One of the foundational assumptions of democratic theory is that the public must be sufficiently informed about public matters in order to be capable of fulfilling their roles in making collective decisions. The centrality of an informed public in democratic theory has made the study of political knowledge integral to the study of political communication. Much of the research on political knowledge addresses one of two main questions: Is the public sufficiently politically knowledgeable to sustain an effective democracy? and: What role does communication play in the creation and maintenance of an informed citizenry? But to begin, it is important to define political knowledge.
Various terms are used to address the concept of political knowledge. For instance, the term “political sophistication” often includes knowledge or awareness of political matters as a central component. Some also incorporate political interest, political participation, political discussion, and news media use in definitions of political sophistication. However, a number of scholars have noted that, at its core, political sophistication is about knowledge of the political realm. Thus, political sophistication is a concept very closely related to political knowledge.
Another commonly employed term that shares much with political knowledge is political expertise. Political expertise is difficult to differentiate from political sophistication, as it also has been claimed to include factual political knowledge as well as political interest and experience in political activities. Again, given the central role of knowledge in the definition of expertise, political expertise is closely related to – or heavily overlapping with – political knowledge.
Dimensions And Levels Of Political Knowledge
Political knowledge is often divided into two components. Some researchers refer to “differentiation” – the number of political facts or concepts held by an individual – and “integration” – the ability to connect and relate these facts or concepts – as the two components of political knowledge or thinking. Others make a very similar distinction between factual knowledge and structural knowledge.
Factual political knowledge is probably the most commonly investigated aspect of political knowledge. It refers to the ability to remember or recognize bits of information that can be determined by observers to be true or false. For instance, knowing the names of one’s representatives – or alternatively, knowing the length of a representative’s term of office – is a form of factual political knowledge. Other forms of factual political knowledge include knowledge of officials and their positions in the political system, knowledge of political process, and knowledge of candidate characteristics and issue positions.
The second dimension of political knowledge, often ignored by researchers but considered vitally important by theorists, is structural knowledge. Structural knowledge is the way in which factual information is organized by an individual. For instance, political ideologies are one way in which attitudes are structured. Various terms have been employed to refer to political knowledge structures, including schemas, ideologies, and knowledge structure density. What each of these terms shares is the notion that it is not merely a group of disconnected facts about politics that make up political knowledge. Instead, the manner in which facts are organized in memory, and the ways in which individuals see connections between the facts, can be vitally important. However, it is difficult to explicitly say that any given organization or structure of political information in memory is accurate or correct. For instance, some consider hierarchically organized structures to be the most sophisticated or expert, whereas others believe that knowledge structures need only be highly interconnected to reflect higher levels of sophistication or expertise.
A different method of dividing up the concept of political knowledge is by considering knowledge across various political domains. For instance, one might distinguish knowledge of gun-control policy from knowledge of health-care policy from knowledge of fiscal policy. Some argue that individuals who have high levels of knowledge or expertise in one domain do not necessarily have high levels of knowledge in other domains. Issue publics – groups of individuals who care a great deal about an issue and pay high levels of attention to governmental activity surrounding it – are informed about their own issues but not necessarily about the issues of others. One might also distinguish between knowledge of politics at the national level and knowledge of politics at the local level.
There is considerable debate regarding the level of political knowledge of the general public and what level of knowledge is necessary for the effective practice of democracy. Research on factual knowledge suggests that levels of political knowledge in the US have been low and stable since the mid-twentieth century. Comparative work suggests that levels of foreign affairs knowledge differ by country, with people from North America being relatively less informed than their European counterparts (Bennett et al. 1996).
Some argue that research showing a lack of knowledge of fundamental rules of government, an inability to correctly identify the names of one’s political representatives, and the lack of a consistent ideological framework employed in reasoning and decision-making raise serious questions about the ability of democratic forms of government to work effectively and in the interests of their citizens. Others counter that even citizens with minimal levels of knowledge of the sort described above can use simple heuristics – based on party identification or even visual characteristics (e.g., race, gender) of candidates or supporters of various issues – to make satisfactory choices in the majority of cases. Still others question the ability of scientists to specify what kinds of knowledge and what levels of knowledge are in fact necessary and sufficient for effective decision-making in a democracy.
Media Use And Knowledge Acquisition
While it is important to understand what political knowledge is, it is also important to understand how communication is related to knowledge. Political knowledge has been consistently linked to news media use, with the strength of the relationship often varying from one medium to another. Communication researchers have determined that individuals’ first introduction to politics, and most of their contact with politics, comes from the media. Therefore, it makes sense that using news media would lead to increased political knowledge. While there is some debate as to how best to measure media use, the medium that has demonstrated the strongest relationship to political knowledge is the newspaper.
The newspaper use/knowledge relationship has been found using a variety of measures, such as amount of attention paid to political stories while reading a newspaper and how many days an individual reads a newspaper. This relationship is fairly robust because it is replicated across time, countries, and measures of newspaper use, although political learning is typically less from tabloid newspapers than from broadsheets. Researchers have theorized several reasons for why newspaper reading tends to be the best predictor of political knowledge. Two common reasons found are the content provided in newspapers and the structure of newspapers. Researchers conclude that newspapers have space in which to provide more background on issues and they allow readers to absorb the information at their own pace, both of which facilitate learning.
Television news is also positively related to knowledge, especially among those who have generally lower levels of education. In countries such as the United States where most individuals watch commercial network news, the relationship between television and knowledge is not as strong or consistent as the relationship that exists between newspaper use and political knowledge. This could be due to either content differences across media or the ways in which individuals use different media. For instance, television news often presents visuals that are inconsistent with the verbal message, which can reduce learning. Moreover, television news generally has less space to devote to political news (24-hour cable networks being the exception) than print media and thus it carries less political information overall. It also could be that individuals are more easily distracted by alternative behaviors (e.g., eating, talking) while watching television news than while reading a newspaper. These distractions can reduce attention and thus reduce learning.
The newest form of mass media, the Internet, can also be a source of political information and learning. Although examining the political uses of the Internet is still a relatively new area of research, research has shown that online news use is positively related to political knowledge. Younger individuals have generally been found to have lower levels of political knowledge, but young individuals who use the Internet for political purposes have been found to have higher levels of political knowledge than their non-Internet-using counterparts. Key to the relationship between knowledge and Internet use is being aware of what individuals are searching for when using the Internet. Using the Internet for leisure activities, such as playing games, is negatively related to knowledge; however, using the Internet to search for political information is positively related to knowledge.
Discussing And Processing Politics
Discussing politics with others has also been tied to an increase in political knowledge. Whether it is the discussion that fosters knowledge, or whether it is information seeking in preparation for discussing politics that creates the relationship is a matter of some debate (Eveland 2004). The people whom individuals talk to about politics are typically referred to as an individual’s “discussion network.” There are several features of the network that are considered when examining discussion effects. The most commonly analyzed features are the frequency of discussion – how often politics is discussed – and the size of the discussion network – the number of people with whom an individual talks about politics.
Frequency of political discussion has one of the most consistent relationships with political knowledge; that is, the more you talk about politics, the more you know about it.
Researchers have determined that this relationship exists because the more often you talk about politics, the more chances you have to be exposed to other points of view and come across new information. In addition, the size of the discussion network is also positively related to political knowledge for similar reasons. The third variable that is often considered when examining the influence of discussion networks is the heterogeneity of discussion partners, which is the variety of political views and other characteristics represented in an individual’s discussion network. This variable’s relationship to knowledge is not examined as often, but has generally demonstrated a positive relationship to at least some forms of political knowledge.
For both types of communication – mass mediated and interpersonal – an individual’s motivation plays a role in what information is selected and how it is processed, and this will have a large impact on how knowledge is affected by that communication. Selecting news-related mediated content and talking frequently to a variety of individuals about politics are communication behaviors associated with political knowledge. When processing information, elaborative processing – making connections between new information and prior knowledge and experience – is associated with increased knowledge.
- Bennett, S. E., Flickinger, R. S., Baker, J. R., Rhine, S. L., & Bennett, L. L. M. (1996). Citizens’ knowledge of foreign affairs. Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, 1(2), 10–29.
- Delli Carpini, M. X., & Keeter, S. (1996). What Americans know about politics and why it matters. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Eveland, W. P., Jr. (2004). The effect of political discussion in producing informed citizens: The roles of information, motivation, and elaboration. Political Communication, 21, 177–193.
- Graber, D. A. (2001). Processing politics: Learning from television in the Internet age. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
- Neuman, W. R. (1986). The paradox of mass politics: Knowledge and opinion in the American electorate. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Price, V. (1999). Political information. In J. P. Robinson, P. R. Shaver, & L. S. Wrightsman (eds.), Measures of political attitudes. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, pp. 591–639.
- Sotirovic, M., & McLeod, J. M. (2004). Knowledge as understanding: The information processing approach to political learning. In L. L. Kaid (ed.) The handbook of political communication research. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 357–394.