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Political Attitudes: Computational and Simulation Modeling (Wiley Series in Computational and Quantitative Social Science)

Voinea, Camelia F.
WileyBlackwell: Hoboken, NJ, 2016
ISBN 9781118833148 (hb)

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Reviewed by Andreas Koch
University of Salzburg

Cover of book The election of Donald Trump as current president of the United States of America, the vote of the majority of the British population to leave the European Union, or the shift of an increasing proportion of populations in European countries towards right-wing nationalist parties – all these political developments, and there are many more of them, deserve a closer look as a phenomenon that can be properly described as “political attitude”. Several disciplines such as social psychology, sociology, political science, and anthropology deal with attitudes in general and political attitudes in particular in order to understand the mechanisms of emerging and changing public opinion, the development of extreme political thinking, and the environmental conditions that influence the creation of attitudes. Scientific challenges to the creation and change of political attitudes are found within the relationship of the individual and the collective(s), the changing dynamics of attitude formation and transformation, and the power relations of agents embedded into social networks that help enforce attitude.

All this is discussed in the book “Political Attitudes. Computational and Simulation Modelling” by Camelia Florela Voinea. The book comes with a clear structure and intention. It is divided into nine chapters covering such topics as the history of scientific understanding of political attitudes, the socially and politically influential forces on attitude change, the role of physical space and of ideology in attitude modelling, and the application of concepts of political attitudes in polity modelling. Each chapter can be read independently due to its specific perspective on the common topic of (political) attitude and because they each conclude with some final remarks. Each chapter, on the other hand, is tied with the others by this historical path of methodological development. The structure is deliberately composed by Voinea, and from a reader’s perspective this is welcome, because it allows for a coherent understanding of the outlined topics and issues.

The intention of the book is “to offer a comprehensive picture of the past 80 years in the computational modelling of political attitude research […] by including […] issues of (political) belief, value, knowledge, information processing, cognition and behaviour research” (p. xv). The book aims to delineate the conceptual roots of modelling and simulation from the 1930s through to contemporary efforts in various disciplines, and, in doing so, emphasises the increased meaning computational and modelling techniques had (and still have) for the implementation of political attitude research methodologies.

A core thread throughout the book is found with the relationship between the individual and the community/society. By putting this relationship into a historical context, Voinea very successfully outlines its increasing complexity when trying to understand how political attitudes are formed and transformed through this mutual referencing. One kind of reading could go like this: political attitudes should not be understood as a binary concept stating that it can be clearly located either at the micro or individual (cognitive) side, or at the macro or social (normative) side. In fact, political attitudes can be better understood as a fluid amalgamation of the two scales, a permanent (re-) production and (re-)confirmation between the two poles. And dynamic processes occur both at the local and the global level of attitude formation.

The great benefit of the book lies in its diligent and comprehensive description and explanation of computational modelling approaches from their very beginning until today. A huge body of literature has been incorporated which not only illustrates impressively the relevance of the methodologies in this research area, but also allows readers to deepen their knowledge in specific areas of interest. It is, however, important to keep the aforementioned intention of the book in mind, because otherwise readers would possibly get confused or even dissatisfied about which kind of content is being presented. The criteria for the selected models, for example, follow a twofold strategy: “The first one is the theoretical and methodological perspective offered by the political attitude research in social and political sciences, social and political psychology and political culture” (p. xxxii). Even though this perspective relies comprehensively on theories of attitude formation and attitude change it mainly focuses on approaches that allow for a computational analysis of attitudes. Saying this, approaches that deal with the different nature and quality of institutions such as family, school, or peer groups are given comparatively little recognition. “The second one is the perspective over both theoretical and methodological computational modelling aspects which have provided support to the political attitude models” (p. xxxii). It is this perspective that has been particularly well acknowledged by Voinea. Indeed, this perspective is the one for which the book can be mostly recommended.

While the “social domain” has been outlined with outstanding coherence in terms of theoretical and methodological explanations and justification (and it is a great pleasure to read through all these changes and developments that took place over the past 80 years) the “spatial domain” has been less convincingly delineated although explicitly considered. The incorporation of space into the analysis of political attitude was, from its beginning, a fuzzy and contradictory topic. This lesson can be learnt from the book. Seemingly no distinction between “physical space”, “social space”, “mathematical space” or similar concepts like “distance”, “closeness”, “adjacency” or “neighbourhood” had been made in the past.

It can be concluded that the idea, conceptualisation, and imagination of space as an influential or even determining factor towards a definition of political attitude has been applied in a coarse, fuzzy, and partly erroneous way. Distance in geographical thinking is completely different from distance in topological thinking – and it remains an open question in which way physical space could actually contribute to (political) attitude research, if at all. Does it possibly mean that physical space (or its derivatives) exerts a causal influence? Apparently not. No one is causally determined by their physical neighbours just because they are physically adjacent. Why “Social Impact Theory” or “Social Influence Modelling” has included physical space cannot be reasoned logically. The book avoids comments on this topic; it would however be an interesting debate if social space concepts (and their relational focus) were to be considered in a more pronounced way. This is remarkable in so far as Chapter 17 on “Polity Instability Models Featuring Ethnic and Nationalist Insurgence” presents some sophisticated methods for explaining how geographical space can be incorporated into the computational analysis of political attitude formation and change. The critique mentioned here, however, refers mainly to the cited literature and less to the author of the book.

To conclude: the book is highly recommended to readers who wish to get a comprehensive and diligently elaborated overview of computational modelling and simulation techniques in the field of political attitude creation, formation, and change.


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