AR; political discussion frequency, network size, and heterogeneity of discussions

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Not one of the snappiest titles ever, but the original – from William P. Eveland, Jr. and Myiah Hutchens Hively, is even longer. In their paper they have reviewed considerable amounts of previous research material on political discussion, and on this basis arrived at more accurate and hence more useful conceptualization of notions such as “discussion frequency”, “safe” and “dangerous” discussion, and “heterogeneity” of political discussion.

Finally, they examined how these affect political knowledge (also reconceptualized here), and political participation, through a new survey.

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Although I think the authors’ critique of prior research is excellent, I wouldn’t like to go into details about that. (One thing to note is how they explain some of the contradicting results from previous studies by the existence of lack of controlling for particular variables that could contribute to the effect of some other variable.) I just jump to the results.

  • The size of one’s political discussion network (the number of people that the subject discusses about politics in an average week) correlates positively with one’s knowledge structure density (KSD, the knowledge of relationships among facts), but NOT with one’s issue stance knowledge (the knowledge of particular facts about candidates).
  • So in other words, the larger one’s political discussion network, the better this person’s expected KSD; but the network size doesn’t seem to have a significant effect on factual knowledge.
  • The same is true for the amount of “dangerous discussion” a person tends to have. “Dangerous discussion” is discussion that potentially offers what Mutz called “cross-cutting exposure”, that is, discussion with people who have opposing political views. The amount of reported “dangerous discussion” also correlates significantly and positively with KSD, but not with issue stance knowledge.
  • This is interesting, as it seems that “cross-cutting exposure” only contributes to one special kind of political knowledge, but not to factual knowledge. Insofar as it is often expected that the very point of CCE would be to get to know to how “the other side” thinks and what their arguments are, this is a disappointing finding for advocates of deliberative democracy.
  • The objectively measured diversity or heterogeneity of a person’s political discussions (that is, the ratio of “safe” to “dangerous” discussion) also seems to correlate significantly and positively with KSD, but not with factual knowledge.
  • “Safe” discussions, that is, discussions conducted with people of similar political views, offer a minimal contribution to one’s factual political knowledge, but they seem unrelated to one’s KSD.
  • On the other hand, “safe” discussions correlate highly significantly and positively to political participation. This confirms Mutz‘s findings: political activism is nurtured in conversations with like-minded, supportive people.
  • One’s overall discussion frequency is also positively correlated with one’s level of political participation, but not to such large extent as does the amount of “safe” discussions.
  • And finally, the objectively measured heterogeneity of one’s discussions is significantly, strongly and negatively correlated with one’s level of political participation. This also seems to confirm Mutz’s findings: high amounts of deliberation seem to go hand in hand with lower levels of political participation.

William P. Eveland, Jr. & Myiah Hutchens Hively (2009): “Political Discussion Frequency, Network Size, and “Heterogeneity” of Discussion as Predictors of Political Knowledge and Participation”, Journal of Communication 59, 205-224.

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