Political sophistication, deliberation, and the structure of opinions about public issues

Anne-Katrin Arnold, University of Pennsylvania


Democracy requires citizens to make sophisticated decisions. Research on the quality of citizens' engagement in politics has established that a vast majority of the electorate is uninterested, disengaged, and ignorant. Only a small portion of the electorate is deemed capable of navigating a complex political landscape. It is unclear, however, what makes people politically proficient. One research tradition, focusing on political sophistication, posits that citizens are competent when their opinions on public issues are ideologically consistent. This perspective is contrary to research on human development, which shows that the ability to understand and evaluate complex situations is associated with differentiated, integrated, and flexible thinking. ^ Cognitive flexibility and complexity are among the values of deliberative democracy. As deliberation requires participants to be accountable for their own views and to respect the views of others, this particular democratic practice should increase flexible opinions. This dissertation builds upon and brings together extant theories and research on political sophistication and on political deliberation in the hopes of contributing to both. It is argued that political sophistication should be understood as cognitive complexity, promoting abstract and flexible thought processes that allow citizens to incorporate different perspectives and make sense of complex situations. Furthermore, deliberation should affect opinions on political issues in a way that increases cognitive complexity and thereby decreases ideological consistency. ^ This dissertation presents data from three deliberative events in 1994, 1998, and 2004. Confirmatory Factor Analysis is used to model opinion structures on the issues discussed (Social Security, crime prevention, and healthcare reform). Groups of respondents with high and low levels of sophistication, as indicated through education, political participation, knowledge of political issues, etc., are compared with regard to constraint and consistency of their opinion structures. The same analysis is used to assess deliberation effects on opinion structures. Results indicate that sophistication is associated with high opinion constraint. Deliberation also increases constraint and appears to activate ideological schemata. Implications of these findings for research and political culture are discussed.^

Subject Area

Speech Communication|Political Science, General

Recommended Citation

Arnold, Anne-Katrin, "Political sophistication, deliberation, and the structure of opinions about public issues" (2012). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3550747.