Topic 11: Political Behaviour

Topic 11: Political Behaviour


Montague (Marshall)


Political participation is the engagement of individuals in the political process. It refers to any activity that affects politics, decision-making, and the distribution of power. This encompasses voting, donating money or time, displaying lawn signs, campaigning, running for office, writing and signing petitions, boycotting, organizing in unions or trade associations, sit-ins, blockades, strikes, riots, public disorder, and attacks on public or private political agents (e.g. police, other party members, etc). A cluster of forms of political participation might be labelled “political activism” in contrast to the relatively passive forms of engagement typified by quadrennial voting and desultory awareness of political news.

Political behaviour is a wider concept, within which political participation is a sub-set. The study of political behaviour encompasses both individual and group behaviour in the political process, extending to party engagement of voters, social movements and the organization of interest groups or political parties, in which individuals might participate. The de-alignment and realignment of group interests with party politics is studied as a phenomenon of political behaviour: voters and political parties influence each other. Voter policy preferences may change over time, as a function of changing circumstances (e.g. older voters may be more enthusiastic about maintaining pensions and healthcare), or political leadership and dominant ideas about normative approaches to politics (see Blyth, 2002, preface, on Moodle). The third face of Luke’s concept of power is particularly difficult to research, but particularly important, as Blyth explains in Great Transformations. A “structurally given interest” is an interest defined by position in a structure – workers want this; owners want that:

“This book shows how blunt an instrument structurally given interests really are, why we need to rethink what people do in light of their beliefs and desires, and why our commonly understood relationships between interests, ideas, and institutions also need to be overhauled.”

In practice, we all have multiple interests multiple identities: worker, consumer, citizen, group member. Although Blyth is writing about economic ideas and institutions (ways of organizing social behaviour) his book is fundamentally about political behaviour, including manipulation of voting preferences. However, Blyth does not address organizational changes in links between parties and voters, electoral competition (including the influence of money), and organizational changes affecting party performance over time. (See Boix and Stokes, ch. 23).

Boix and Stokes (Ch. 26) introduces a standard social-psychological model of participation. Electoral turn-out is affected by rules (e.g. voter registration, identity requirements) which can be deployed to deter or suppress voting by particular groups. Traditional political parties may face shrinking membership

Learning objectives

  • Define political participation
  • Explain why it is difficult to understand political participation
  • Describe elements political participation: who participates, where, when, why, impact of risk.
  • Recognize accepted motivations for political participation
  • Evaluate arguments about the context of different forms of political participation: wealth, socio-economic class, repression
  • Explain the use of qualitative and quantitative methods to understand political participation


To be confirmed by instructor after consultation with class coordinators

Activities before class

Consider the following questions for discussion

  1. Why do people participate in politics?
  2. What are the principal sites and modes of political participation (i.e. where and how do people participate?)
  3. How do we explain political participation at the macro-level, i.e. patterns of where and when people participate?
  4. How do we explain political participation at the micro-level, i.e. who chooses to participate?
  5. What factors affect voter turnout?
  6. How is the organization of political parties connected to voter turnout? Do parties always want higher turn-out? Why might they want to suppress voter turnout?
  7. What are some examples of contemporary social movements? How are they influenced by a market economy and by social media?

Activities during class

Coordinators may consider the following activities:

  • Policy workshop: integrating new Canadians. Consider Antoine Bilodeau’s book, Just Ordinary Citizens? Towards a Comparative Portrait of the Political Immigrant. What actions might GoC or provincial governments take to integrate new Canadians and ensure social cohesion? Where is the normative line dividing acceptable from unacceptable government intervention to moderate political behaviour?
  • Strategic planning session for Dr. Evil: How can we build an anti-democratic social movement that will deter democratic participation and erode confidence in rule of law? Red teaming: what can the government do about it?

Activities after class

  • Review learning objectives.
  • Post questions and notes to Moodle.
  • Suggest exam questions

Additional Resources