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date: 27 May 2017

Citizens and Political Sophistication

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.

Political sophistication refers to the role of expertise and the use of information in the making of political judgments. Citizens in a democracy need political sophistication to make sense of politics and to hold office-holders accountable. Most of them do not seem to be as sophisticated as theory would expect, and political sophistication seems also to be very unevenly spread between individuals. The consequences for democratic governance continue to be a matter of much scholarly debate.

Although many researchers agree that sophistication among citizens tends to be low, many issues in the research field are deeply contested. First, several concepts such as awareness, sophistication, and knowledge are used more or less interchangeably in analyses of the political competence of citizens. It is unclear, however, whether the terminology conceals essential conceptual differences.

Secondly, the empirical strategy of using surveys to measure sophistication has been heavily criticized. For some, the survey is an unsuitable method, because it measures the respondents’ ability to produce correct answers under sub-optimal conditions rather than measuring what they actually know about politics. For others, the survey questions themselves are an inadequate measure of sophistication.

Third, it is not clear what the effects of citizens’ (lack of) political sophistication are on democratic governance. According to one group of scholars, the aggregated opinions and electoral choices of democratic publics would not look very different even if they were more sophisticated. The opponents of this “low-information rationality” theorem claim that increases in citizens’ sophistication would lead to substantial differences in democratic output. In other words, perceptions of the significance of sophistication for democracy deeply divide scholars working in the field.

There is less disagreement concerning the individual-level determinants of sophistication. Although being male, well-educated, and in a socially advantaged position still stand out as the strongest predictors of high sophistication, recent findings provide a more nuanced understanding of how sophistication is distributed among citizens.

In addition to many enduring disputes, some questions remain largely unanswered. Without cross-nationally standardized survey items, scholars have struggled to conduct comparative studies of political sophistication. The role of political institutions as facilitators of political sophistication is therefore to some extent uncertain. Whether and how sophistication changes over time is an equally important, but mostly unexplored question.