Europe's led on their leaders

Citizens and the State - The Impact of Values - Beliefs in Government - The Scope of Government - Public Opinion and Internationalised Governance
March 21, 1997

The "Beliefs in Government" project comprises one of the most ambitious exercises in comparative political research to be executed during the past few decades. Although the research was centred on Europe and funded by the European Science Foundation, the project covers, in at least some portions of its analysis, all the industrialised democracies. As well as having a wide geographical scope, it also uses data taken across time and has a wide sweep of substantive issues. It addresses a number of the components of the increasingly complex relationship between state and society in these societies. The studies contained within the five volumes range from the interaction of public opinion and tax policy to the future of governance in Europe to the impact of feminist theory on contemporary politics. Further, these volumes contain the work of many of the most important scholars in the field of public opinion working in Europe today.

Unlike so much of contemporary public opinion research that is almost completely divorced from the interesting and important questions of political life, the studies reported in these volumes do attempt to address significant theoretical questions. In particular, questions concerning the relationship between state and society generated during the postwar period provide a host of hypotheses to explore with the available wealth of social survey data. For example, reading the research published in these books (especially O. Borre and E. Scarbrough's volume) we have a better idea about what the public think about "big government", and are somewhat surprised by attitudes that are substantially more supportive of government intervention than we might think from voting behaviour in many industrialised democracies. The five volumes work through the interaction of state and society in a logical sequence. They discuss the evaluations of government programmes, especially those of the welfare state, by citizens and then proceed to discuss the participation of those citizens through conventional and unconventional manners.

In their brief introductory volume K. Newton and M. Kaase point to the range of theory that has been developed and the role of their research project in testing those theories. This range is truly impressive and, although there are no definitive answers, there is more evidence than has been available in the past. Many of the theories used to address the role of the state in postwar Europe have an ideological as well as a social scientific component. This is true for some approaches from the left (the neo-Marxism of James O'Connor and others) as it is for ideas sometimes identified with the political right (overload and ungovernability). This corpus of research demonstrates that empirical research can, if designed well, address ideology as well as theory that attempts to be empirical. The research also addresses approaches to the relationship between state and society that are more empirically grounded, for example Ronald Inglehart's postmaterialism and William Kornhauser's mass society.

Newton and Kaase also point to the need to cope with the changing nature of politics and governing in Europe. Most of the studies in these volumes present data across time. While this provides a rich body of evidence, it also compounds the problems of interpretation.

There is from time to time a certain timidity in interpretation, seeming to reflect the complexity of the interpretative problem. The particular dilemma appears to be that opinion in the European countries does not move uniformly - there are marked differences across countries and an absence of consistent trends across time.

For European countries the research on the definition of the state and the emerging role of the European Union is particularly valuable. Just as there has been a great deal of speculation and wishful thinking about the role of the state in general, there has been a great deal of conjecturing about the public's perception of Europe.

The numerous Eurobarometer studies have provided some on-going monitoring of these attitudes, but O. Niedermayer and R. Sinott's volume provides a much more comprehensive assessment. Again, some of the findings in this research are unexpected, given the conventional wisdom about public evaluations of the EU. For example, there is no clear relationship between satisfaction with democracy at the national level and the appeal of the European Union as an alternative source of governance, nor indeed any stable relationships with many variables that might have been thought to be related to Europe.

In addition to its range of substantive issues, this project has addressed several of the most difficult questions in the methodology of empirical social science. One of the important substantive elements of the research reported here is the linkage between individual and aggregate behaviour. How do we link the macrolevel and microlevel of analysis, and how do political structures interact with the individuals who populate them to produce functioning political systems? In particular, how do we understand this linkage across a number of political cultures which may conceptualise both institutions and individual participation very differently? This research is premised on the importance of that linkage, but the authors often appear hesitant to discuss the dynamic relationships that exist.

Another linkage problem that is addressed but not solved, as if it ever could be, is the relationship of political attitudes and political action. The whole body of research is premised on the assumption that attitudes matter and that they are translated into action, ie various forms of support for the state. That premise is almost certainly true, but it is still difficult to demonstrate. The Klingemann and Fuchs volume examines the multiple avenues through which citizens can convert their political views into action, pointing to the important role that institutions, ranging from political parties to electoral laws play. Still, we are left wondering at least a little what all the public opinion information, interesting as it is, actually means for the actual conduct of politics and the choice of policies.

A final question that should be considered is the linkage between the international environment and the patterns of public opinion in these societies. Though the Niedermayer and Sinott volume does discuss public evaluations of Europe, even their book appears to underestimate the impact of the global environment on governing. The global economy appears to be limiting the capacity of individual governments to maintain the welfare state, which has been so important for legitimation. Indeed, the support expressed for government intervention in the economy makes the declining capacity of governments to maintain those programmes potentially even more damaging to their legitimacy.

Comparative social research must also cope with time and the problem of continuity and change. It is easy to identify the changes occurring in public opinion about government in all industrialised democracies, but determining the causes of those changes is a much more difficult question; the classic problem is whether observed change results from changes in individual values or from replacement of cohorts of citizens. Demographic processes may be producing change in aggregate public opinion even if the attitudes of individual citizens remain stable. The chapters published as components of these collections appear less concerned about the sources of change than do many other studies of public opinion. This is perhaps rightly so; the authors are more concerned about the symmetrical relationship of opinion and government. Still, to understand the dynamics of governance in contemporary Europe, and the probable future of public opinion, greater attention to the changes that have occurred, and those that might be expected, appears crucial. J. W. van Deth and E. Scarbrough's volume does look at public opinion in the light of numerous social theories important in contemporary Europe (ecology, feminism, postmaterialism, etc), but the linkages do not emerge as clearly as one might like.

These five volumes represent a major contribution to comparative politics, especially the study of mass politics. The chapters provide a wealth of information about public opinion in contemporary Europe and the relationship between state and society. The data resources are used to address some of the most important hypotheses about European government. The volumes clearly will be read by all students of European politics, but they should be the beginning of inquiry rather than the end.

A number of apparent contradictions remain to be explored, as well as the more fundamental questions of the impact and linkage of political values. The state of current research in European public opinion, and the agenda for future research, seem clearer after reading these volumes.

B. Guy Peters is professor of American government, University of Pittsburgh.

Citizens and the State

Editor - H.D. Klingemann and D. Fuchs
ISBN - 0 19 8955 8
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 496

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