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

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

by Katherine Cramer Walsh

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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226872216
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/15/2010
Series: Studies in Communication, Media, and Public Opinion
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 264
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

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

Read an Excerpt

Talking about Politics

Informal Groups and Social Identity in American Life
By Katherine Cramer Walsh

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2004 Katherine Cramer Walsh
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-226-87218-1

Chapter One

Politics is Us

Talking about politics in polite company, it is said, is as forbidden as talking about religion and sex. But research on how often and with whom Americans talk casually about politics suggest that most of us must not count our friends as polite company. Talking about politics is a common part of everyday life. Granted, informal political conversations may not be sustained, and they are not typically conducted for the purpose of reaching a decision. Instead, when the forum is friendly, we use politics like we use the weather, sports, and family-as a way to relate to one another.

These conversations constitute a major part of the fabric of our civic life. I recently had the privilege of studying how a group of retired, white, middle class men who met every morning over coffee in a neighborhood corner store talked about politics. The three years I spent time with them and other groups, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, overlapped with the 2000 presidential election primary season. I had a chance to listen to how they made sense of the candidates through their visits with each other. Their opinions are not representative of the nation as a whole. (Asurvey study indicated that they tended to be more conservative than the nation and people of a similar age, race, income and education). However, observing their conversations revealed the incidental nature of informal talk about politics. And it also showed how these everyday interactions help us maintain our sense of who we are.

In the 2000 primary season, both the Democratic and Republican nominees were up for grabs. Early on, Bill Bradley seemed to be giving Al Gore a serious challenge, and some believed John McCain was as much a contender for the Republican nomination as George W. Bush. One day the group of men turned their talk to politics.

Bill: Maybe the next race will be [Elizabeth] Dole versus Brady ... I mean [Senator Bill] Bradley. I'd vote for either one. That Bradley is a good guy. Rhodes Scholar, All American Athlete ... I'd vote for him. Where's he from? Somewhere like ... Joe: New Jersey I think. Bill: Oh yeah? I thought he was from somewhere out West, like the Dakotas. I know he's a Senator from New Jersey, went to Princeton. Tim: Yeah, he's got that New York-area accent. Bill: Oh, O.K.... Joe: Yeah, Bradley is good. I went to see Cazzie Russell at Cobo Hall when they played Bradley's team-Princeton. I like him. I wish Colin Powell would run. Bill: Oh I'd vote for Colin Powell. I think this country could use a woman president, or a black-the right person, you know. Wouldn't want someone like [Jesse] Jackson in there. Christ! I'd move to Canada. But Dole she'd be good. Or Powell, yeah I'd vote for him. I think that'd be good.... Joe: That Dole-you know they say that Hillary is smart, but Dole, I think she's got it.

These folks were getting a good deal of their information from the news. But their conversations enabled them to do something else-make sense of the potential nominees through the lens of how they saw themselves. Bill Bradley was O.K. to these folks (despite the fact that he is from New Jersey and a Democrat), because he was an All-American kind of guy, and an athlete. Elizabeth Dole was O.K. (even though she is a woman) because they perceived that she is not a crazy liberal cut from Hillary Clinton cloth.

In coffee shops in New Hampshire, bowling alleys in Wisconsin, and elsewhere around the country, people are spending a bit of their social time talking about the presidential primary in much the same way that these men were doing in 1999. As people interpret the field of candidates, they use themselves as reference points. Election seasons, therefore, are not just important because they are the moments when we pick our leaders. They are crucial public moments because they cause us to reflect on who we are, whom we consider to be people like us, and whom we want to lead us into the future.

These conceptions, simply put, are social identities. They are tools of understanding that are integral to the way we interpret politics. The powerful thing about casual political talk is that it is through this kind of interaction that we figure out what it means to be an American, a Republican, a Midwesterner. And we do this through a wide variety of topics-explicitly political ones like last night's debate, but also topics of less obvious political content, such as whether it's right that our neighbor's daughter remains unmarried at the age of 37. In this way, informal chatting about politics need not change anyone's mind in order for it to matter for our national political life. When we relate to each other through the medium of politics, we are making our own small contributions to ideas about who and what we ought to stand up for.

These are things that polls don't catch easily, if at all. Polls are an amazing resource. With just a small sample, they can, with a great deal of accuracy, tell us how a large population of people feels about candidates and issues. (If you don't believe this, as CBS News once put it, the next time you have a blood test, have the doctor take it all.) Despite the sophistication and utility of today's surveys, what they don't reveal is what people mean by concepts like "Democrat" and how, through the course of their day as active participants in the social world, people arrive at their ideas of what constitute fair and appropriate political choices.

Opinion polls that keep track of the horse race help us figure out who is going to win. But they do not clue us in to the way everyday conversations, however incidental, contribute to the clarification-and perhaps redefinition-of our national identity. Public opinion can be measured. But it is also a dynamic entity, that, whether we notice it or not, ordinary people are actively creating together in small pockets across the country. This year, as we equate how the public feels about the candidates with their standings in the polls, we overlook how much this election is not about Howard Dean, Wesley Clark, or George W. Bush. It's about us.


Excerpted from Talking about Politics by Katherine Cramer Walsh Copyright © 2004 by Katherine Cramer Walsh. Excerpted by permission.
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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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