Skip to main content

Participation and attitudes of groups with knowledge-based disadvantages

Final Activity Report Summary - PAGKD (Participation and attitudes of groups with knowledge-based disadvantages)

This project examined the role of citizen knowledge and participation in shaping citizens' political attitudes and election outcomes; and how this influence impacts the quality of governance. It also initiated a new research agenda on how institutions and policies influence democratic representation and the social inclusion of disadvantaged groups via studying factors that affects citizens' practical political knowledge. The puzzle that motivated this examination is that most citizens have an inevitably limited knowledge of political alternatives, and that some groups of people are vastly more knowledgeable than others - yet democratic institutional design presumes that all citizens are sufficiently informed and fundamentally equal in politics.

More generally, the motivation to participate in politics is unequally distributed across politically relevant groups in society and these differences are, in spite of some notable exceptions, barely related to how great stakes these groups have in the political process. It remains puzzling how democracy could flourish under these conditions, and low-information social groups obtain political influence proportional to their size, through either the ballot or politicians' responses to perceived public opinion. The key objective of the project was thus to examine how the democratic process increases or reduces such political inequalities with the purpose of gaining insights into (a) the relevance of these inequalities and (b) possible ways of reducing them.

The project analysed existing cross-national survey data and linked it to newly collected data on mass media and policies promoting social inclusion among disabled people to provide a few answers to these questions. The aim of the analyses was to generate insight into policies and institutional design that can promote the political inclusion of disadvantaged groups and promote high-level practical civic competence among citizens. The project aimed at expanding the scope and policy relevance of the substantive questions explored in previous studies on deliberation, framing effects, heuristics use and information processing; thus establishing new interdisciplinary linkages; and creating new research tools for the social sciences.

The results of the project include studies demonstrating the following points. Unequal political participation by different social groups has an extremely small effect on the outcomes of individual elections, but these effects are systematic and have a very considerable impact on the direction of public policies through their systematic cumulation across many elections across the world's democracies. In contrast, the unequal distribution of political knowledge has essentially no effect on election outcomes, albeit generally low levels of citizens' knowledge undermine the quality of governance. This is, however, not inevitable as democratic elections are extremely variable in the extent to which they allow low levels of citizen knowledge to impact election outcomes. The methodological tools developed and validated by the project allow us to identify elections, and most importantly institutional environments, where such influences - and thus a resulting drop in the quality of governance - are less likely.

In particular, the empirical results of the project highlighted non-trivial ways through which the organisation of mass media - its partisan colouring, ownership patterns, media market fragmentation and concentration - make it less likely that information effects distort the expression of popular preferences in election outcomes, and confirmed the role of social inclusion and employment-boosting strategies in promoting the political representation of people with disabilities.