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contextual effect

  A concept used in electoral geography to account for spatial variations in voting patterns. Most studies of electoral behaviour present voters as mobilized to support particular parties (and their candidates) according to perceptions of self-interest. The result is one or more electoral cleavages in each society, of which the most common are those based on economic class. Attempts based on those cleavages to predict how people vote (both individually and in aggregate) often fail, however (Miller, 1977: Johnston, Pattie and Allsopp, 1988), because some (perhaps many) people\'s voting decisions are influenced by others with whom they are in contact — such as their neighbours and workmates (cf. neighbourhood effect). Thus socio-spatial contexts are important influences on how voters interpret their social positions and translate those interpretations into support for particular political parties.

Cox (1969) identified two processes that produce contextual effects. According to the acquaintance-circle process, individuals are influenced by the weight of opinion in their contact networks, so that in any area some of those who might — from knowledge of their individual characteristics — be expected to support the minority view are \'converted\' to the prevailing majority view by the dominant information flows. (It is assumed that information spreads through a network like a rumour or a disease: see diffusion.) Secondly, according to the forced-field process a local political culture is established in an area by the political parties; these mobilize opinions in a particular way — perhaps around local issues. In some places a singular local culture develops which results in a voting pattern that deviates substantially from the national trend — as illustrated by Agnew\'s (1987) studies of nationalist voting in Scotland.

Many geographical studies have produced evidence of voting patterns that are consistent with the contextual effect hypothesis although the great majority of them use aggregate data only and so face the problems of the ecological fallacy. Recent developments in multi-level modelling have produced clearer circumstantial evidence of contextual effects ( Jones, Johnston and Pattie, 1992), however.

Agnew (1996) presented a strong case for contextual effects that:

the hierarchical-geographical context or place channels the flow of interests, influence and identity out of which political activities emanate … political behaviour is inevitably structured by a changing configuration of social-geographical influencesIt is based on the following claims:

{img src=show_image.php?name=2022.gif } Class and community affiliations take on different meanings according to the nature of individual places within the spatial division of labour. {img src=show_image.php?name=2022.gif } Communication systems limit interaction across space in some situations, leading to separate networks within which politically relevant information flows and is interpreted. {img src=show_image.php?name=2022.gif } There are continuing tensions between local areas and their encompassing national states, which foster spatial variations in political mobilization. {img src=show_image.php?name=2022.gif } All cleavages — class, gender, race, age etc. — have local as well as national histories within which the structuration of political movements occurs. {img src=show_image.php?name=2022.gif } Many political parties claim local roots and policy directions in their electoral manifestos, which can result in spatially varying support. {img src=show_image.php?name=2022.gif } The micro-geography of everyday settings — home, work, leisure etc. — can stimulate local distinctiveness that is reflected in voting patterns.Nevertheless, some critics have argued that these usually come about because of under-specified models which omit important compositional variables: when such variables are incorporated, contextual effects are, at most, minimal in their importance: thus King (1996), in responding to Agnew\'s (1996) strong argument for why context matters, contended that \'political geographers should not be so concerned with demonstrating that context matters\'. (RJJ)

References and Suggested Reading Agnew, J.A. 1987: Place and politics: the geographical mediation of state and society. Boston: Allen and Unwin. Agnew, J.A. 1996: Mapping politics: how context counts in electoral geography. Political Geography 15: 129-46. Cox, K.R. 1969: The voting decision in a spatial context. In C. Board, et al., eds, Progress in geography Volume 1. London: Edward Arnold, 81-117. Eagles, M., ed., 1995: Spatial and contextual models of political behaviour. Special issue of Political Geography 14 (6/7): 499-635. Johnston, R.J., Pattie, C.J. and Allsopp, J.G. 1988: A nation dividing? The electoral map of Great Britain 1979-1987. London: Longman. Jones, K., Johnston, R.J. and Pattie, C.J. 1992: People, places and regions: exploring the use of multi-level modelling in the analysis of electoral data. British Journal of Political Science 22. King, G. 1996: Why context should not count.Political Geography 15: 159-64. Miller, W.L. 1977: Electoral Dynamics. London: Macmillan.



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