Departmental Papers (ASC)

Document Type

Book Chapter

Date of this Version

January 1989

Publication Source

Political Learning in Adulthood: A Sourcebook of Theory and Research

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It is the possibility of change in the human condition that underlies both the practice and the study of politics. History is chronic1ed by deviations from the past. Political philosophies have come into existence, individuals have risen to power, governments have toppled, because of the promise of change or the fear of it. Even a preoccupation with stability, which characterizes many political ideologies, governments, and traditions of research, is driven by the specter of potential change.

Politics is the art/science of controlling changes in the human condition. Not surprisingly, therefore, institutions, processes, periods, and moments of real or potential change dominate its study. It is at points of discontinuity, such as the outbreak of war or the peaceful transfer of power among competing elites, that visions of Utopia and Armageddon flick momentarily into our collective mind's eye. Even periodic change that occurs under the constraints of carefully developed rituals, traditions, and institutions contains the possibility of major disjunctures from the past and so also evokes the hopes and fears associated with the unknown. Of course, such controlled change is usually much less traumatic for the political system. Indeed, one of the major functions of political institutions is to cope with the inevitability of change in a way that maximizes its predictability. In the United States, for example, the holding of periodic, staggered elections, the existence of a two-party system, the separation of powers, and so on, all work to channel political change along a predictable, moderate course (Burnham 1970; Ginsberg 1982).

It is in this context of continuity and change that the importance of generations to the study of politics is best understood. There is no more fundamental transfer of power, and therefore no more fundamental potential for change, than that which occurs between generations. This is so because, unlike any other type of change, it is inevitable, it is all-inclusive, and it is untested.


NOTE: At the time of publication, the author was affiliated with Columbia University. Currently January 2008, he is a faculty member of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.



Date Posted: 10 January 2008