Talking about Politics: Informal Groups and Social Identity in American Life / Edition 1

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Whether at parties, around the dinner table, or at the office, people talk about politics all the time. Yet while such conversations are a common part of everyday life, political scientists know very little about how they actually work. In Talking about Politics, Katherine Cramer Walsh provides an innovative, intimate study of how ordinary people use informal group discussions to make sense of politics.

Walsh examines how people rely on social identities—their ideas of who "we" are—to come to terms with current events. In Talking about Politics, she shows how political conversation, friendship, and identity evolve together, creating stronger communities and stronger social ties. Political scientists, sociologists, and anyone interested in how politics really works need to read this book.

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Meet the Author

Katherine Cramer Walsh is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

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Read an Excerpt

Talking about POLITICS
Informal Groups and Social Identity in American Life
By Katherine Cramer Walsh
The University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2004 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-87220-9

Chapter One
Introduction: The Public's Part of Public Discussion

Bob: Ever since [Governor] Engler's been in there they haven't paved a single road [in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan]. We used to have the best roads in the country. Now they're the worst.

Skip: Yep, it's going to take billions to fix them.

Rose: Well, Election Day is coming up, you can vote him out.

Bob: I suppose ...

Rose: But I tell you I wouldn't vote for that lawyer of [Jack] Kevorkian [Geoffrey Fieger, at the time a candidate in the Democratic primary for the Michigan gubernatorial election] ... No way.

Bob: Oh yeah, right ...

Rose: No way.

Bob: Well, by the time they get through campaigning, he may not be in it anymore.

Rose: Well, yeah, I don't know. No one else will be in it then either.

Skip [Turning to Kathy]: You're too young to vote [joking], but it's still good to listen to these conversations.

"These conversations" are the casual exchanges about political topics that take place among a group of elderly people who meet every morning while drinking coffee in a neighborhood corner store. They arise in the midst of informal talk with the same fanfare that accompanies talk about the latest lottery winner, the summer's crop of tomatoes, or someone's recent vacation. These people are taking part in public discussion, engaging in informal political talk.

Not everyone has the opportunity to spend time chatting casually with friends and acquaintances every morning. But the experience of September 11, 2001, demonstrated that people, at least occasionally, rely on one another to make sense of public affairs. As people struggled to make sense of the terrorist attacks, they watched the news, read the papers, and, more poignantly, turned to their friends and family members to express their disbelief, bewilderment, grief, and rage. Stranded in airports, shell-shocked in workplaces and around dinner tables, people wondered aloud, together.

This is the public's part of public discussion. It is a common part of everyday life, but political scientists know very little about it. It is an awkward topic for us, for two reasons. First, we generally believe that democracy hinges on deliberation, but the political talk that arises as a by-product of casual interaction does not fit prevailing definitions of this venerable act. As such, it has slipped through the cracks of recognition of objects worthy of serious study (Mansbridge 1999). Second, we have evidence that the transmission of information among members of the public matters for their individual opinions (Huckfeldt and Sprague 1995), yet we have little faith that members of the public actually engage in meaningful political talk. We view "public discussion" not as discussion among members of the public but as discussion about public issues that takes place among political professionals. We think that the central tendency of public opinion results from "collective deliberation," but we conceptualize this deliberation largely as a process that occurs among political professionals within the mass media, the government, and interest groups (Page and Shapiro 1992; Page 1996).

I argue that informal interaction should not be overlooked, because it is a way in which people collectively develop fundamental tools of political understanding. Political scientists have given the act of understanding politics, also referred to in this book as the act of interpreting or making sense of politics, far less attention than the act of evaluating or making political choices (Kuklinski and Hurley 1996). In analyzing processes of interpretation, the dependent variable is no longer preferences but perspectives. Preferences are attitudes about particular issues. Perspectives are the lenses through which people view issues. They are psychological knowledge structures that result from the interaction of identities, values, and interests. They are the reason two people can make sense of the same message in entirely different ways. They influence interpretations by suggesting which categories are useful for making sense of the world.

No individual has the same view of the world, but perspectives vary in systematic ways across racial, ethnic, gender, and socioeconomic lines. In this book, I argue that the systematic variation we see in interpretations of politics by members of different social groups is not innate but is, instead, created through the process of developing and clarifying one's social identity during casual interaction with other people. Social identities are the psychological attachments people make between themselves and social groups in their environment. This concept is central to the processes theorized about in this book for the following reasons. Across variations in the concept of perspective, such as worldviews, standpoints, and even culture, there is a similar emphasis on the creation of these views through social interaction. I build on existing conceptions of perspective by emphasizing the centrality of social identities in the way people interpret and communicate about the world around them. Some aspects of a person's perspective or outlook on life are not necessarily tied to their social context. Yet, how people look at the world is grounded in where they place themselves in relation to others. Social identities are not just one component of our worldviews. Instead, we see the world through ideas of where we place ourselves in relation to others.

Real People Talking in Their Own Terms on Their Own Turf

In this book you will meet several groups of people. These are groups whose conversation and interaction I began observing because existing research was insufficient to explain what goes on when people talk to each other casually in natural settings about politics. Deliberation has been brought to empirical light, through direct investigation of decision making in town hall meetings (Mansbridge 1983), public hearings (Mendelberg and Oleske 2000; Burke 1994), meetings of activist organizations (Mansbridge 1983), food cooperatives (Gastil 1993); the design and investigation of deliberative opinion polls (Luskin and Fishkin 1998); talk sessions sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities (Merelman, Streich, and Martin 1998); laboratory experiments (Sulkin and Simon 2001); and survey-based studies of the cognitive effects of participating in the National Issues Forums (Gastil and Dillard 1999). However, casual political talk-talk that is not organized for the sake of decision making-has received far less attention, and has almost always been investigated in settings manufactured by the researchers, such as through focus groups or in-depth interviews (Gamson 1992; Sigel 1996; Conover, Crewe, and Searing 1991, 1999; Conover, Searing, and Crewe 2002; Hibbing and Theiss-Morse 2002). The exceptions-studies that investigate informal political talk directly in natural settings-are few and have been conducted by sociologists, anthropologists, or social work scholars (e.g., LeMasters 1975; Duneier 1992; Eliasoph 1998; Lichterman 1999). When interpersonal interaction within social contexts is expected to influence vote choices or other political attitudes, only the existence-not the content-of this talk has been the object of study (Lazarsfeld, Berelson, and Gaudet 1944; Berelson, Lazarsfeld, and McPhee 1954; Huckfeldt and Sprague 1995).

In my attempts to understand how people make sense of politics through informal talk, I gave the bulk of my attention to "the Old Timers," who are quoted at the start of this chapter. They are a group of retired, white, middle-class to upper-middle-class(objectively defined) men who meet every morning over coffee in a neighborhood corner store in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I use the term "corner store" to describe this place because it is more akin to a conveniencestorethatservescoffeethantoacaf'easitisnormallyunderstood today. The choice of beverages includes "regular," "decaf," or "black tea," not lattes, mochas, and so forth. After the morning hours, more patrons use it to buy items to take home than use it for drinking coffee. About thirty-five men attend the "Old Timers" group on a regular basis, though the pool of occasional participants numbers approximately ninety.

I selected this group after searching for a group of people who meet regularly in a public place to hang out and occasionally talk about politics. I spent approximately three years (from the fall of 1997 through the summer of 2000, and for a short period in January of 2001) with the Old Timers and others who gather in the store, as well as with a group of retired white and African-American blue-collar workers who also meet there and a group of white middle-class men and women who gather in the store later in the morning. I supplemented these observations with fieldwork with a group of elderly women who meet in a craft guild at an Ann Arbor church and, for a short time, with a group of homeless people who gathered during a breakfast program.

The Old Timers are not meant to represent all voluntary associations or informal discussion groups. And, indeed, they are unique. First, this group is very cohesive: the people involved share a great number of overlapping acquaintances and experiences (Mizruchi 1992, 36). Most of the members of the group served in the military, and many served in either World War II or the Korean War. Among the twenty-six Old Timers who returned a self-administered questionnaire (explained in more detail in chapter 3), the average time lived in Ann Arbor is 57.8 years ( = 19.31 years). They have known one another for many years: about a quarter of the group has known one another since childhood. Many of them went to grade school and high school together, have lived their entire lives in Ann Arbor, married into one another's families, played sports together, and still attend church together. Of the twenty-six who responded to the questionnaire, twenty knew at least one other person before they started spending their mornings at the corner store.

These overlaps have consequences, and these consequences stand at the heart of this book. Partly because of these shared acquaintances and experiences, the Old Timers think of themselves as a group. When an unfamiliar person is mentioned in the conversation, a common question is whether he or she is "one of us." This group identity is a key component of the perspective through which they communicate about politics.

I selected this case on the basis of a desire to study, in depth and over a long period of time, the processes of understanding politics that happen among the members of a naturally occurring group of people. I selected additional cases to test the conclusions I reached through these observations. Not only were the Old Timers an accessible group that met regularly and commonly spoke about public affairs of their own volition, but they are in some respects an ideal type. They bring to mind the prototypical group of white-haired men who have gathered around a cracker barrel in a general store to hash out local public affairs. They embody our romanticized vision of the local political discussion group. I hoped to get beyond nostalgia to the actual processes, to investigate the validity of our assumptions about such interaction and discover what actually occurs when people talk together about politics.

The other groups were chosen for the study for the following reasons. As my observations progressed, it became obvious that the Old Timers' interpretations of the world and of politics were made by contrasting themselves with other people, often other people within the corner store. To understand the dynamics in that room, I needed to know more about the interactions among the other people, especially the group composed primarily of African Americans. I supplemented these cases with observations of the group of elderly white retired men and women who meet later in the morning and also the group of elderly women who met weekly in the church craft guild. The later-morning group afforded a chance to observe a very similar yet gender-mixed group, and the guild offered a chance to observe a gender-homogenous but female group meeting in the same town-of a similar age, class status, racial, and ethnic background to the Old Timers.

Thus these groups were not chosen simultaneously at the beginning of the study. Instead, the case selection evolved as the study progressed. I intended the observations of the Old Timers to serve as preliminary research. I was planning to use what I learned from several months of observation to generate questions that I would later test with survey data. I did eventually use survey data (of both national samples and of the Old Timers) to round out my understanding of processes of group political interpretation. But the behaviors and communication I observed quickly suggested that such interaction deserved careful, sustained, systematic scrutiny. And so I took advantage of what participant observation could teach us about the political implications of informal talk.

Several choices about the case selection require further elaboration. First, I chose to study elderly and primarily white people because they were accessible to me. Their meeting spots were not far from my home and places of work. I was easily able to join their gatherings and also observe the settings in which they met at other hours of the day and across all seasons. The similarity of my race to that of the Old Timers and the women in the guild also facilitated access to their groups. Because it was not my intention to collect evidence about the frequency of political discussion in general but rather to learn about the nature of such discussion when it does occur, their ability to gather to talk, because of their relatively abundant free time, was beneficial to my study and not a source of bias. I wanted to know, when people do engage in informal political conversation, how do they do it?

To be sure, the talk among the Old Timers and the other groups studied here is not typical of informal political conversations that take place within all groups or associations. The point of analyzing several groups in depth is not to generalize about the topics discussed by a broad array of groups. Instead, the conversations I observed in these groups serve as opportunities to investigate and theorize the process of making sense of politics through public discussion across multiple events. More cases would enhance this study and improve my ability to generalize conclusions about processes of making sense of politics. I chose to erron the side of more accurately capturing the process in a limited number of groups than observing a wide array of groups in only limited depth. By observing these groups over time in their natural settings, I have been able to observe informal political talk as a process through which individuals construct meaning and construct their place in the political world. This depth has allowed me to illuminate the ways in which social context and political understanding are connected and to theorize a process of political understanding on the group level.

Why study informal talk in face-to-face settings? I could have chosen to study the process of public discussion as it occurs in a different type of place. For example, I could have observed talk in families, or on the Internet. I chose to develop an explanation of the processes of informal talk by studying the Old Timers and the other groups because they were accessible, but more importantly, because many people concerned with democracy expect informal interaction in associations to perform important functions in a democracy. Current concern with levels of social capital, or the capacity of people in a community to solve public problems together, points to interaction in associations as an important basis of this resource (e.g., Putnam 2000). Yet in order to understand how we might rekindle it-if it has infact d windled (Skocpol and Fiorina 1999; Ladd 1999)-and to know whether interaction in associations should be the focus of attempts to invigorate democracy, we need to know what takes place within such associations.


Excerpted from Talking about POLITICS by Katherine Cramer Walsh Copyright © 2004 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Tables and Figures
List of Appendixes
1. Introduction: The Public's Part of Public Discussion
2. The Role of Identity-based Perspectives in Making Sense of Politics
3. The Social Practice of Informal Political Talk
4. Clarifying Social Identity through Group Interaction
5. Talking Politics in a Context of Understanding
6. Public Discussion of the Daily News
7. The Data Are Not Given: Perspectives, Political Trust, and the 2000 Election
8. Social Interaction, Political Divides

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