Political Efficacy is a term that refers to the “the feeling that individual political action does have, or can have, an impact upon the political process, i.e. that it is worth while to perform one’s civic duties” (Campbell/Gurin/Miller 1954: 187). Like with many important concepts in the field of political communication and sociology, its origins can be traced back to a string of bi-annual surveys directed by Angus Campbell and his associates at the University of Michigan’s Survey Research Center (SRC) that eventually became to be known as the (American) National Election Studies (ANES).
The SRC’s approach to the study of politics focused on three basic tenets: (1) the idea that attitudes guide political behavior, (2) the notion that research has to be cumulative and (3) the willingness to draw on the rich tradition of political polling that was already established as well as on commonsensical ideas about politics. Therefore, the four items – a fifth item was dropped later on – which were introduced in 1952 were not derived from some overarching theory, but were simply considered interesting and relevant by the SRC group, given the political situation of the time.
They read: “I don’t think public officials care much what people like me think” (1), “Voting is the only way that people like me can have any say about how the government runs things” (2), “People like me don’t have any say about what the government does” (3) and “Sometimes politics and government seem so complicated that a person like me can’t really understand what’s going on” (4). Items 1, 3, and 4 were replicated in the ANES from 1956 on on a more or less bi-annual basis, and therefore at least in the U.S. it is possible to track the waxing and waning of the general public’s sense of efficacy over several decades. Translations of the SRC items were developed for surveys of social and political attitudes in a whole host of other countries, and nowadays, the concept has gained universal recognition in western democracies.
Campbell and his associates initially assumed that (1) people with a high Socio-Economical Status (SES) would (rightly) consider themselves more influential than people with a low SES and that (2) people who consider themselves influential are more likely to participate in politics (this is even a part of their definition given above). Therefore, efficacy should be an important intervening variable that could help explain the manifest link between SES and electoral participation. This conclusion was borne out in countless election studies. Moreover, political efficacy turned out to be a good predictor for other, more unconventional forms of political participation like protest marches, sit-ins or boycotts.
In the late 1960s/early 1970s, the lack of a theoretical foundation of the concept finally led to a third strand of research that re-interpreted the meaning of the items in the context of other approaches. In turn, a low sense of political efficacy was seen as an indicator for political alienation, a low level of support for the political system in the sense of Easton (1975), and as sign of political disaffection and malaise. Arguably the single most important contribution to the latter debate was Robinson’s (1976) article on “Public Affairs Television and the Growth of Political Malaise”, which essentially blamed (political) television for the sharp decline in efficacy starting in the late 1960s. This alleged causal relationship between TV consumption and a low sense of political efficacy became known as the “videomalaise hypothesis” and sparked a scientific debate that is still far from closed. In its course, the political efficacy items were increasingly seen as core indicators for political disaffection. This interpretation of the concept rests on the (implicit) argument that for democracies high levels of participation by all members of the public are desirable per se, and that low levels of efficacy are therefore a sign of crisis. On the other hand, functional or elitist theories of democracy claim that high levels of participation may well lead to overload and instability of the political system as well as to sub-optimal political results.
A fourth and final strand of research focuses on the dimensionality of the concept. As early as 1959, Robert Lane pointed out that the SRC items refer to two distinct sub-dimensions of the concept: Items 1 and 3 reflect perceived attributes of the political system (“external political efficacy”), while items 2 and 4 tap evaluations of the respondent’s own political abilities (“internal political efficacy”). 15 years later, George Balch could empirically prove that internal and external efficacy do indeed form two separate (but closely related) sub-dimensions of the original concept. Adherents of elitist theories hold that the combination of low levels of internal efficacy with high levels of external efficacy is most beneficial for the stability of democracy (see Almond and Verbas development of the “civic culture” for a closely related argument).
The existence of two sub-dimensions is nowadays uncontroversial. However, the long tradition of the concept not withstanding, its measurement underwent considerable change over the years. From the late 1960s on, additional items were introduced in the ANES surveys, the wording of the original items was varied somewhat to avoid response sets, the format of admissible answers was changed from agree/disagree to a Likert-type rating scale, and new or modified items were conceived. Therefore, a whole host of measurement models has been proposed during the last three decades, and the debate about the best (i.e. most valid and reliable) way to measure political efficacy is far from over.
See also: Political Disaffection
Almond, G. A. and Verba S. (1965), The Civic Culture. Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations, Boston: Little, Brown and Company.
Balch, George I. (1974), ‘Multiple Indicators in Survey Research: The Concept of “Sense of Political Efficacy”‘, Political Methodology 1(1): 1-43.
Campbell, A. & Gurin, G. & Miller, W.E. (1954). The Voter Decides. Evanston: Harper and Row.
Easton, D. (1975), ‘A Re-Assessment of the Concept of Political Support’, British Journal of Political Science 5: 435-457.
Lane, Robert (1959), Political Life. Why People Get Involved in Politics, Glencoe: The Free Press.
Robinson, M. J. (1976), ‘Public Affairs Television and the Growth of Political Malaise: The Case of “The Selling of the Pentagon”’, American Political Science Review 70: 409-432.
Vetter, A. (1997), ‘Political Efficacy: Alte und neue Meßmodelle im Vergleich’, Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie 49: 53-73.