Latin American Research Review 40.3 (2005) 365-376
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Political Culture and the Science of Politics
In an oft-quoted line from his 1973 book The Interpretation of Cultures, Clifford Geertz wrote, "One of the things that everyone knows, but no one can quite think how to demonstrate is that a country's politics reflect the design of its culture."1 Farther down the page, though, Geertz asserts:
Above all, what the attempt to link politics and culture needs is a less breathless view of the former and a less aesthetic view of the latter . . . The two being thus reframed, determining the connection between them becomes a practicable enterprise, though hardly a modest one.2
Taking Geertz's dictum to heart, this review article examines four recent works that attempt to make general statements about contemporary political culture in Latin America. Rather than presenting an exhaustive [End Page 365] overview of Latin American political culture, I illustrate the diversity of methodological approaches and ontological starting points that social scientists use to study political culture. The approaches represented here might broadly be categorized as intellectual history; interpretive essays; studies of elite culture; and public opinion research. It is this last approach that tends to be found within mainstream political science—when issues of political culture are addressed at all within the discipline.
Before discussing the books under review, it would be worthwhile to step back and briefly examine the last few decades of scholarship on political culture within political science. If, as Mark Lichbach and Alan Zuckerman contend, the three main approaches to comparative politics are rationalist, culturalist, and structuralist, then the culturalist approach is clearly the black sheep of the family.3 It is the least well represented in the leading disciplinary journals. Of course, interesting work, particularly on Latin American political culture, is being produced in anthropology and cultural studies. But the leading authors in these fields are not widely read by political scientists.4 Even when political scientists have concentrated their energies on questions of culture, they have tended to focus on subjective rather than intersubjective approaches—that is, on individual attitudes and values rather than socially shared identities and meanings.5 Cultural approaches are dismissed for being vague about the object of study and the units of analysis; for blurring the line between culture and other categories such as behavior and institutions; and for failing to explain political change. What is more, causal mechanisms—how and why a given cultural attribute leads to one political outcome and not another—are often indiscernible.
For these reasons, research programs focused on political culture have emerged only in fits and starts. Prior to the discipline's "behavioralist revolution," political science studies of political culture usually "offered [End Page 366] a unique exegesis of political behavior within a given state," portrayed in terms of national character or cultural personalities.6 Likewise, many of the modernization theorists of the 1960s and 70s emphasized—but had trouble proving—the cultural "determinants" of economic development. In addition, Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba's 1963 breakthrough book, The Civic Culture, identified a cluster of attitudes and values that they dubbed "civic culture;" certain cultural traits, they argued, led to stable democracies.7
Ronald Inglehart subsequently pioneered cross-national research that built on, and empirically tested, Almond and Verba's assertions.8 In his model, the prevalence of a...