New Issue of PS: Political Science & Politics Challenges a Big Idea About Cultural 'Inbreeding'

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A widely accepted explanation for why Americans choose to live with people who hold similar belief systems is challenged in the latest issue of PS: Political Science & Politics journal

A widely accepted explanation for why Americans choose to live with people who hold similar belief systems is challenged in the latest issue of PS: Political Science & Politics journal, published by Cambridge Journals, for the American Political Science Association.

The article, by Samuel J. Abrams and Morris P. Fiorina, ‘The Big Sort’ That Wasn't: A Skeptical Reexamination re-assesses the claims made in a book that came to prominence in the 2008 US presidential election, when Bill Clinton famously recommended it to voters. Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart claimed that Americans were increasingly choosing to live with like-minded people, thus causing a disastrous segregation within the country.

Bishop's thesis was that Americans are increasingly choosing to live in neighborhoods populated with people just like themselves; residential choices which have produced a significant increase in geographic political polarization. Bishop does not claim that people consciously decide to live with fellow Democrats or Republicans but that an automatic self-segregation occurs as a by-product of political views and the various demographic and life-style indicators people consider when making decisions about where to buy a home. Whatever the cause, Bishop contends that the resulting geographic polarization is a troubling and dangerous development.

Conceding that Americans may well be becoming ‘more culturally inbred’, authors Abrams and Fiorina counter that geographical political sorting has little to do with the phenomenon. They conclude that the original evidence for Bishop’s thesis is weak and that the available data actually proves the opposite.

Writing that, “We do not doubt that various kinds of sorting are occurring in the United States — as they have in the past and no doubt will in the future”, Abrams and Fiorina go on to say that claims about geographical sorting have always struck them as “somewhat questionable”:

“Do the citizens of, say, Massachusetts and Mississippi differ more today than they did in 1950, before the jet plane, the interstate highway system, broadcast television, and other economic and cultural homogenizing influences? A half-century ago, when the United States was still largely a country of small towns and cities, did blue-collar union Democrats who worked in the mines and factories interact with white-collar Republican managers and professionals more than they do today? We find this implausible.”

The duo claim their own research proves that Bishop’s case for geographic political sorting has not been made and that the available data suggest that geographic political segregation is, in fact, lower than a generation ago. They go on to make the case that although the concerns expressed by Bishop are legitimate — that various factors may be operating to make Americans more culturally inbred than a generation ago — geographic political sorting “has little or nothing to do with that development”.

Abrams and Fiorina also question the validity of the research on which The Big Sort is based, saying that it does not stand up to rigorous academic scrutiny: “After some primary data presentation the book becomes a potpourri of secondary evidence and anecdotes, and much of the latter consists of fragments gleaned from works on popular sociology. Moreover, on close inspection the little original evidence that is reported — which so impressed Mr. Clinton — is weak.”

Samuel J. Abrams is assistant professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and Fellow at the Center for Advanced Social Science Research at New York University. Morris P. Fiorina is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Wendt Family Professor of Political Science at Stanford University.

Published by Cambridge University Press for the American Political Science Association, Political Science and Politics is hosted on cutting-edge digital platform, Cambridge Journals Online, and comes out four times a year.

Notes for Editors

For further information, please contact Michael Marvin on (00) +1-212-337-5041 or by email at mmarvin(at)cambridge(dot)org

About PS: Political Science & Politics

PS: Political Science & Politics is the journal of record for the American Political Science Association (APSA) for political science reporting on research, teaching, and professional development. PS, first published in 1968, is the only quarterly professional news and commentary journal in the field and is the prime source of information on political scientists' achievements and professional concerns.

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About APSA

APSA, founded in 1903, is the leading professional organization for the study of political science and serves more than 15,000 members in more than 80 countries. With a range of programs and services, APSA brings together political scientists from all field of inquiry, regions, and occupational endeavors within and outside academe, with the aim of expanding awareness and understanding politics.

About Cambridge Journals

Cambridge University Press publishes over 300 peer-reviewed academic journals across a wide spread of subject areas, in print and online. Many of these journals are the leading academic publications in their fields and together they form one of the most valuable and comprehensive bodies of research available today.

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About Cambridge University Press

Cambridge University Press is the publishing business of the University of Cambridge. Dedicated to excellence, its purpose is to further the University's objective of advancing knowledge, education, learning, and research.    

Its extensive peer-reviewed publishing lists comprise 45,000 titles covering academic research, professional development, over 300 research journals, school-level education, English language teaching and bible publishing.    

Playing a leading role in today’s international market place, Cambridge University Press has more than 50 offices around the globe, and it distributes its products to nearly every country in the world.

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