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The Social Representational Theory of Symbolic Politics

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posted on 2021-11-08, 21:55 authored by Wilson, Marc Stewart

While there have been repeated exhortations that the study of political behaviour be accorded greater status in social psychological research, such calls have gone relatively unheeded. This thesis is intended to address to some small extent this problem. Specifically, an argument is presented to address the flaws of a little-heralded theory of political behaviour, symbolic politics theory (Sears, 1993), by re-articulating that theory within a broader theory of social behaviour, social representations theory (Moscovici, 1973; 1988). At its heart symbolic politics contends that political behaviour is based on the evocation of 'symbolic predispositions' in response to symbolic content of political objects. Following Verkuyten (1985) political symbols and symbolic predispositions are re-interpreted from the perspective of social representations theory. The result is a shift in emphasis onto the role of values, discourse, and social interaction in political preference and opinion. These concepts are investigated using data derived from a four-phase panel survey of the Wellington, New Zealand, electorates, as well as transcripts of parliamentary debates, and a laboratory experiment to provide support for the re-articulation of symbolic politics within this framework. The first two studies present qualitative and quantitative analyses of open-ended questions designed to probe the subjective meanings of ideological labels, and the concepts, ideas, and values associated with the major political parties of the time. The results indicate that the boundaries of group membership are defined by differences in representational content between groups, as well as within-group consensus. The second set of studies investigate the role of social values in political perception and preference. Firstly, political parties were differentiated by the frequency of rhetorical use by their members of the two values of freedom and equality, consistent with the predictions of Rokeach (1973). Secondly, survey respondents used a value-attribution instrument to indicate the values which they perceived parties to oppose or endorse. Again, the values associated with these parties were shown to be predictive of preference. Thirdly, respondents completed the Schwartz (1992) values inventory, which was used to produce a value profile of supporters of different parties' supporters. Weak support was found for Rokeach's (1973) two-value model of politics, with the parties differentiable on two discriminant functions defined by self-reliance values and equality values. The final study in this section presents the results of a laboratory manipulation in which groups of participants viewed different party political advertisements before rating the major parties for favourability and value attributions. This study indicates that exposure to political media may influence the values parties are seen to represent, and that this may impact positively or negatively on perceptions of the favourability of those parties. The final empirical chapter utilises a social network measure to investigate the role, if any, that one's interpersonal environment may play in political preference and representations. A clear relationship was found between the political composition of the environment and primary respondent preference and ideological self-identification. These findings are interpreted as supporting the social representational theory of symbolic politics. Qualifications and limitations of a representational theory of symbolic politics are discussed, as are the implications for such a conceptualisation of political and social behaviour.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Psychology


Liu, Jim