Books Review


By Jan E. Leighley. Princeton : Princeton Press, 2002. 216 p. $49.50 Reviewed by Asmer Beg

Jan E. Leighley tries to look at the emerging scenario in the US, when whites would no longer be in a majority. She analyses the implications of this for institutions, for the groups which are part of this changing electorate and for the political science literature which has based its theoretical findings on research on Anglos. Leighley explores the mobilization of groups, how American political institutions have responded to and how they mobilize racial and ethnic groups, and she reviews several different types of literatures’ analyses of political participation and mobilization as she offers a rational choice interpretation of the subject. This is a complex book, which helps increase our understanding of the variety of issues, conceptual, and measurement based, which scholars must address in order to broaden knowledge in this area.

Leighley undertakes review, comparison, and integration of the various literatures that have analyzed racial and ethnic political participation, including those based on historical and analytic case studies of racial and ethnic political participation, and on survey research of individuals drawn from specific racial and ethnic groups. She then compares the findings in these studies with assumptions based in rational choice models of voter turnout and collective action.

She examines three types of contextual influences that reduce costs and/or increase benefits: elite mobilization (efforts by elites to engage political activity), relational goods (incentives enjoyed by members of groups), and racial and ethnic context (the composition of the individual’s context, which she interprets as the size of the group). She then uses her assumptions to model mobilization of racial and ethnic groups by political elites, using several data sets, and to compare her findings with previous literature. The data sets are two national surveys and two Texas-based surveys. She sues the American National Election Study from 1956 through 1996, and the Citizen Participation Study conducted by Verba, Schlozman, and Brady (1995), which oversampled black and Latino political activists on their participation skills, to which Leighley added political empowerment evidence. She also sued her own Texas Minority Survey (conducted with Vedlitz, 1999), a public-opinion telephone survey that also oversampled African Americans, Mexican Americans and Asian Americans. Finally she draws upon the Texas Country Party Chairs Survey; this telephone survey queried Texas Democratic and Republican party officials about their efforts at mobilizing voters.

The comparison of various approaches is an interesting exercise for rational choice analysis, one which allows for a clearer understanding of the strengths and limits of the different literatures, and there are important ones that frame and limit the significance of some of the author’s findings. She has clearly broadened the assumptions of rational choice since she explores the importance of group-based variables, framed in terms of contextual variables. Since she is using a rational choice theoretical framework, she tends to limit her exploration for understanding the meaning of context more than she should. Her discussion of the political and institutional issues associated with African Americans refers primarily to the very recent past and to segregation, but never to slavery and its powerful impact on American political history, society, and institutions, including those of Texas. Obviously, it is highly problematic to define the impact of these forces quantitatively, but they shape American society even in contemporary politics. Taking note of them is an important way of acknowledging some of the limitations of data analysis, whether in surveys or in models of white, African American, and Latino participation and mobilization.

Several conceptual issues also affect the analyses. First, while acknowledging Latino diversity, Leighley tends to de-emphasize the complexity of the Latino population, perhaps because of her use of Texas-based surveys. She might have addressed this by using data from the Latino National Political Surveys, which distinguished Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and Mexican Americans, in her own analysis. Race is also somewhat problematic since she does not address the issue of racial differences among Latinos. That issue, framed by the U.S. Census as “Latinos may be of any race”, is also an important underlying distinction in the way I which Latinos tend to see the world, and it may in time begin to have an impact on race-based American politics. Moreover, she defines “mobilization” as public officials reaching out to racial and ethnic groups, and she assumes it occurs. Within the racial and ethnic literature, most studies emphasize the work of racial and ethnic civic-mobilizing institutions at encouraging participation. This literature finds little mobilization of racial and ethnic groups by party or elected officials. Finally, the author’s definitions of contextual variables are, because of their rational choice framework, overly narrowly defined. Relational goods, drawn from Carole Uhlaner, are oriented toward the organizational and institutional networks of racial and ethnic groups. Leighley fails to recognize the differences that inhere in these spaces.

There are also important issues with the data sets Leighley employs. A number of other surveys might also have been incorporated, as comparisons. The Survey of Texas Party Chairs was an intriguing study on efforts at mobilizing various racial and ethnic groups, Leighley assumes they responded accurately. Her survey instrument confirms that they were asked to give information on their racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic background, but there is no discussion of the results in the text. Since she verifies survey respondents’ reports of how they are contacted with country party officials’ reports of their efforts to mobilize, it is vital to know more about their demographic and ideological characteristics.

This work is a welcome addition to the existing studies in this area. Her findings would surely lead to more productive debate on this subject.

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