Works in progress: Thinking about cleavages, part I

In an effort to get some genuine writing done over the coming weeks, I am going to try to do some of that writing in a place and in a way that I enjoy, and so I plan to subject those who read this to a rather academic treatment of the question of “cleavage formation” and how it has taken place in Central and Eastern Europe.  If this is not your cup of tea, then just skim right on by and come back later for more interesting stuff about Slovakia, the Czech Republic or complaints about local news anchors and the other sorts of things that occasionally appear on this blog.  But for now, cleavages.

The reason we study cleavages is that we want to understand conflict and to think about what is really at stake in the conflicts that dominate our polities.  A question that can forms the basis of a cleavage is by definition something big, something that nearly all citizens care about enough to get out of bed and vote and that some care enough about to devote entire lives.  It is also something enduring, something that, barring upheaval will be more or less the same in five years as it is today or as it was five years ago–and maybe fifty.

The search for basic, enduring conflicts has generated a broad literature about what should look for and how we would know it when we found it.  In the process

Lipset and Rokkan created the literature with their … in 1967, but resisted a formal definition.  Franklin summarizes the conditions for a cleavage as “When social groups recognize their political differences and vote for different parties because those parties are dedicated to defending the interests of particular groups”(Franklin, WEP, 2010)

Bartolini and Mair focused on each of these key elements in this definition in defining cleavage in terms of “a combination (overlap) of social-structural, ideological/normative, and behavioral/organizational divisions”(Kriesi, WEP, 2010).  This tripartite operationalization has dominated subsequent cleavage research for the past two decades, though in the last decade it has seen a degree of challenge from those who seek to take away some elements and (or) add others.

Enyedi, in particular argues that the definition is overly restrictive in its insistence on the social-structural elements.  He notes that Bartolini and Mair themselves acknowledge that the socio-demographic element of a cleavage may erode, and suggests that it may be possible to have a cleavage-like conflict between entrenched “sides” without all of the elements of Bartolini and Mair’s definition.

the definitional requirement of socio-structural origins and well-defined socio-structural bases has narrowed down radically, and in my mind unnecessarily, the applicability of the concept. Acknowledging thatinstitutions and values, instead of social categories,may in some instances also dominate the identity of deep-seated, enduring, and comprehensive (that is, cleavage-like) political conflicts, the concept becomes suitable for analyzing a wider range of phenomena without losing its distinctiveness from ordinary and ephemeral political debates.  (Enyedi 2008, 288)

Values alone may suffice as the basis for division, and may become established simply with the habituation allowed by time.

At the opposite end of the scale from sociocultural structures to political institutions, there is also considerable debate about the potential independent role of political parties, particularly in shaping the degree to which particular cleavages shape the overall political conflict in a country.  They acknowledge from the outset that,

Conflicts and controversies can arise out of a great variety of relationships in the social structure, but only a few of these tend to polarize the politics of any given system. There is a hierarchy of cleavage bases in each system and these orders of political primacy not only vary among polities, but also tend to undergo changes over time.  (1967; [1985 edition, 118])

Within this environment they tend to focus on the role of underlying sociological variables, but they also explicitly acknowledge the role of political institutions, particularly political parties and the possibility elite-led shifts:

Cleavages do not translate themselves into party oppositions as a matter of course: there are considerations of organizational and electoral strategy; there is the weighing of pay-offs of alliances against losses through split-offs; and there is the successive narrowing of the ‘mobilization market’ through the time sequences of organizational efforts. (1967; [1985 edition, 141])

Without necessarily ignoring the underlying sociological underpinnings, scholars of cleavages have begun to focus attention on the process by which particular conflicts come to the fore, and notions of “salience” and “framing” has taken on importance in the literature that rivals that of “position” and “structure.”  Recent significant work by Whitefield and Rohrschneider suggests that while party positions in Eastern and Central Europe tend to reflect a fairly consistent bundling of issues (pro-market and pro-democracy against the opposite), the overall political conflict in a particular society may not lie on this line but on more salient questions of religion and (especially) ethnicity (2009).  Other works by Green-Pedersen (alone, 2011, and with Mortensen, 2007) focus on the role of agenda-setting and issue competition (defined not as competition on a particular issue but in the Carmines’ (1991) sense of competition about which issue is to be the main focus of political competition).

Any discussion of cleavage in the 2nd decade of the 21st century must thus deal with a number of questions, some quite traditional and some rather newer:

  • The number and type of issues about which the main actors in the political system compete
  • The degree to which positions on those issues overlap with one another, and the size of the resulting “bundle” of aligned issues
  • The relative distribution of supporters and parties on particular issues or bundles (the degree to which disagreement is symmetrical and continuous or binary and asymmetrical, forming “niches”)
  • The depth to which individual and institutional positions on those issues are anchored in societal structures and/or value orientations
  • The endurance of those positions over time
  • The degree to which a particular issue or bundle of issues is salient for political debate
  • The role of political leaders in shaping the both the positions of political parties and the salience of a particular issue dimension

As these categories imply, it is important to look always at the “supply” side of the political equation which looks at what political elites and their parties offer as options as well as at the “demand” side which looks at the ways confluences of human desires in particular areas shape the political realm.  It is in that context that my next posts on this subject will treat the questions discussed above.


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