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«Emanating Political Participation: Untangling the Spatial Structure Behind Participation WENDY K. TAM CHO THOMAS J. RUDOLPH* AND This is an analysis ...»

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B.J.Pol.S. 38, 273-289 Copyright © 2008 Cambridge University Press

doi:10.1017/S0007123408000148 Printed in the United Kingdom

Emanating Political Participation: Untangling the

Spatial Structure Behind Participation

WENDY K. TAM CHO THOMAS J. RUDOLPH*

AND

This is an analysis of the spatial structure of political participation in the United States using spatial econometric

techniques and newly available geo-coded data. The results provide strong evidence that political participation is geographically clustered, and that this clustering cannot be explained entirely by social network involvement, individual-level characteristics, such as race, income, education, cognitive forms of political engagement, or by aggregate-level factors such as racial diversity, income inequality, mobilization or mean education level.

The analysis suggests that the spatial structure of participation is consistent with a diffusion process that occurs independently from citizens’ involvement in social networks.

Political participation is the critical link between a nation’s citizenry and the governing process; it ‘provides the mechanism by which citizens can communicate information about their interests, preferences, and needs and generate pressure to respond.’1 Motivated by concerns about the potential consequences of participatory biases, scholars have devoted considerable attention to the question of why some citizens are habitually more likely to participate than others. The literature has identified a recurring set of individual-level attributes (for example, education, income, age, political interest, political information, political efficacy and civic engagement) that are associated with higher levels of participation.2 Increasingly, scholars are also underscoring the important role that context plays in shaping political participation.3 Moreover, there is a growing recognition that political participation is spatially or geographically clustered.4 Simply put, individuals are more likely to participate if those around them are likely to participate. Nonetheless, while few contest the assertion that context is politically consequential, there is less consensus about the mechanisms through * Department of Political Science and National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and Department of Political Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, respectively. The authors wish to thank Luc Anselin, Zachary Elkins, Brian Gaines, Jim Gimpel, Jude Hays, Jim Kuklinski and Stephen Weatherford for helpful comments.

Sidney Verba, Kay Lehman Schlozman and Henry E. Brady, Voice and Equality: Civic Voluntarism in American Politics (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995), p. 1.

Steven J. Rosenstone and John Mark Hansen, Mobilization, Participation, and Democracy in America (New York: Macmillan, 1993); Verba, Schlozman and Brady, Voice and Equality.

Robert Huckfeldt, Politics in Context: Assimilation and Conflict in Urban Neighborhoods (New York:

Agathon, 1986); Robert Huckfeldt and John Sprague, Citizens, Politics, and Social Communication: Information and Influence in an Election Campaign (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995); James G. Gimpel, Separate Destinations: Migration, Immigration, and the Politics of Places (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999); Scott D. McClurg, ‘Social Networks and Political Participation: The Role of Social Interaction in Explaining Political Participation’, Political Research Quarterly, 56 (2003), 449–64; Diana Mutz, ‘The Consequences of Cross-Cutting Networks for Political Participation’, American Journal of Political Science, 46 (2002), 838–55.

Robert Huckfeldt, Eric Plutzer and John Sprague, ‘The Alternative Contexts of Political Behavior: Churches, Neighborhoods, and Individuals’, Journal of Politics, 55 (1993), 365–81; Carol Kohfeld and John Sprague, ‘Racial Context and Voting Behavior in One-party Urban Political Systems’, Political Geography, 14 (1995), 543–69;

Gimpel, Separate Destinations.

274 CHO AND RUDOLPH which context matters. Why do individuals’ participatory tendencies tend to reflect those of their surrounding environment? What accounts for this spatial structure underlying political participation? Exploiting recent advances in spatial econometrics, we offer new theoretical insight into these important questions and provide a more nuanced understanding of the spatial and contextual components of participation.

The spatial structure of political participation is potentially explained by a number of alternative theoretical accounts. A self-selection process, in which similarly situated or like-minded individuals choose to live near each other, is a possible explanation. A second possibility is that spatial patterns result from elite-driven processes in which political elites target certain geographical regions for mobilization. A third, and perhaps the leading theory of contextual effects is rooted in the social interaction thesis that holds that the more citizens interact within their social environment, the more likely they are to be exposed to environmental norms of participation and, consequently, to participate accordingly.5 A fourth and, in our view, underappreciated theory of contextual effects may be termed casual observation.





Under this account, spatial proximity shapes behaviour through low-intensity neighbourhood cues that occur outside the realm of voluntary or explicit forms of social interaction.

In the analyses to follow, we examine the spatial structure of political participation in the United States by combining spatial econometric methods with a geo-coded dataset.

These techniques enable us, for the first time, to adjudicate between these alternative accounts of the spatial structure of participation. Our results extend the extant literature in three ways. First, we provide strong evidence that political participation is geographically clustered. Secondly, and more innovatively, our results show that this clustering cannot be explained entirely by social network interaction, individual-level characteristics (such as race, income, education, political efficacy), or aggregate-level factors (such as mobilization, racial diversity, income inequality, mean education level).

Finally, our results suggest that the spatial structure of participation is consistent with a diffusion process that begins at a core and spreads or propagates itself to neighbouring areas. This diffusion process works independently from citizens’ involvement in social networks and points to the critical role that low-intensity neighbourhood cues play in explaining the spatial structure of participation.

We begin by discussing competing theories of contextual effects and contrasting their empirical predictions. We then propose an alternative analytical strategy for understanding the spatial structure of political participation. After introducing our data and describing our modelling techniques, we present the results of a spatial autoregressive participation model. We conclude with a discussion of our principal findings, how they fit in and extend the literature, and an assessment of their theoretical and methodological implications.

MECHANISMS OF CONTEXTUAL INFLUENCE

Self-Selection Residential segregation whether by race or economic status is an unfortunate but common reality.6 Whether driven by discrimination, economic constraints or in-group Mutz, ‘The Consequences of Cross-Cutting Networks for Political Participation’.

Douglas S. Massey and Nancy Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993); Douglas S. Massey and Eric Fong, ‘Segregation and Neighborhood Quality: Blacks, Asians and Hispanics in the San Francisco Metropolitan Area’, Social Forces, 69 (1990), 15–32.

Emanating Political Participation 275 pride, many Americans choose to reside near those of similar social status. This self-selection process must be considered as one possible explanation of the spatial dependence of political participation. The reason is that certain individual-level factors that help to determine residential choice, particularly income and race, are also important predictors of participation.7 If people are, in effect, choosing to live near those with similar participatory tendencies, then what appear to be contextual effects may actually be the result of citizens choosing ‘reinforcing social environments’.8 The self-selection thesis suggests that contextual effects arise from a self-sorting mechanism in which people make residential decisions based on individual-level criteria.

This implies that whatever spatial dependence exists between individuals is due to that same set of criteria and creates a set of expectations concerning the spatial structure of political participation. In particular, the spatial dependence that is created by self-selecting behaviour should be concentrated in one of two types of variables. The first is in the individual-level traits that would cause the clustering we observe. The second is in our social interaction variables, since like-minded individuals tend to have more interaction with each other. If we do observe additional spatial dependence after taking these selection criteria into account, then self-selection may be part of the story but does not define the mechanism through which context shapes participation.

Elite-driven Processes Mobilization has long been recognized as an important determinant of political participation. Partisan elites often attempt to mobilize citizens by selectively targeting certain types of people, since individuals who have been contacted by a party are far more likely to participate in political activities than those who have not been contacted.9 Moreover, it is simplest to do such targeting geographically through media markets or within the confines of areal boundaries. Campaigns employ a similar strategy, often targeting battlegrounds or places with multiple or highly contested campaigns.10 Highly contested races and the bulk of campaign activity are, with rare exception, geographically clustered. As a result, any spatial dependence in individuals’ participatory tendencies may be driven by mobilization. If contextual effects are solely mediated by mobilization, then we should not expect to observe any spatial dependence between individuals’ likelihood of participating after taking mobilization into account.

Social Interaction At the core of the social interaction thesis is the supply and demand of political information.

On the demand side, the theory is premised upon the belief that individuals value political information but that they, operating as cognitive misers, wish to obtain such information on the cheap.11 On the supply side, social networks are believed to provide an inexpensive means of acquiring political information. Such networks, however, are assumed to be Rosenstone and Hansen, Mobilization, Participation, and Democracy in America.

Robert Huckfeldt, Politics in Context: Assimilation and Conflict in Urban Neighborhoods (New York:

Agathon, 1986).

Rosenstone and Hansen, Mobilization, Participation, and Democracy in America.

Rosenstone and Hansen, Mobilization, Participation, and Democracy in America.

Huckfeldt and Sprague, Citizens, Politics, and Social Communication.

276 CHO AND RUDOLPH informationally biased; that is, they are expected to provide information with an unbalanced perspective. It is through social interaction within this biased environment that individuals are believed to acquire and process much of their political information.12 Social interaction thus triggers a social learning process in which citizens are exposed to the prevailing sentiments of their social network. Views that are consonant with those of the social network are met with positive reinforcement while dissonant views are subject to negative reinforcement.13 As this social learning process continues over time, citizens’ participatory tendencies should gradually meld with those of their social environment.



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