"Groundbreaking" - a review of Herbert Kitschelt's research on political preference formation

Thursday, January 24, 2019
Herbert Kitschelt portrait

quoteA developing strand of sociological research studies the relationships between occupations and political outlooks and preferences, following groundbreaking work by Herbert Kitschelt and Philippe Rehm using the European Social Survey. Although sophisticated sociological modeling is required to demonstrate the relationships between occupations and political preferences, there is a basic underlying sense that what a person spends most of their time on conditions their political outlooks. This is too obvious to be ignored by policymakers.

In older class-based politics—which emerged from the Industrial Revolution and continued with the Fordist mode of production—governments and elites were aware of this fact, and a homogeneous working class could more easily be presupposed. Indeed, the alienation of workers from their work by the industrial mode of production was a central concern, not only for Karl Marx but for all early sociologists, trade unionists, and socialists. Traditionally, in Western European countries at least, trade unions and social democratic or socialist parties have provided intermediary bodies in which these issues could be addressed, promoting political representation for workers and fostering socialization and cooperation among workers. Moreover, the state itself, and in particular the welfare state, provides other areas for socialization: between doctors and patients, for example, or between teachers, students, and parents. During the Cold War, the omnipresence of the state in communist countries made it a primary space for socialization, while civil society played a similar role in the West. As the structures of production, party support, and the state are now shifting, European democracy needs to develop new ways of reflecting such changes in the pattern of workers’ social interactions.

More recently, in post-industrial economies, the membership and political power of trade unions has been declining. The socialist and social democratic parties are finding their traditional bases splintering to the populist right and left, and the state’s capacity to promote open, tolerant, and democratic values has come under strain. No democrat has a long-term interest in significant parts of the European population being inadequately represented – this deficiency calls into question the legitimacy of the entire system.

Studies on the influence of occupations on political attitudes have made distinctions between technical workers (technical experts, technicians, skilled craft workers, and routine industrial and agricultural workers), administrative-organizational workers (managers as well as skilled and unskilled office workers), and interpersonal workers (sociocultural workers, skilled and unskilled service workers). Technical workers focus on engineering, design, and development work—which deals with considerable uncertainty about cause and effect—thus relying on peer review and experimentation. Interpersonal workers are concerned with the perception, development, and well-being of fellow humans. This means they also encounter uncertainty and depend on interpretation. Only the administrative-organizational field privileges authority, obedience, and domination above other aspects.

The studies of Herbert Kitschelt and Philippe Rehm using the European Social Survey show that in post-industrial economies, people involved in administrative-organizational occupations tend to have more authoritarian views, independent of their income status (although those at the top may be less inclined toward redistribution, and those at the bottom more inclined). Those involved in more interpersonal occupations, which involve communication and agreement on norms and objectives, tend to have more liberal views  independent of their income status. 

Continue reading Carnegie Europe

Read Herbert Kitschelt and Philipp Rehm's "Occupations as a Site of Political Preference Formation"