Paul A. Djupe and Brian R. Calfano
In the main, the link between religious variables and political choices is wrapped up in a communicative process of exposure and adoption. Specifically, people become exposed to religious teachings and viewpoints within religious contexts, they then must determine whether and to what extent they will adopt those teachings and viewpoints as their own, and then they must adapt them to political ends. Critical to this approach is the acknowledgment that religious social and institutional contexts are rife with diversity, even within religious traditions. This diversity extends to religious adherents, congregations, and elites and means that people receive a variety of religious and political cues from religious sources across time and space. It is this variation that is critical to measure in order to understand religion’s effects on political behavior. That is, documenting the implications of religious diversity is as much a question of research design as it is a theoretical framework. This framework is flexible enough to accommodate the growing literature examining political input effects on religious output.
The norms and patterns of exposure and adoption vary by the combination of the communicator and context: political communication in congregations, religious communication effects on politics in congregations, and religious communication by elites in public space. There are very few instances of political elites in religious spaces, at least in the United States. Presidents and other political elites have used religious rhetoric throughout American history in varying proportions, though how they have used it is changing in the Trump era to be much more particularistic and exclusive rather than the traditional broad and inclusive language of past presidents.
A central variable moderating the impact of communication is credibility, which can be demonstrated in multiple ways, including political agreement as well as religious office, rhetorical choices, and decision-making processes. Religious elites, especially, battle against the weight of history, inattention, and misperception in their attempts to lead prophetically. As a result, religious elite influence, in the sense of changing hearts and minds, is a fraught enterprise.
Naturally, we recommend adopting research designs that are appropriate for incorporating measurement on communication exposure so we can appropriately understand adoption decisions. This demands some creativity on behalf of researchers, which also drives them toward experimental work where exposure questions are built into the design and affords them a great deal of control.
Framing effects are produced by political communications that emphasize certain characteristics or consequences of an issue or policy to the exclusion of other features. By increasing the accessibility of those characteristics in people’s judgments, individuals can be swayed between supporting and opposing a policy depending on the valence of the highlighted feature. The preference inconsistencies that define framing effects were generated initially in environments in which individuals responded to a singular framing of an issue (i.e., a one-sided frame) at the expense of alternative conceptualizations of the problem. An important question is whether framing effects can be diminished by the competition among ideas that is characteristic of democratic politics.
The analysis of competitive framing has focused on the interaction between individual predispositions and processing styles and the combination of messages that individuals receive. The effectiveness of any particular communication strategy will depend on the characteristics of the target audience (specifically its values, knowledge, and processing style), the availability and applicability of the frames employed (i.e., whether they are strong or weak), and the degree to which there is competition and debate over the issues.
Research has been based on increasingly realistic experimental designs that attempt to reproduce how people encounter and process communications about politics in natural environments. The competitive context affects how much information people receive as well as how they process that information. In noncompetitive political environments, individuals, especially those who are unmotivated, tend to apply whatever considerations are made accessible by the one-sided messages they receive. In contrast, competing frames tend to stimulate individuals to deliberate on the merits of alternative interpretations.
The key difference between competitive framing in a single period versus over time is that when people receive competing messages about political issues over the course of a campaign or debate, their attitudes are affected not only by the content of the messages but also the sequence and timing of communications. The same set of messages will have a different impact depending on the order and combinations in which those messages were received. The most significant implication of these dynamics is that democratic competition—even when the opposing frames are balanced and of equal strength—may reduce or eliminate framing effects only when people receive the opposing frames simultaneously.
The magnitude of framing effects at different junctures of a campaign depends on the extent of exposure to frames and the degree to which citizens learn and retain information derived from those frames. Individuals who more efficiently process and store information—the online processors and those with a strong need to evaluate—are less likely to be moved by the latest frame because they are stabilized by the attitudes they have developed in prior phases of the campaign. There are promising hints in over-time studies that longer-term exposure to debate (beyond the short-term campaigns simulated in experiments) could gradually familiarize motivated individuals with both sides of the issue and diminish the subsequent influence of one-sided frames.
Why voters turn out on Election Day has eluded a straightforward explanation. Rational choice theorists have proposed a parsimonious model, but its logical implication is that hardly anyone would vote since their one vote is unlikely to determine the election outcome. Attempts to save the rational choice model incorporate factors like the expressive benefits of voting, yet these modifications seem to be at odds with core assumptions of rational choice theory. Still, some people do weigh the expected costs and benefits of voting and take account of the closeness of the election when deciding whether or not to vote. Many more, though, vote out of a sense of civic duty. In contrast to the calculus of voting model, the civic voluntarism model focuses on the role of resources, political engagement, and to a lesser extent, recruitment in encouraging people to vote. It pays particular attention to the sources of these factors and traces complex paths among them.
There are many other theories of why people vote in elections. Intergenerational transmission and education play central roles in the civic voluntarism models. Studies that link official voting records with census data provide persuasive evidence of the influence of parental turnout. Education is one of the best individual-level predictors of voter turnout, but critics charge that it is simply a proxy for pre-adult experiences within the home. Studies using equally sophisticated designs that mimic the logic of controlled experiments have reached contradictory conclusions about the association between education and turnout. Some of the most innovative work on voter turnout is exploring the role of genetic influences and personality traits, both of which have an element of heritability. This work is in its infancy, but it is likely that many genes shape the predisposition to vote and that they interact in complex ways with environmental influences. Few clear patterns have emerged in the association between personality and turnout. Finally, scholars are beginning to recognize the importance of exploring the connection between health and turnout.
Gaurav Sood and Yphtach Lelkes
The news media have been disrupted. Broadcasting has given way to narrowcasting, editorial control to control by “friends” and personalization algorithms, and a few reputable producers to millions with shallower reputations. Today, not only is there a much broader variety of news, but there is also more of it. The news is also always on. And it is available almost everywhere. The search costs have come crashing down, so much so that much of the world’s information is at our fingertips. Google anything and the chances are that there will be multiple pages of relevant results.
Such a dramatic expansion of choice and access is generally considered a Pareto improvement. But the worry is that we have fashioned defeat from the bounty by choosing badly. The expansion in choice is blamed for both, increasing the “knowledge gap,” the gap between how much the politically interested and politically disinterested know about politics, and increasing partisan polarization. We reconsider the evidence for the claims. The claim about media’s role in rising knowledge gaps does not need explaining because knowledge gaps are not increasing. For polarization, the story is nuanced. Whatever evidence exists suggests that the effect is modest, but measuring long-term effects of a rapidly changing media landscape is hard and may explain the results.
As we also find, even describing trends in basic explanatory variables is hard. Current measures are beset with five broad problems. The first is conceptual errors. For instance, people frequently equate preference for information from partisan sources with a preference for congenial information. Second, survey measures of news consumption are heavily biased. Third, behavioral survey experimental measures are unreliable and inapt for learning how much information of a particular kind people consume in their real lives. Fourth, measures based on passive observation of behavior only capture a small (likely biased) set of the total information consumed by people. Fifth, content is often coded crudely—broad judgments are made about coarse units, eliding over important variation.
These measurement issues impede our ability to answer the extent to which people choose badly and the attendant consequences of such. Improving measures will do much to advance our ability to answer important questions.
Nichole M. Bauer
Women are under-represented at every level of elected office in the United States. As of 2018, women held just under 20% of seats in Congress, 25% of state legislative seats across the country, only six women serve as governor, and, of course, a woman has yet to win the presidency. The political under-representation of women is not unique to the American context. Indeed, women’s under-representation is a feature of other Western Democracies. Even under the leadership of female prime ministers, women hold only 32% of seats in the United Kingdom parliament and 31% of seats in the German parliament. Conventional wisdom suggests that feminine stereotypes may disadvantage female candidates. Feminine stereotypes characterize women as sensitive, emotional, and weak, and these are qualities voters do not traditionally associate with political leadership. Rather, voters associate political leadership with masculine traits such as being tough, aggressive, or assertive. The extent to which voters use these stereotypes in political decision making in the American context is not entirely clear.
There are three ways that feminine and masculine stereotypes can affect political decision making: candidate strategies, campaign news coverage, and vote choice decision. The alignment between masculine stereotypes and political leadership frequently pressures female candidates to emphasize masculine qualities over feminine qualities in campaign messages. Motivating these masculine messages is the perception that voters see female candidates as lacking the masculine qualities voters desire in political leaders. Male candidates, because of the alignment between masculinity and leadership roles, do not face this pressure. Female candidates will, however, highlight feminine stereotypes when these strategies will afford them a distinct electoral advantage. The use of masculinity in candidate strategy leads the news media, in turn, to use masculine stereotypes rather than feminine stereotypes in their coverage of both female and male candidates.
The ways that candidates and the news media engage with gender stereotypes affects how voters use these concepts to form impressions of female and male candidates. Voters will use feminine stereotypes as heuristics to form impressions of the ideological and issue priorities of female candidates. Feminine stereotypes can hurt the electoral prospects of female candidates, but the negative effect of feminine stereotypes only occurs under a limited set of conditions. Voters will use feminine stereotypes to rate female candidates negatively when female candidates explicitly emphasize feminine qualities, such as being warm or compassionate, in campaign messages. But, voters respond positively to female candidates who emphasize positive masculine qualities. In sum, whether gender stereotypes affect voter decision-making depends on the extent to which voters see messages, either from campaigns or the news media, that reflect femininity or masculinity.
Interest representation plays a systemic role in European Union (EU) policymaking and integration, recognized as such in the Treaty on European Union. Interest organizations supply technical and political information to the EU institutions, and EU institutions use interest organizations as agents of political communication. Interest organizations act as a proxy for an otherwise largely absent civil society, with a teeming population of groups advocating for every imaginable cause. Where groups are absent, so EU institutions have stimulated their formation. The result is a pluralist system of checks and balances, although the literature includes findings of “islands” resembling corporatist practice.
EU institutions have designed a range of procedures in support of “an open and structured dialogue between the Commission and special interest groups,” now largely packaged as a “Better Regulation” program. Measures include funding for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), consultation procedures accompanied by impact assessments, a Transparency Register to provide lobbying transparency, and measures for access to documents that enable civil society organizations to keep EU institutions accountable. A multilevel governance system further strengthens pluralist design, making it impossible for any one type of interest to routinely capture the diversity of EU decision-making. A key controversy in the literature is how to assess influence and whether lobbying success varies across interest group type. EU public policymaking is regulatory, making for competitive interest group politics, often between different branches of business whose interests are affected differently by regulatory proposals. There are striking findings from the literature, including that NGOs are more successful than business organizations in getting what they want from EU public policymaking, particularly where issues reach the status of high salience where they attract the attention of the European Parliament. A key innovation of the Lisbon Treaty involves a European Citizens’ Initiative, which takes dialogue between civil society and EU institutions outside the ecosystem inhabited by civil society organizations and EU institutions known as the “Brussels bubble” and into the member states.
Leaderless group decision-making denotes the idea that political decisions from a non-hierarchical discussion structure can be more legitimate and effective than those from a hierarchical structure. Since the latter half of the 20th century, such decision-making has been practiced widely in community groups, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), “deliberation” forums, as well as in the business and management settings. While one may argue its origins go back to Athenian direct democracy, it was the zeal of the 1960s participatory democracy movement in the United States that produced the more sophisticated principles, philosophies, and mechanics of leaderless group decision-making. The progressive social movement activists at that time considered non-hierarchical groups as ethically appropriate to their causes. Since then, this tradition of leaderless group decision-making processes has been adopted in many grassroots social movements.
Debates and controversies abound concerning leaderless group decision-making. It has been a normative imperative for many social activists to adopt decision-making in a leaderless manner. Research to date, however, has produced no conclusive evidence that leaderless group discussion results in better or more effective decisions. Proponents argue that members of a leaderless group would develop greater capacities for self-governance because in such a setting they can take more personal and egalitarian initiatives to organize activities of the group. This, in turn, would lead to better group dynamics and discussion, and, eventually, better decisions. Critics suggest that leaderless groups are slow and inflexible in decision-making and that the supposedly leaderless groups usually end up with leaders because of the social dynamics and human nature present in group interactions.
Regardless of its potential benefits and problems, the ideals of deliberative and participatory democracy are strongly propelling this egalitarian, discourse-based form of group decision-making. Researchers will gain a great deal of insight from literature in deliberation concerning the functions, problems, and future directions of leaderless groups. In addition, there is a need to study leaderless groups in a more multi-faceted way, as research to date has been dominated by psychology-based quantitative assessment of groups. Qualitative and ethnographic approaches will be helpful to further assess the dynamics of leaderless group decision-making.
The German sociologist Niklas Luhmann has provided one of the most elaborate theories of society available, as well as numerous works on specific aspects of society. Commonly labeled as “systems theory,” this is but a shorthand description of Luhmann’s theory. In fact, the theory rests on at least three main theoretical pillars. In addition to systems theory, a theory of social evolution and a theory of social differentiation play important roles. The present article introduces these three pillars and describes Luhmann’s theory of politics in this context. It outlines the crucial difference between a theory of politics as part of a theory of society on the one hand, and political theory as a reflective theory within the political system on the other hand. More specifically, it introduces Luhmann’s accounts of the notions of political power, differentiation, the state, political steering, and the self-description of the political system. The contribution concludes with some observations on the fact that Luhmann’s theory has tended to overlook the dimension of international politics, but that his theory provides opportunities to account for it in innovative ways.
Hajo G. Boomgaarden and Rüdiger Schmitt-Beck
Media are key for the functioning of democracy. It is the essential link between politics and citizens, providing critical information and interpretation of politics and room for debate. Given this central role of the media for democratic political processes, questions about how mediated political information would affect citizens’ perceptions of and attitudes toward politics, as well as ultimately political behavior, have been dominant in research in the field of political communication. While vast amounts of mid-range theories and empirical insights speak in favor of influences of media on citizens, there is little in terms of a universal theoretical framework guiding political media effects research, which makes it difficult to give a conclusive answer to the question: how and, in particular, how much do the media matter? It may matter for some people under some conditions in some contexts relating to some outcome variables. Technological changes in media systems pose additional challenges, both conceptually and methodologically, to come to comprehensive assessments of media influences on citizens’ political cognitions, attitudes, or behaviors. Research needs to be clearer as to which conceptualization of media is followed and how such conceptualization may interact with other dimensions of media attributes. Measurement of media use and reception needs to take into account the increasing complexities of how citizens encounter political information, and it requires alignment with the conceptualization of media. Political media effect theories should not continue developing side by side, but should attempt to find a place in a more comprehensive model and take into account how they relate to and possibly interact with other approaches. In sum, the field of political media effects, while vast and covering a range of aspects, would do well to consider its role and purpose in increasingly complex media environments and, accordingly, provide more integrative perspectives, conceptually, methodologically, and theoretically.
Recognizing its causal power, contemporary scholars of media effects commonly leverage experimental methodology. For most of the 20th century, however, political scientists and communication scholars relied on observational data, particularly after the development of scientific survey methodology around the mid-point of the century. As the millennium approached, Iyengar and Kinder’s seminal News That Matters experiments ushered in an era of renewed interest in experimental methods. Political communication scholars have been particularly reliant on experiments, due to their advantages over observational studies in identifying media effects. Although what is meant by “media effects” has not always been clear or undisputed, scholars generally agree that the news media influences mass opinion and behavior through its agenda-setting, framing, and priming powers. Scholars have adopted techniques and practices for gauging the particular effects these powers have, including measuring the mediating role of affect (or emotion).
Although experiments provide researchers with causal leverage, political communication scholars must consider challenges endemic to media-effects studies, including problems related to selective exposure. Various efforts to determine if selective exposure occurs and if it has consequences have come to different conclusions. The origin of conflicting conclusions can be traced back to the different methodological choices scholars have made. Achieving experimental realism has been a particularly difficult challenge for selective exposure experiments. Nonetheless, there are steps media-effects scholars can take to bolster causal arguments in an era of high media choice. While the advent of social media has brought new challenges for media-effects experimentalists, there are new opportunities in the form of objective measures of media exposure and effects.
Ian Shapiro, Steven Richardson, Scott McClurg, and Anand Sokhey
Decades of work have illuminated the influence interpersonal networks exert on voting behavior, political participation, the acquisition of political knowledge, tolerance, ambivalence, and attitude polarization. These central findings have largely been grounded in examinations of political discussion and have remained robust to measurement differences of key concepts like disagreement, various data collection methods, and multiple research designs ranging from the cross-sectional to large-scale field experiments. By comparison, scholars understand considerably less about individuals’ motivation to approach their social contacts when it comes to politics, and about why networks produce the outcomes that they do; this calls researchers to reflect on and revisit previous research, but also to consider new paths of research. Although there is a growing body of promising work focused on “whole,” or complete, networks, much can also be gained by better integrating social psychology into the study of egocentric, or “core,” political networks.
Answering these (and other) questions will help connect current findings, emerging methods, and nascent theory. Such connections should advance dialogues between research on group influence, discussion networks, and individual political behavior.
Aubrey Westfall and Özge Çelik Russell
Religion is a central and comprehensive identity for billions of people all over the world. Politicians and other political actors recognize the vitality of religion and use it for political purposes, deliberately signaling religion, religiosity, or religious values and connecting them to political outcomes or behaviors in an effort to influence the political preferences of religious practitioners. The most efficient way to make the connection between religion and politics is through religious cues. Religious cues create information shortcuts linking religious identity or values with a political candidate or issue. Religious cues are used by political and religious actors in secular and religious contexts and are typically one of two general types: identity cues, which engage an individual’s religious identity and activate an in-group/out-group effect, and linkage cues, which link religious values or beliefs with an issue or candidate. Identity cues are particularly tricky to use in secular contexts because they have been shown to have strong alienating effects on nonreligious people, thereby defeating the intended purpose of the cue sender. For this reason, coded religious language called “implicit cues” is used with greater frequency in political discourse where only the religious cue receiver recognizes the religious cue for what it is. This strategy allows a political candidate to reap the benefits of the cue without risking alienation.
While scholars have made substantial progress in using experimental methods to disentangle the ways religious cues influence political behavior, there is ample opportunity for more research exploring different types of religious cues and the way they interact with other forms of cues and identities. Furthermore, most of the research on religious cues has focused on Christian cues in the United States, and a more diverse range of religions and contexts should be explored to understand the way religious cues influence political behavior. Researchers should also expand the definition of “religious practitioners” to explore how religious cues influence the growing number of people who do not affiliate with a religion or engage in practices traditionally associated with religiosity but do identify as religious. This would help to expand conceptualization of political behavior to more accurately reflect lived political experiences. Embracing these opportunities will allow the scholarly community to gain a better understanding of the varied political dynamics of religious cueing, which offers insights into how fundamental identities and attitudes are linked, thereby shedding more light on the complex dynamics of political behavior.
Toril Aalberg and Stephen Cushion
Public service broadcasters are a central part of national news media environments in most advanced democracies. Although their market positions can vary considerably between countries, they are generally seen to enhance democratic culture, pursuing a more serious and harder news agenda compared to commercial media . . . But to what extent is this perspective supported by empirical evidence? How far can we generalize that all public service news media equally pursue a harder news agenda than commercial broadcasters? And what impact does public service broadcasting have on public knowledge? Does exposure to public service broadcasting increase citizens’ knowledge of current affairs, or are they only regularly viewed by citizens with an above average interest in politics and hard news?
The overview of the evidence provided by empirical research suggests that citizens are more likely to be exposed to hard news, and be more knowledgeable about current affairs, when they watch public service news—or rather news in media systems where public service is well funded and widely watched. The research evidence also suggests there are considerable variations between public broadcasters, just as there are between more market-driven and commercial media. An important limitation of previous research is related to the question of causality. Therefore, a main challenge for future research is to determine not only if public service broadcasting is the preferred news provider of most knowledgeable citizens, but also whether it more widely improves and increases citizens’ knowledge about public affairs.
Benjamin R. Knoll and Cammie Jo Bolin
Religious communication affects political behavior through two primary channels: political messages coming from a religious source and religious messages coming from a political source. In terms of the first channel, political scientists have found that clergy do tend to get involved in politics, and church-goers often hear political messages over the pulpit, although not as frequently as might be expected. Sometimes these political messages are successful in swaying opinions, but not always; context matters a great deal. In terms of the second channel, politicians use religious rhetoric (“God talk”) in an attempt to increase their support and win votes. When this happens, some groups are more likely to respond than others, including political conservatives, more frequent church attenders, and racial/ethnic minorities. The scope and effectiveness of religious communication remains a field ripe for further research, especially in contexts outside of the United States.
Despite predictions that urbanization, economic development and globalization would lead to the recession of religion from public life, populations around the world continue to be highly religious. This pattern holds in most parts of the Global South and also in some advanced industrial democracies in the North, including in the United States. In grappling with the influence (or lack thereof) of religion on political life, a growing body of literature pays attention to how clergy–congregant communication might shape listeners’ political attitudes and behaviors. Considerable debate remains as to whether clergy–congregant communication is likely to change political attitudes and behavior, but there is a greater consensus around the idea that exposure to religious communication can at the very least prime (that is, increase the salience of) certain considerations that in turn affect how people evaluate political issues and whether they participate in politics. Religious communication is more likely to exert a persuasive and a priming influence among those already inclined to select into the communication and when the source of the communication is credible. More research is needed on the duration of religious primes and on the effects of religious communication in different political and social contexts around the world.
The representativeness heuristic was defined by Kahneman and Tversky as a decision-making shortcut in which people judge probabilities “by the degree to which A is representative of B, that is, by the degree to which A resembles B.” People who use this cognitive shortcut bypass more detailed processing of the likelihood of the event in question but instead focus on what (stereotypic) category it appears to fit and the associations they have about that category. Simply put: If it looks like a duck, it probably is a duck. The representativeness heuristic usually works well and provides valid inferences about likelihood. This is why political scientists saw it as an important part of a solution to an enduring problem in their field: How can people make political decisions when so many studies show they lack even basic knowledge about politics? According to these scholars, voters do not need to be aware of all actions and opinions of a political candidate running for office. To make up their mind on who to vote for, they can rely on cues that represent the performance and issue position of candidates, such as the party they are affiliated with, their ranking in the polls, and whether (for instance) they act/appear presidential. In other words, they need to answer the question: Does this candidate fit my image of a successful president? The resulting low-information rationality provides voters with much confidence in their voting decision, even though they do not know all the details about the history of each candidate. Using heuristics allows relatively uninformed citizens to act as if they were fully informed.
Despite this optimistic view of heuristics at their introduction to the discipline, they originated from research showing how heuristic use is accompanied by systematic error. Tversky and Kahneman argue that using the representativeness heuristic leads to an overreliance on similarity to a category and a neglect of prior probability, sample size, and the reliability and validity of the available cue. Kuklinsky and Quirk first warned about the potential effect of these biases in the context of political decision-making. Current research often examines the effects of specific cues/stereotypes, like party, gender, race, class, or more context-specific heuristics like the deservingness heuristic. Another strand of research has started exploring the effect of the representativeness heuristic on decision-making by political elites, rather than voters. Future studies can integrate these findings to work toward a fuller understanding of the effects of the representativeness heuristic in political decision-making, more closely consider individual differences and the effects of different contexts, and map the consequences that related systematic biases might have.
The idea of satisficing as a decision rule began with Herbert Simon. Simon was dissatisfied with the increasingly dominant notion of individuals as rational decision-makers who choose alternatives that maximize expected utility on two grounds. First, he viewed the maximizing account of decision-making as unrealistic given that individuals have cognitive limitations and varying motivations that limit cognitive ability and effort. Second, he argued that individuals do not even choose alternatives as if they are maximizing (i.e., that the maximizing account has predictive validity). Instead, he offered a theory of individuals as satisficers: decision-makers who consider a limited number of alternatives, expending limited cognitive effort, until they find one that is “good enough.” At this point, he argued, the consideration of alternatives stops.
The satisficing decision rule has influenced several subfields of political science. They include elite decision-making on military conflicts, the economy, and public policy; ideas of what the mass public needs to know about politics and the extent to which deficits in political knowledge are consequential; and understanding of survey responses and survey design. Political and social psychologists have also taken Simon’s idea and argued that satisficing rather than maximizing is a personality trait—stable characteristics of individuals that make them predisposed toward one or other type of alternative search when making decisions. Research in these subfields additionally raises normative questions about the extent to which satisficing is not only a common way of making decisions but a desirable one. Satisficing seems superior to maximizing in several respects. For example, it has positive effects on aspects of decision-makers’ well-being and is more likely to result in individuals voting their interests in elections.
There are, however, a number of directions in which future research on satisficing could be taken forward. These include a fuller incorporation of the interaction of affect and cognition, clearer tests of alternative explanations to satisficing, and more focus and understanding on the effects of the Internet and the “information age.”
Thomas J. Leeper
Empirical media effects research involves associating two things: measures of media content or experience and measures of audience outcomes. Any quantitative evidence of correlation between media supply and audience response—combined with assumptions about temporal ordering and an absence of spuriousness—is taken as evidence of media effects. This seemingly straightforward exercise is burdened by three challenges: the measurement of the outcomes, the measurement of the media and individuals’ exposure to it, and the tools and techniques for associating the two.
While measuring the outcomes potentially affected by media is in many ways trivial (surveys, election outcomes, and online behavior provide numerous measurement devices), the other two aspects of studying the effects of media present nearly insurmountable difficulties short of ambitious experimentation. Rather than find solutions to these challenges, much of collective body of media effects research has focused on the effort to develop and apply survey-based measures of individual media exposure to use as the empirical basis for studying media effects. This effort to use survey-based media exposure measures to generate causal insight has ultimately distracted from the design of both causally credible methods and thicker descriptive research on the content and experience of media. Outside the laboratory, we understand media effects too little despite this considerable effort to measure exposure through survey questionnaires.
The canonical approach for assessing such effects: namely, using survey questions about individual media experiences to measure the putatively causal variable and correlating those measures with other measured outcomes suffers from substantial limitations. Experimental—and sometimes quasi-experimental—methods provide definitely superior causal inference about media effects and a uniquely fruitful path forward for insight into media and their effects. Simultaneous to this, however, thicker forms of description than what is available from close-ended survey questions holds promise to give richer understanding of changing media landscape and changing audience experiences. Better causal inference and better description are co-equal paths forward in the search for real-world media effects.
Christina Ladam, Ian Shapiro, and Anand Sokhey
As the most common form of voluntary association in America, houses of worship remain an unquestionably critical component of American civil society. Major approaches to studying religion and politics in the United States are described, and the authors present an argument for focusing more attention on the organizational experience provided by religious contexts: studying how individuals’ social networks intersect with their associational involvements (i.e., studying religion from a “interpersonal” perspective) may actually shed new light on intrapersonal, psychological constructs like identity and religiosity.
Evidence is presented from two nationally representative data sets that suggests considerable variance in the degree to which individuals’ core social networks overlap with their houses of worship. This variance exists within and between individuals identifying with major religious traditions, and such networks are not characterized solely by agreement (as theories of self-selection might suggest).
Kevin Arceneaux and Martin Johnson
Students of public opinion tend to focus on how exposure to political media, such as news coverage and political advertisements, influences the political choices that people make. However, the expansion of news and entertainment choices on television and via the Internet makes the decisions that people make about what to consume from various media outlets a political choice in its own right. While the current day hyperchoice media landscape opens new avenues of research, it also complicates how we should approach, conduct, and interpret this research. More choices means greater ability to choose media content based on one’s political preferences, exacerbating the severity of selection bias and endogeneity inherent in observational studies. Traditional randomized experiments offer compelling ways to obviate these challenges to making valid causal inferences, but at the cost of minimizing the role that agency plays in how people make media choices.
Resent research modifies the traditional experimental design for studying media effects in ways that incorporate agency over media content. These modifications require researchers to consider different trade-offs when choosing among different design features, creating both advantages and disadvantages. Nonetheless, this emerging line of research offers a fresh perspective on how people’s media choices shapes their reaction to media content and political decisions.