the sociological approach to politics
When I started graduate school in the last century, my approach to political analysis was very close to an old school rational choice model. People had interests and ideological tastes. Then they asked government to defend their interests or enforce their tastes. In the last 15 years that I’ve been working on institutions, movements, and related issues, my views have changed. With respect to politicians, I still adopt a somewhat standard rational choice model. Elected leaders have fairly intuitive utility functions, it’s just that the political environment is stochastic in nature and suffused with ambiguity.
However, my approach to voters and “retail” politics is completely different. For example, I no longer believe that people (even fairly educated people) have consistent ideological beliefs. Public opinion research and everyday observation shows that people hold contradictory views on policies, when they even have any knowledge at all. I also don’t believe that many people have terribly stable material interests that are expressed at the voting booth.
So what’s left? The big drivers of politics are group identity and individual self-image. Basically, my current position is that a lot of mass politics is some version of group identity writ large. For example, a great deal of partisan identity in the US is driven by being pro or anti-black. Foreign policy makes little sense until you understand that a lot of it has to do with fighting outsiders (e.g., Islamists, communists). In many nations, party coalitions are defined along class lines, linguistic lines, and ethnic lines. In fact, Lipset and Rokkan have an old book that succinctly argues that multi-party politics is really easy to understand once you take all these social categories into account.
While most sociologists appreciate group identity, they tend to under appreciate the role of self-identity, which is really appreciated by psychologists. For example, it is certainly true that the Democratic/Republican cleavage rests on racial attitudes. But that doesn’t explain why Democrats would be less into the military. Theoretically, you might imagine a party that combines pro-black and pro-military attitudes. Once you accept that unrelated identities can be bundled, it is easy to see that attitudes toward defense probably reflect an individual’s desire to be seen as tough, which through historical accident can be bundled with racial attitudes.
Now, when I try to understand polls or parties or policies, I do consider interests, but I also use the lens of group identity and self-image. It clears up a lot of things.