Contexts, Intermediaries, and Political Behaviour
ROBERT HUCKFELDT PAUL ALLEN BECK
This chapter is built on the premise that citizens do not experience politics directly as isolated individuals, but rather, do so indirectly as individuals who are embedded within distinctive contexts and settings. Various information sources within these settings serve as intermediaries in communicating particular interpretations of political reality, and thus politics depends on this larger social and political experience in fundamentally important ways. The environmentally contingent nature of political activity and involvement arises in part because people talk about politics with friends and relatives and associates, but also because they learn about it through the mass media and other environmentally specific intermediaries. In short, politics is environmentally contingent at its core because it is experienced by individuals as part of larger groups and collectivities -- as part of a larger social and political experience.
How does the larger environment impinge upon politics and political behavior? The contingent basis of politics is far-reaching in its implications. Different citizens experience different political realities because: they read different newspapers, they are employed at different workplaces, they are exposed to different forms of partisan organization, they belong to different groups, they talk and interact with different people. Just as important, different citizens are surrounded by different populations that are radically dissimilar in terms of partisan leanings, religious beliefs, racial composition, class composition, and so on. Thus we can usefully view citizens as being located within a series of both nested and overlapping environments, each of which sustains and fosters some interpretations of politics while discouraging others.
At the same time, individual citizens also exercise important elements of control over many qualities and aspects of their own social experience.