Political Belief Networks: Socio-Cognitive Heterogeneity in American Public Opinion

44 Pages Posted: 19 Jul 2010 Last revised: 29 Sep 2013

See all articles by Delia Baldassarri

Delia Baldassarri

Princeton University - Department of Sociology; Columbia University - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Amir Goldberg

Stanford Graduate School of Business

Date Written: August 2010

Abstract

Most research on public opinion assumes that American political views are structured by a belief system with a clearly-defined liberal-conservative polarity; however, this is not true of all Americans. In this article we document systematic heterogeneity in the organization of political attitudes and explain its basis in the sociodemographic profile of the respondents.

We use Relational Class Analysis (RCA), a network-based method for detecting heterogeneity in collective patterns of opinion, to identify distinctive belief networks, each shared by a different group of respondents. Analyzing ANES data between 1984 and 2004, we identify three groups of American citizens that remain stable throughout this period: it Ideologues, whose political attitudes strongly align with either liberal or conservative categories; Alternatives, who are instead morally conservative but economically liberal, or vice versa; and Agnostics, who exhibit weak associations among political beliefs.

Respondents’ sociodemographic profiles, particularly their income, education, and religiosity, lie at the core of the different ways in which they understand politics. When their economic interests and social identities are incompatible with the traditional liberal-conservative polarity (e.g., high earners with weak religious commitments), individuals gravitate toward alternative ways of conceptualizing the political debate. These results raise important methodological questions concerning the assumption of population homogeneity.

Keywords: belief networks, public opinion, constraint, political belief system, political cognition, heterogeneity, income and religiosity

Suggested Citation

Baldassarri, Delia and Goldberg, Amir, Political Belief Networks: Socio-Cognitive Heterogeneity in American Public Opinion (August 2010). APSA 2010 Annual Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1642641

Delia Baldassarri (Contact Author)

Princeton University - Department of Sociology ( email )

22 Chambers Street
Princeton, NJ 08544-0708
United States

Columbia University - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences ( email )

New York, NY 10027
United States

Amir Goldberg

Stanford Graduate School of Business ( email )

655 Knight Way
Stanford, CA 94305-5015
United States

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