Before Norms: Institutions and Civic Culture

Before Norms: Institutions and Civic Culture

by Robert W. Jackman, Ross Alan Miller

The potato famines of the nineteenth century were long attributed to Irish indolence. The Stalinist system was blamed on a Russian proclivity for autocracy. Muslim men have been accused of an inclination to terrorism. Is political behavior really the result of cultural upbringing, or does the vast range of human political action stem more from institutional and… See more details below


The potato famines of the nineteenth century were long attributed to Irish indolence. The Stalinist system was blamed on a Russian proclivity for autocracy. Muslim men have been accused of an inclination to terrorism. Is political behavior really the result of cultural upbringing, or does the vast range of human political action stem more from institutional and structural constraints?

This important new book carefully examines the role of institutions and civic culture in the establishment of political norms. Jackman and Miller methodically refute the Weberian cultural theory of politics and build in its place a persuasive case for the ways in which institutions shape the political behavior of ordinary citizens. Their rigorous examination of grassroots electoral participation reveals no evidence for even a residual effect of cultural values on political behavior, but instead provides consistent support for the institutional view. Before Norms speaks to urgent debates among political scientists and sociologists over the origins of individual political behavior.

Robert W. Jackman is Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Davis. Ross A. Miller is Associate Professor of Political Science at Santa Clara University.

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Before Norms

Institutions AND Civic Culture
By Robert W. Jackman Ross A. Miller

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2004 University of Michigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-03094-1

Chapter One

The Issues

Ever since Max Weber, many social scientists looked at the "right" cultural attitudes and beliefs as necessary conditions ("prerequisites") for economic progress, just as earlier theories had emphasized race, climate, or the presence of natural resources. In the 1950s, newly fashioned cultural theories of development competed strongly with the economic ones (which stressed capital formation), with Weber's Protestant Ethic being modernized into David McClelland's "achievement motivation" as a precondition of progress and into Edward C. Banfield's "amoral familism" as an obstacle. According to my way of thinking, the very attitudes alleged to be preconditions of industrialization could be generated on the job and "on the way," by certain characteristics of the industrialization process. Albert Hirschman (1984, 99)

Are we prisoners of our distinctive pasts, governed by customs and habits that evolve, if they do so at all, at a glacial pace over several generations? Such is the broad assertion of those who propose that cultural differences are at the heart of the crucial variations in political behavior that we so often observe when comparing disparate social groups and states. Thus, the claimhas recently been revived that there were distinctive traits to popular values in Germany that made Nazism possible, traits not shared, say, with Danes. Most notably, ordinary Germans had displayed singularly high levels of anti-Semitism for at least the preceding century and a half, which fact served as the foundation of the Nazi state. Given these traits, German behavior during the Nazi period was necessarily different from what Danish behavior could potentially have been, even had both groups faced similar political, social, and economic conditions (Goldhagen 1996).

Others counter such broad arguments by stressing that people everywhere optimize, given the known alternatives. That is, people process information in a similar manner to get as much as they can of what they want at the least possible cost. Observed differences in political behavior stem from the considerable variance across settings in the conditions under which people optimize. Some have an information advantage over others, and there are major differences in the political, social, and economic circumstances within which individuals and groups find themselves. Hence, for example, we understand why people might be more sensitive to their short-run than to any possible long-term interests in a Hobbesian world where life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." By the same token, we expect the same people to maximize their longer-term interests in a different setting where their property rights are secure, where they can envisage encouraging economic prospects, and where they have a reasonable prospect of longevity. In other words, whether people are future-oriented is fundamentally a function of whether such an outlook makes sense, given their circumstances.

These are the two alternatives sketched out by Albert Hirschman, and there is a world of practical difference between them. The first assigns causal priority to cultural values as driving other outcomes, while the second casts values as an outcome of the conditions within which people find themselves. Further, the first argument stresses the durability of cultural differences in values across generations, which implies that at any given time, the die is cast for any particular form of political behavior. In other words, observed differences across cultural groups in political and social behavior are predestined by shared collective experiences and group membership, and are therefore fundamentally impervious to change through intervention or changes in incentive structures. Thus, Goldhagen's ordinary Germans of the 1930s and 1940s were basically wired to be genocidal by a distinctively virulent blend of anti-Semitism inherited from many previous generations of Germans.

This has two immediate implications. If the die for particular behavioral forms is indeed cast by waves of preceding generations, then the cultural argument is conservative in the sense that it minimizes the possibilities for alternative forms of behavior. Those alternatives are simply precluded on the grounds that they are inconsistent with shared group values. There is an additional ethical implication. If group members are indeed all culturally wired to behave in distinctive ways, then individual group members cannot be held accountable for their own behavior. Thus, in what is admittedly an extreme case, if Goldhagen is correct that the behavior of ordinary Germans was a function of a shared set of anti-Semitic values inherited through several previous generations, then Nazism was inevitable, and it is difficult to pass moral judgment on any particular individual Germans for their behavior during the Nazi period.

The alternative view-that people optimize, given the alternatives of which they are aware-is subject to neither of these shortcomings. First, behavior is not cast as an irrevocable function of the values of the generations who have gone before. Instead, by emphasizing the selection of patterns of behavior from a menu of the known alternatives, it is an argument that assigns special weight to incentive structures, that is, to the political, social, and economic conditions within which people find themselves. In this vein, the electoral fortunes of the Nazi Party from 1925 through 1933 would be taken to reflect its success in appealing to the material interests of a decisive number of German voters, given conditions after the First World War, the recency of the party system, and in light of the Great Depression (Brustein 1996; King et al. 2002). Because changes in incentive structures lead to changes in behavior, the optimizing argument is not subject to the conservative implications that encumber the cultural argument. Further, from an ethical point of view, behavior is cast as the outcome of intentional choices. Even if conditions restrict the menu from which choices are selected, they thus remain choices subject to ethical evaluation.

Our purpose in this book is to adjudicate between these two general explanations of political behavior, that is, between the political culture approach and what we label the institutional approach. The task is important given the marked discrepancies between the empirical and ethical implications of the two approaches. Our analyses include empirical evaluations of their relative merits, as they have found their way into contemporary political science. We conclude that the institutional account outperforms the cultural account, and by a large margin. Let us begin at the beginning, however, by detailing the distinctive characteristics of each approach.

The Political Culture Approach

The belief that cultural differences underlie many of the observed variations across political units has a long pedigree, especially among students of comparative politics. The classic exemplar of the argument in the social sciences remains Max Weber's analysis of linkages between the Protestant ethic and the rise of capitalism in Europe ([1905] 1958a), although as J. R. McCulloch's mid-nineteenth-century remarks about the Irish reproduced in the front of this book remind us, the claim was hardly original with Weber. And one of the benchmark studies of the behavioral revolution in the study of politics is Almond and Verba's (1963) exploration of linkages between civic cultures and democracy across five different societies.

While the popularity of this general perspective has waxed and waned over the past three decades (e.g., the essays in Almond and Verba 1980; Barry 1970, esp. chaps. 3, 4), the presumption that cultural differences drive significant elements of political and economic life enjoys wide currency. Indeed, the perspective has experienced a substantial resurgence in the past decade (Street 1994).

Consider Fukuyama's (1995) analysis of the role of trust in economic performance. Comparing three "high-trust" economies (the United States, Germany, and Japan) with three of their "low-trust" counterparts, Fukuyama concludes that while such factors as technology, markets, and human capital contribute to economic growth, the key ingredient in generating growth is social capital in the form of a supporting culture of trust, or, as he terms it, "spontaneous sociability." This claim is very similar to Harrison's (1985, 1992, 1997) declaration that political, social, and economic development all hinge critically on values involving trust, ethical codes, the exercise of authority, and orientations to work and risk-taking.

In a similar manner, Putnam (1993) compares the performance of regional governments in contemporary Italy to conclude that effective governance hinges critically on durable traditions of civic engagement that go back at least a century, and possibly a millennium. His study parallels Inglehart's (1990, 1997) analyses of a broader range of societies, which argue that cultural values fundamentally drive economic performance and democratic stability.

Such claims are of more than academic interest. For example, it is often asserted that democratization will continue to face severe handicaps in southern Europe, much of Latin America, and most strikingly in East Europe and Russia, given the strong legacy of authoritarianism in the recent past. Attempts to link values to economic performance have similarly clear policy implications, as evidenced by the many discussions about possible links between cultural values and the economic growth rates of the East Asian tigers. Moreover, these claims have already received a good deal of attention. The Economist, for example, waxed rhapsodically about Putnam's book: "a great work of social science, worthy to rank alongside de Tocqueville, Pareto, and Weber." Laitin was only slightly less enthusiastic in his appraisal of the book as a "stunning breakthrough in political culture research" (1995, 171).

Origins of the Argument

The intellectual godfather to work on political culture is Weber's ([1905] 1958a) thesis linking Protestantism with the spirit of capitalism. Weber, of course, sought to identify the peculiar characteristics of Protestantism that he believed gave rise to a distinctive entrepreneurial spirit conducive to economic growth. This argument is at the heart of contemporary claims about political culture, and we examine it more fully in chapter 2.

Subsequent studies of political culture frequently offered a unique exegesis of political behavior within a given state, often cast in terms of national character. Perhaps the most systematic of these involved a series of country studies on the organization of civic training put together by Charles Merriam in the 1920s and summarized in The Making of Citizens ([1931] 1966). However, studies explicitly cast in the national-character mold became increasingly rare after the mid-1950s, a fact Pye (1991a) attributes to the difficulties such studies encountered in meeting the standards proposed by Inkeles and Levinson (1954).

Against this backdrop, Almond and Verba's classic study (1963) represented a major breakthrough because it replaced the idiosyncratic, case-by-case explanations typical of the national-character studies with an explanation couched in terms of general features of political culture that vary systematically from one setting to another and that foster democratic performance. In this sense, their analysis embodied a return to the concerns that motivated Weber in a format that was also sensitive to the analytic and empirical issues raised by Inkeles and Levinson (1954). Almond and Verba paid special attention to the contrasts among participant, subject, and parochial cultures, arguing that democratic outcomes are more likely where participatory norms are widespread, and less likely where trust is low and where values assume a predominantly passive, subject form.

At about the same time, McClelland (1961) drew explicitly on Weber to suggest that high concentrations of values emphasizing need for achievement are the engine that drives economic growth. Since need for achievement is a syndrome that emphasizes entrepreneurial skills, the parallels with Weber are straightforward. McClelland further suggested that authoritarian regimes were the likely outcome of cultures that stressed high levels of need for power and low levels of need for affiliation. Banfield made the similar argument that economic and political "backwardness" is a function of high levels of amoral familism according to which the norm is to "maximize the material, short-run advantage of the nuclear family; assume that all others will do likewise" (1958, 85). Thus defined, amoral familism involves low levels of trust and resembles both Almond and Verba's subject culture and McClelland's views on low levels of need for achievement.

By the late 1960s, the argument had thoroughly permeated analyses of development. For example, in his influential Political Order in Changing Societies, Huntington wrote:

The absence of trust in the culture of the society provides formidable obstacles to the creation of public institutions. Those societies deficient in stable and effective government are also deficient in mutual trust among their citizens, in national and public loyalties, and in organization skills and capacity. Their political cultures are often said to be marked by suspicion, jealousy, and latent or actual hostility toward everyone who is not a member of the family, the village, or, perhaps, the tribe. These characteristics are found in many cultures, their most extensive manifestation perhaps being in the Arab world and in Latin America. (1968, 28)

The theme is echoed repeatedly in the more recent analyses. Thus, Harrison acknowledges that resource endowments, policy choices, and sheer luck may be among the operative factors explaining variations in performance across nations and ethic groups: "But it is values and attitudes-culture-that differentiate ethnic groups and are mainly responsible for such phenomena as Latin America's persistent instability and inequity, Taiwan's and Korea's economic 'miracles,' and the achievements of the Japanese-in Japan, in Brazil, and in America" (1992, 1). Fukuyama arrives at the same conclusion, casting culture as social capital.

A society's endowment of social capital is critical to understanding its industrial structure, and hence its position in the global division of labor.... [But] social capital has implications that go well beyond the economy. Sociability is also a vital support for self-governing political institutions, and is, in many respects, an end in itself. Social capital, which is practiced as a matter of a rational habit and has its origins in "irrational" phenomena like religion and traditional ethics, would appear to be necessary to permit the proper functioning of rational modern economic and political institutions-a fact that has interesting implications for the nature of the modernization process as a whole. (1995, 325)

Among the more rigorous of the current analyses, Putnam's emphasis on sense of civic community matches Banfield's emphasis on trust and Almond and Verba's case for the importance of a civic political culture.

The absence of civic virtue is exemplified in the "amoral familism" that Edward Banfield reported as the dominant ethos in Montegrano.... Participation in a civic community is more public-spirited than that, more oriented to shared benefits. Citizens in a civic community, though not selfless saints, regard the public domain as more than a battleground for pursuing personal interest. (1993, 88)

In like manner, Inglehart places primary emphasis on variations over time and space in the configuration of mass value priorities.

Data from roughly two dozen nations reveal a consistent cultural-economic syndrome. The wealthier countries and those with highly developed tertiary sectors are most likely to be long-established democracies, and the publics of these nations tend to show relatively high rates of political discussion, have less Materialist value priorities, and tend to be Protestant in religion.... These nations, furthermore, tend to have publics that are characterized by high levels of life satisfaction and interpersonal trust, low levels of support for revolutionary change, high levels of satisfaction with the way democracy is working, and high rates of political discussion. Conversely, the less wealthy, less democratic, and less Protestant nations tend to be characterized by political cultures that show low levels of trust and satisfaction, high levels of support for revolutionary change, and low rates of political discussion. (1990, 57)

The political culture perspective clearly has a long pedigree. Equally clear is the central role it continues to play in current explanations of political behavior and economic performance.


Excerpted from Before Norms by Robert W. Jackman Ross A. Miller Copyright © 2004 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
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