferences and attitudes. Change sets in in the 1970s and 1980s, which witnessed a surge of protest activity related to the so-called New Social Movements (centering on issues of gender, gay rights, global peace, and ecology). Why do movements like these sometimes succeed in their mobilizing efforts but often fail, and how do we explain why some individuals participate while others do not?

Identity politics is by no means a new phenomenon, but the movements of the 1970s and 1980s mark the beginning of a new wave. Since then, identity politics has moved from the protest to the electoral arena, transforming what partisan conflict is about there. This is mirrored in the growth of Green and so-called “New Left” parties on the one hand, and the Radical Populist Right on the other. The general approach of the course is to approach these issues jointly at the country comparative and the individual levels. Thus, we look at how identities can be conceived and measured and how identity processes shape group formation.

A final part of the course focuses on democratic representation. We discuss (mis)perceptions and their role in representation, as well as the role of populism. Broadening the view to new democracies, we also ask what kind of other motives other than their values, ideologies and preferences voters may have in deciding who to vote for. Again, the approach is comparative: We want to understand how systemic, group, and individual processes interact to shape behavior.

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