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The Social Learning Model : it takes time to figure out who you are Byrne, Matthew


This dissertation asks: Is the Social Learning Model (SLM) valid? The SLM is the now canonical explanation for the development of partisanship, or more specifically, party identification (PID). It also provides an explanation for the increased democratic stability of democracies as they get older. For 50 years, academic studies have largely assumed that the original validation of the model was adequate, a problem exacerbated by available data. I begin by re-examining the evidence on which the SLM was originally developed, the “Civic Culture survey”. I find that this data proves inadequate to validate the basic components of this model. Decades of future studies have largely accepted the original findings; the few that question it fail to adequately account for observational equivalence. I develop three tests to validate the SLM, using data from the Comparative Survey of Electoral Systems. First, I test the underlying strengthening process of the SLM. I show that people are increasing their probability of being a partisan rather than strengthening existing partisanship. I then test the possibility that people are developing partisanship with age instead of the years that they support a party. I find that controlling for age, people significantly increase their probability of being a partisan over the years that they support a party. Finally, I test the possibility that the correlation between years of potential support and probability of being a partisan is the result of response error in surveys. There is a stronger correlation in measures of PID that most accurately capture it then those that elicit short-term support. The primary implication of these three findings is that years of potential support cause an increase in partisanship, but not through the SLM’s process of political socialization (strengthening). The SLM as a mechanism of democratic consolidation is in doubt. Finally, the results here also speak to two competing theories. They cast doubt on the mechanism underlying generational dealignment, the cognitive mobilization thesis. On the other hand, the case for a life stage explanation, the “cognitive resources” explanation, is supported. These results justify future research into these theories and political socialization in general.

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