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Political Position and Social Knowledge1


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     We thank the reviewers and editor for comments and criticism that greatly increased the cogency of this article. This work was profoundly influenced by the work of, and conversations with, Paul M. Sniderman, though he himself may not agree with the conclusions we have drawn. We also thank James Wiley for comments that greatly improved this article. Previous versions were delivered at the Sesquiannual Rutgers-Princeton Conference on Culture and the University of Wisconsin, Madison sociology colloquia; we thank the participants, especially Paul DiMaggio, for comments.


The nature of social cognition—how we “know about” the social world—is one of the most deceptively obvious problems for sociology. Because we know what we know, we often think that we know how or why we know it. Here, we investigate one particular aspect of social cognition, namely, what we will call “political ideology”—that is, people’s self-placement on a dimension on which persons can be arrayed from left to right. We focus on that understanding that is in some ways the “ur-form” of social cognition—our sense of how we stand by others in an implicit social formation whose meaning is totally relational. At the same time, these self-conceptions seem to be of the greatest importance for the development of the polity and of civil society itself. Our question is, when citizens develop such a “political ideology,” what does this mean, and what do they do with it? We examine what citizens gain from their subjective placement on the dimension from liberalism to conservatism by using the results of a survey experiment that alters aspects of a hypothetical policy.