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"People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like." (Lincoln)

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Sprechen Sie Polisci?

selected list of ways in which political scientists use (abuse?) common words, otherwise known as political science jargon, with indications of where credit is due

Civil society: a concept that is newly developing to describe the extent of social interactions within communities that are distinct from government and politics. These structured or loose associations would include churches, synagogues, and mosques, support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or Parents without Partners, sports leagues, hobby groups, and the like.  Civil society is thought to be important in developing social trust and interpersonal skills; Robert Putnam’s observations about the tendency of Americans to bowl alone, which he connects to negative changes in US political culture, is a nice introduction to the civil society literature.  While a latent function of social networks in civil society is to promote political skills and while these civil groups may participate in politics to promote group interests, what is important is that the state does not penetrate the groups’ activities.

Cleavage:  a fundamental line of value conflict that divides members of a community into sides; political systems may be characterized by the type(s) of value that divides the community, the number of cleavages (and, if multiple, whether they are overlapping [aka reinforcing] or cross-cutting), and intensity.

Coalition: in any imaginable conflict situation (game) with three or more independent actors (players), one can expect that a coalition will form such that two (or more) of the players will combine and act together against the other player(s). Many political situations involve coalitions, and the analysis of these 3-plus player games involve, if only implicitly, the analysis of coalitions; the study of coalition formation (and the collapse of coalitions) is endlessly fascinating. To give just a short illustrative list of coalition politics

  • there are coalitions between two or more political parties in multiparty parliamentary systems where party discipline is the norm and where the Government of the Day must have the support of an absolute majority of seats in parliament
  • in the US Congress, where party discipline is not required, passing any legislation requires putting together a coalition of members in the House and then another legislative coalition in the Senate
  • to win elections in democratic political systems, political parties need to put together coalitions of voters from various groups
  • for the US Supreme Court to make an authoritative statement of what the law is, five or more justices must agree on a single majority opinion
  • most international conflict situations involve coalitions of two or more states in opposition to another state or, even more frequently, in opposition to a coalition of two or more other states; Cold War politics in Europe pitted the NATO coalition against the Soviet-led coalition of the Warsaw Pact, and much of Middle Eastern politics has turned on a sometimes-stronger and sometimes-weaker coalition of Arab states in opposition to Israel

Cohort:  a group of people who experience some phenomenon as a group and whose attitudes and behaviors are thought to be shaped in common by this phenomenon; often but not always the cohort is generational in that members were born at about the same time.  Baby boomers are an example of a cohort, as are the groups of Republican members of the House of Representatives first elected in 1992 in the Gingrich revolution and the "reform" Democrats swept into office in the House in the 1974 election immediately after Watergate.

Concept: a name for a thing

Conflict:  a stressful, tense situation in which two or more actors are in disagreement (fight) because of their different values, different preferences about the distribution of values.

Decision rule:  a rule specifying how many votes are required to make a decision; there are a number of alternative rules which might be used, and it appears that every possible rule has the unfortunate characteristic that it may produce a perverse result such that there are more unhappy people than happy people; the most commonly recognized rules are

  • plurality:  that option wins which has the most number of votes (plurality is sometimes called simple majority a term which, because it may be confused with absolute majority, ought to be avoided)
  • absolute majority:  that option wins which has 50% plus 1 (or one-half plus one) of the votes
  • extraordinary majority:  that option wins which has some specified proportion of the votes cast, a number of votes above absolute majority (may be 60%, two-thirds, three-fifths, etc.)
  • unanimity:  that option wins which has all of the votes

Ethnicity: an ethnic group is defined as a group of people sharing the same culture based on geographic point of origin, langauge, religion, practices; increasingly social and physical scientists are arguing that race is a meaningless concept, especially if one thinks of it in biological (blood or, to be more sophisticated, genetic) terms; being black or Hispanic or Asian or white is not a matter of biology (which the concept of race has tended to suggest) but a matter of how individuals identify themselves socially or how other identify them socially; accordingly, ethnicity is preferred over race as a concept

Function:  a concept contributed by sociologists to point out that practices or activities or behaviors we observe on the part of organisms, institutions, or units do not occur willy-nilly but because they help the organism (or institution or unit) survive or succeed; Wikipedia has a useful entry under the entry "functionalism (sociology)."

  • Ex:  political parties are said to have several different functions, the chief being to serve as a vehicle for getting members of the group (elected) into government positions; but parties also serve/function to provide (1) a means for like-minded people, in an out of government, to come together to achieve their common interests; (2) a cue to voters who may have little information; and (3) a system for developing new generations of political leaders

Something is functional if it helps the organism, institution, or unit survive

Hypothesis:  a testable statement about some phenomenon.

Judicial review:  the power of courts to declare acts of the legislature or executive in violation of the Constitution and thus void (assumes a [written] Constitution).

Legitimate:  regarded as right, proper, or appropriate (legitimacy of an institution or practice is carrying the attribute of being legitimate; legitimation is the process whereby some institution or practice is legitimized, comes to be recognized as right, proper, appropriate); legitimate legal (the condition of being legitimate is different from the condition of being legal) in that legitimacy is a social consensus about the rightness of some thing while the law is a state regulation of behavior (violations of which subject lawbreakers to possible punishment).

Logrolling:  a practice in which two actors exchange votes or support for measures important to one and unimportant to the other; for example, a rural legislator from an agricultural district has no constituency interest in mass transportation while a legislator from a city wants mass transport for his voters while seeing no advantage for them in agricultural price supports; to make it possible for price supports and mass transit funds to pass on separate votes, the two legislators may exchange votes, each voting for price supports and transit aid.

Norm:  expected pattern of behavior, not a legal requirement, but so established that violations are noted and may be informally punished.

  • Ex:  we expect people, after entering an elevator, to turn around and face the door (try doing otherwise and note the reaction) and the norm is that people leaving an elevator or bus or subway exit before those who wish to get on do so
  • Ex:  since the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, it has been the norm that presidents will make the trip to Capitol Hill to deliver a State of the Union Address; Wilson reestablished the practice of submitting the statement orally, a practice initiated by President Washington, but one that President Jefferson abandoned
  • Ex:  the norm of collective responsibility in British government is that all members of the Cabinet will publicly and without equivocation support a decision made by the Cabinet even though they may personally disagree with the decision which is, in any event, probably the action most preferred by the prime minister; Cabinet members who cannot support such a decision are expected to resign; there is a related norm of ministerial responsibility which requires a Cabinet member to assume personally responsibility for the actions of his or her departments whether or not the minister has indeed had any part in the department's failure

Party identification:  the long-term, psychological attachment to one political party or another; measured, in the US case, by the following sequence of questions--

Generally speaking, do you consider yourself a Republican or a Democrat?

If Republican [or Democrat]:  Would you say that you are a strong Republican [Democrat] or a weak Republican [Democrat]

If neither Republican nor Democrat:  Would you say, you lean more to the Republican Party or the Democratic Party

The result from this series of questions yields seven categories:  Strong Democrat, Weak Democrat, Independent leaning Democrat, [pure] Independent, Independent leaning Republican, Weak Republican, Strong Republican

Political culture: the dominant pattern in a poltiical system of orientations towards the poltiical system and citizens' roles in it; political culture develops through the process of polticial socialization

Political socialization:  or political learning. the process whereby citizens develop their knowledge of and attitudes towards of the political system and their place in it.

Politics:  the legitimated set of activities directed toward the making of binding decisions for any community.

Power:  "A's ability to cause B to do what A wants him to do, even though B prefers something else" (Dahl 1956).

Plural society: A term used to describe a state in which citizens are socially, politically, and often economically divided into separate communities on the basis of cultural, ascriptive characteristics such as language, religion, or ethnicity; Andweg & Irwin, in their book on Dutch politics, give a nice example of a plural society, also known as one characterized by segmented pluralism; the opposite of a plural society is a homogeneous society, for which Japan would serve as a good example.

Representative democracy:  a system in which the people rule through election--in free, frequent, and competitive elections--of office holders who make binding decisions for members of the community.  Also known as a republican form of government (though that doesn't mean one has to vote Republican).

Role:  drawn from sociology, the way (or ways) in which people behave in certain positions, ways in which people in general (and the person in the role) perceive or expect the position to be fulfilled (these are role perceptions, role expectations); note that (1) role is a sociological rather than legal term and so turns on the ways people expect role occupants to perform and (2) there may be two or more competing sets of role perceptions.

  • Ex:  we expect judges to be fair, learned, stable, sober; in a word, judicious
  • Ex:  the Queen of England is expected to behave as the Head of State and to avoid taking political positions or acting as a partisan
  • there are competing role perceptions for members of Congress--should they act as delegates and vote according to the preferences of a majority of their constituents or should they act as trustees (exercising their judgment and voting in terms of what would be in the best interests of their constituents or as their constituents would vote if they were fully informed?; and a separate role distinction between taking a national perspective (doing what is best for the nation) or a district one in which he or she gives priority to local interests
  • it may be noticed that political people often couch their political criticisms in terms of arguments that politicians are deviating from a "correct" fulfillment of the role; so, for example, there are complaints about "activist" judges who do more than judge and indeed act as legislators

Salience:  the subjective evaluation of the importance or relevance of some phenomenon, how personally meaningful something is to a person in everyday life (Czudnowski 1968: 884-86); the salience of political objects is hypothesized to affect how much knowledge a person will have about them and the degree to which he or she is likely to act when those objects are at play.

Technique:  "the means and ensemble of means" (Ellul, 1964: 19; see also Meynaud, 1969) for accomplishing some purpose.

Values: those things--such as health, wealth, skill, affection, and respect (Lasswell & Kaplan 1950)--on which people place a certain value, things people want or prize to a greater or lesser extent

  • It may be, indeed probably is, the case that different people want different things in different amounts, but all people have wants, things they value
  • These values have two functions
    • Values motivate behavior—given some thing a person values, they will act to get more of that thing
    • Values influence perceptions—placing a high value on wealth, say, a person is likely to view an issue in terms of its implications for becoming wealthier


web image of Frost Free Library

Frost Free Library, July 2006

Frost Free Library, July 2006