Theory of Political Behavior SERIES

In July I wrote a four-part series elucidating parts of a theory of political behavior. This here is a landing page for that series. Here are the parts:

  1. A theory of political behavior
  2. Evolutionary logic of identity
  3. Political dimension of group identity
  4. Imagined communities & populist alignment

And here are a few “companion” posts that aren’t officially part of the series, but they relate:

A theory of political behavior (pt.4: imagined communities & populist alignment)

Modern society significantly complicates the group-oriented identity framework I’ve been discussing (in parts one, two, and three). Most of us juggle multiple roles in multiple spheres, each of which holds a degree of our individual identity. The temptation is to then look at identity as a predominantly individual matter. But each sphere of an individual’s fragmented life has its own group logic and group processes of constructing values and identity. It is no small development, however, that people in societies like ours now have more individual agency to choose how much of their identities to invest into which groups.

The term group can mean many different things. A group may be proximate, fully definable, and localized, such as one’s village, workplace, or place of worship. It seems logical that, if we do indeed have group-oriented instincts, these would have evolved in some such proximate, localized groups. But today, “group” can mean much more; for example, one’s gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, nation, economic class, political ideology, hobby, or sports team. With the label generic given group (introduced in part 3), I am accounting for this broad spectrum of kinds of groups, and I am implying that we tend to project group-oriented instincts onto the full gamut of social aggregations and constructions, to a greater or lesser degree that is proportional to our level of identity with the given group. Continue reading

A theory of political behavior (pt.3: political dimension of group identity)

Continuing from part 2


Where do values fit into this picture? Do I not construct my identity according to the values that I hold? This can certainly be the case, but those values are constructed by my identification and experiences with some group in the first place. As with identity, we may benefit by asking what beneficial purpose values serve? What is it about values that allowed them to develop into a phenomenon, to occupy a place in our cultural practices?

Below is a sort of “equation” intended to capture the group-benefiting purpose that values serve:

G = generic given group
G needs = perceived or articulated threats or opportunities that feel relevant to the group
Values = identity with G + perception/interpretation of G needs

According to the above, we develop our values based significantly on 1) our identity with particular groups, and 2) our beliefs and perceptions about what will best serve our groups. What we believe will best serve a given group is shaped by the life of group itself, through ongoing cultural discourse within the group over time, where the group makes sense of experiences, events, encounters with outsiders, developments, and changes. I use the word discourse in the broadest sense: values are expressed and developed and altered through many forms of discourse, including stories, music, ritual, rhetoric, colloquialisms, actions, service, leadership, norms, and really anything in the day-to-day life of a group. Through such a discourse—through the meaning-making processes of the group—over time, the group identifies and articulates which things pose opportunities and which pose threats. These notions become the values (and even the common sense) of the group. (It’s important to note that residual values can linger long after they cease to serve the group.) Continue reading

A theory of political behavior (pt.2: evolutionary logic of identity)

Picking up where I left off in part 1, the next axiom: identity serves an evolved, group-benefiting function. I am well aware that examining an evolutionary framework to explain behavior is something that not everyone is comfortable with. Indeed, it has provoked pushback from some of my cultural studies friends and advisors (but encouragement from others). After much deliberation, I decided to keep the evolutionary lens as an explicit piece of my theoretical framework. (For more background philosophical justification, see my working philosophy of social science.)

I believe that group-oriented behavior is built upon the scaffolding of evolved group-oriented instincts. We may prefer to think of our life choices as self-aware, rational choices. But the prefrontal cortex—the region attributed to the capacity for rational thought—is a new kid on the block, in the span of evolutionary time. A relatively small portion of our brain activity involves conscious rational thought, and that part is not divorced from primal and preconscious emotions and instincts. Our orientation as individuals toward the groups we are situated within certainly has conscious and rational aspects, but, like most of our behavior, it is predominantly primal and preconscious — similar to how bees do not consciously decide to do this dance or that dance to indicate to other bees where to find the pollen. Rather, these dances, and the ability to instinctively read (i.e. react to) the meaning of the dances, are the behaviors that served the group best and therefore survived. In a social species, the behaviors that best serve the group tend to be the behaviors that survive (and therefore reproduce) over generations.

I would, however, gladly skip the evolutionary logic—because of all the trouble—if I thought it extraneous. I believe it adds an important question to an inquiry of human behavior. The question is: for what benefit?. Looking at identity through an evolutionary lens, we might ask, “What does identity accomplish?” Why did this phenomenon—this behavior—survive and develop? What purposes does (or did) it serve? What drives us to invest so much energy into its construction?

Why, from an evolutionary perspective, might people be inclined to signal belonging to a group? Continue reading

A theory of political behavior (pt.1)

Why explore political behavior?

To inform my own organizing practice, I have been working toward a more explicit theory of political behavior, which this post will begin to lay out. Leading up to this exploration, last week I discussed some of my philosophy of social science, mostly asserting my embrace of a multiply-determined reality with all sorts of factors, explanations, and lenses—e.g. economic, structural, behavioral, cultural, psychological, even evolutionary—worthy of consideration in an examination of politics and political behavior. Then in The Problem of Collective Action in the United States, I briefly discussed the constraining context that has led me to study political behavior, namely that, “social movements in the United States do not presently have anywhere close to the capacity needed to mount sustained challenges to the entrenched power structures we are up against.” I want to figure out why that is the case, and how we can change it. Political behavior: Why and how do people—as individuals and in groups—become politically active (or not), with progressive or regressive politics? Getting clearer about a theory of political behavior is not an academic exercise here; the aim is to change the world.

Because there are some urgent matters at hand that require a massive collective response. In the most recent issue of Rolling Stone, Bill McKibben offers his latest warning of looming and already unfolding disasters from global warming. This crisis, I believe, will define my generation and likely more than a few generations to come. In response to McKibbon’s article, I wrote:

…we need a World War II-sized mobilization of society — the kind of sweeping narrative that inspires people to sacrifice comfort now—and sometimes much more—for the long-term collective good. Honestly, achieving that kind of scale feels pretty hopeless at the moment. But we have no choice but to dig in and get started. And as devastating climate events are likely to continue to unfold as predicted, the possibilities of mass mobilization may expand much faster than what may presently seem realistic.

Those possibilities of mass mobilization are much more likely to become realities when we are ready for them; when we are oriented to recognize openings and opportunities for mobilization. That’s the point of this exploration of political behavior. Continue reading

A working philosophy of social science

For the past seventeen years I have clumsily staggered toward hopefully answering—at least partially—two big questions about social and political change:

  1. What will work? (i.e. In pursuit of building a more socially just, ecologically sustainable, compassionate, and participatory world, what will be effective? What can get us from Point A to Point B?)
  2. What’s in the way? (i.e. What constraints do we face, both inside our groups and movements and in relation to larger structures and society?)

The first question has led me toward a framework of hegemonic contestation (in concert with capacity-building operations). The second question has led me to a long list of overlapping pitfalls. Both questions have led me to study political behavior. A study of political behavior demands a deeper study of human behavior itself, and has predictably led to many more questions: What are key patterns of human behavior, in groups and as individuals? What motivates us? How and when do our motivations and actions become politicized? What are the relationships between groups, identities, and solidarities? How and under what circumstances do different solidarities become compelling?

I have long been fascinated by the internal dynamics of groups — particularly of social movement groups, but really I am fascinated by all kinds of groups. I want to understand what goes on under the surface. A social change organization’s stated purpose may be the achievement of X objective, but its members may stay motivated for the long haul at least as much because of feelings of belonging and other social benefits. I want to better understand the whole picture of human behavior: the verbalized, the conscious, the preconscious, the primal, etc. Continue reading