Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Almond and Verba publish The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations

Since its publication in 1963, The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations has remained a landmark study in the field of political socialization and attitudes. Political socialization is an informal learning process by which individuals acquire knowledge and attitudes about political figures, processes, and systems. The Civic Culture is one of the earliest studies to emphasize the importance of adult political socialization and experiences and to show the relative weakness of childhood socialization. A study of the political culture of democracy, this book clarifies the relationship between the attitudes of citizens and the functioning of modern democratic states in the U.S., Britain, Germany, Italy, and Mexico. Three main dimensions of political culture are studied and compared in this research conducted by Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba: knowledge of the political system, feelings toward the political system, and attitudes toward the self as a political actor.

The Civic Culture was written in the context of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry, expressed in the categories of 'democratic' and 'totalitarian' political models, amidst doubts in the potential success of democratic institutions worldwide in the aftermath of WWII, and in the context of the growing belief that the ordinary citizen is able and has the right to participate in political decision-making.

A basic premise of this study is that the democratic model of participation requires a complementary political culture which links micro and macro level politics, and at the same time makes its diffusion to new democracies difficult. The civic culture is the authors' name for the ideal democratic political culture, and is defined as "a balanced political culture in which political activity, involvement, and rationality exist but are balanced by passivity, traditionality, and commitment to parochial values" (32), and "in which large numbers of individuals are competent as citizens" and as subjects (169). Its characteristics are the following:

oriented toward their political systems in both the political and governmental senses

pride in aspects of one's nation

expect fair treatment from government authorities

talk freely and frequently about politics

emotionally involved in elections

tolerance toward opposition parties

valuing of active participation in local government activities, parties, and in civic associations

self-confidence in one's competence to participate in politics

civic cooperation and trust

membership in a voluntary association

The citizen in the civic culture is both active and passive in politics; participant, subject and parochial (placing the interests of one's family over the common good) orientations complement each other, and it is this plural characteristic that distinguishes it from the concept of the ideal democratic citizen, which usually entails active participation in politics as the norm. Behind these and other assertions on the nature and functioning of democracy, is a normative assumption that Western democratic culture and institutions are superior and universally desirable, and thus it is not surprising that their ideal political culture is essentially that of the U.S. and Britain. Germany, Italy, and Mexico all deviate to some degree from the civic culture, and have a political cultures that do not work with a stable democracy (364).

Findings on education

A major finding of this study, and one that persists throughout the literature on political socialization, is that education is the single most powerful variable for predicting civic and political engagement, primarily through the influencing of an individual's attitudes towards politics, especially political efficacy. While it is clear that formal education has an effect on political behavior, it is more difficult to determine if education is an independent variable or a proxy of other variables, such as social class, and school is sorting out by socio-economic status. Nevertheless, even when these other variables are controlled for, education still consistently predicts political attitudes.

"... educational attainment appears to have the most important demographic effect on political attitudes. Among the demographic variables usually investigated- sex, place of residence, occupation, income, age, and so on- none compares with the educational variable in the extent to which it seems to determine political attitudes." (379).

In addition, Almond and Verba found that nonpolitical authority patterns found in places such as in schools, work and the family, influence an individual's attitude toward political participation. Thus if one is able to participate in school, by way of a democratic authority structure, then one is more likely to consider himself or herself able to influence the government (political efficacy), although this relationship is indirect and ambiguous. "Nonpolitical experiences with participation increase the individual's availability for an active political role and increase the likelihood that he will believe in his political influence" (301). One reason is because they learn the skills of political participation in school. In their own words,

"... education has so many different kinds of effects. For one thing, people do learn in schools: they learn specific subjects as well as skills useful for political participation. And they learn the norms of political participation as well. Much of the learning may be through direct teaching; some of it may be more indirect. Not only does education influence political perspectives, it also places the individual in social situations where he meets others of like educational attainment, and this tends to reinforce the effect of his own education" (379).

Despite its continued prominence in the academic literature, The Civic Culture contains several weaknesses. It contains normative assumptions about the nature of democracy and its functioning, and the authors' conclusion takes for granted that Western democratic culture and institutions are superior and universally desirable. Furthermore, as Pateman (1970) noted, "the implicit adherence of empirical theorists of democracy to an individualist, liberal theory means that they are unable to recognize and discuss as problems some of the fundamental questions raised by their empirical findings" (Pateman 1980, 60). In particular, the relationship of SES or class and gender to participation is neglected, accepted as a political reality. "The civic culture is presented as if it were in fact as liberal ideology tells us that it is, the development of a system in which the political method works to the advantage of, and protects the interests of, all citizens" (Pateman 1980, 60). Moreover, their conception of democratic theory is derived from a fundamental "confusion" of liberal and participatory democratic theory (Pateman 1980, 60). From the viewpoint of the participatory democracy tradition, the civic culture is not very democratic, except in its inclusion of universal suffrage. "The civic culture rests not on the participation of the people, but on their nonparticipation" (Pateman 1980, 79).

In spite of these and other criticisms, it is fair to say that The Civic Culture has contributed greatly to the understanding of the formation of adult political attitudes (i.e. political socialization), and of the relationship between political culture and the functioning of democracy. Furthermore, it has stimulated intense debates in the field of democratic theory between "elitist" (e.g. Lippmann 1922, Schumpeter 1947) and "participatory" factions (e.g. Dewey 1916 & 1927, Pateman 1970), and about the role of education in the strengthening and maintenance of democratic politics.


Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. New York : The Macmillan Company.

Dewey, J. (1927). The public and its problems. Athens, OH: Swallow Press.

Lippmann, Walter. (1922). Public opinion. New York: Harcourt, Brace and company.

Pateman, C. (1980). The civic culture: A philosophic critique. In Almond, G. & Verba, S., editors. The civic culture revisited. (1989). Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Schumpeter, J. (1947). Capitalism, socialism, and democracy. New York: Harper.

Prepared by John P. Myers (OISE/UT)

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