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The Child'S Acquisition of Regime Norms: Political Efficacy*

  • David Easton (a1) and Jack Dennis (a2)


In its broadest conception, a political system is a means through which the wants of the members of a society are converted into binding decisions. To sustain a conversion process of this sort a society must provide a relatively stable context for political interaction, a set of ground rules for participating in all parts of the political process. We may describe this context variously as a constitutional order, a set of fundamental rules, or customary procedures for settling differences. But however this context is defined, it usually includes three elements: some minimal constraints on the general goals of its members, rules or norms governing behavior, and structures of authority through which the members of the system act in making and implementing political outputs. To these goals, norms and structures we may give the traditional name “political regime” or constitutional order in the broadest, nonlegal sense of the phrase.

We may hypothesize that if a political system is to persist, one of its major tasks is to provide for the input of at least a minimal level of support for a regime of some kind. A political system that proved unable to sustain a regime, that is, some relatively ordered and stable way of converting inputs into outputs, could not avoid collapsing. Each time a dispute arose it would have to seek to agree on means for settling differences at the same time as it sought to bring about a settlement of the substance of the issue, a virtually impossible combination of tasks for a society to engage in continuously.



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Research from which this paper was drawn has been supported by a grant from the Office of Education under Cooperative Research Project 1078, Contract SAE 9004. The research design and collection of data were executed jointly by the principal co-investigators, David Easton and Robert D. Hess. The analysis of the political aspects of the data is the primary responsibility of David Easton and Jack Dennis. Jack Dennis is grateful for financial support during the analysis phase of this project from the Research and Development Center for Learning and Re-education at the University of Wisconsin.



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1 For a full extension of these remarks and for discussion of the difference between persistence of a regime, compared to a system as a whole, see Easton, D., A Systems Analysis of Political Life (New York: Wiley, 1965), esp. chapters 12 and 17ff.

2 Although in this paper we concentrate on a single norm, the research from which the analysis proceeds covers other critical norms of the American regime. For further details on the characteristics of our test population see footnote 8.

3 Campbell, A., Gurin, G. and Miller, W. E., The Voter Decides (Evanston: Row, Peterson, 1954), p. 190.

4 Our interest in the sense of efficacy is clearly and substantially different from concerns that have prevailed in the vast and still growing literature on the subject. For the most part this feeling about politics has been connected with the nature and extent of varying kinds of political participation and involvement, feelings of alienation, anomie and the like. This has reflected the dominant and restrictive interest of political research with allocative problems, the way in which policy is made or put into effect. It has tended to ignore systems persistence concerns, a subject of central theoretical significance. For this see Easton, D., A Framework for Political Analysis (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1965); A Systems Analysis of Political Life. The literature on political efficacy and its correlates is vast. See for example: Almond, G. A. and Verba, S., The Civic Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963); Agger, R. E., Goldstein, M. N. and Pearl, S. A., “Political Cynicism: Measurement and Meaning,” Journal of Politics, XIII (1961), 477506; Berelson, B., Lazarsfeld, P. F. and McPhee, W. N., Voting (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954); A. Campbell, G. Gurin and W. E. Miller, op. cit.; Campbell, A., Converse, P. E., Miller, W. E. and Stokes, D. E., The American Voter (New York: Wiley, 1960); Campbell, A., “The Passive Citizen,” Acta Sociologica, VI (fasc. 1–2), 921; Dahl, R. A., Who Governs? (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961); Douvan, E. and Walker, A. M., “The Sense of Effectiveness in Public Affairs,” Psychological Monographs, 70 (1956) #32; Douvan, E., “The Sense of Effectiveness and Response to Public Issues,” Journal of Psychology, 47 (1958), 111126; Eldersveld, S. J., “Experimental Propaganda Techniques and Voting Behavior,” The American Political Science Review, L (1956), 154165; Eulau, H., Class and Party in the Eisenhower Years (New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1962); Farris, C. D., “Authoritarianism as a Political Variable,” Journal of Politics, XVIII (1956), 6182; Farris, C. D., “Selected Attitudes on Foreign Affairs as Correlates of Authoritarianism and Political Anomie,” Journal of Politics, 22 (1960), 5067; Horton, J. E. and Thompson, W., “Powerlessness and Political Negativism,” American Journal of Sociology, LXVII (1962), 485493; Janowitz, M. and Marvick, D., Competitive Pressure and Democratic Consent (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Bureau of Government, 1956); Key, V. O. Jr., Public Opinion and American Democracy (New York: Knopf, 1961); Kornhauser, A., Sheppard, H. L. and Mayer, A. J., When Labor Votes: A Study of Auto Workers (New York: University Books, 1956); Lane, R. E., “Political Personality and Electoral Choice,” The American Political Science Review, XLIX (1955), 173190; Political Life (Glencoe: Free Press of Glencoe, 1959); Political Ideology (New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1962); Levin, M. R., The Alienated Voter: Politics in Boston (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960); Litt, E., “Political Cynicism and Political Futility,” Journal of Politics, XXV (1963), 312323; McClosky, H., “Consensus and Ideology in American Politics,” The American Political Science Review, LVIII (1964), 361382; McClosky, H. and Schaar, J. H., “Psychological Dimensions of Anomy,” American Sociological Review, 30 (1965), 1440; Milbrath, L. W., Political Participation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965); Mussen, P. and Wyszyinski, A., “Political Personality and Political Participation,” Human Relations, 5 (1952), 6582; Riesman, D. and Glazer, N., “Criteria for Political Apathy” in Gouldner, A. W. (ed.), Studies in Leadership (New York: Harper, 1950), esp. 540547; Rosenberg, M., “The Meaning of Politics in Mass Society”, Public Opinion Quarterly, 15 (1951), 515; “Some Determinants of Political Apathy,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 18 (1954), 349–366; “Misanthropy and Political Ideology,” American Sociological Review, 21 (1956), 690–695.

5 Op. cit., p. 187.

6 Ibid., pp. 187–188. “Disagree” responses to items 1, 3, 4, and 5, and an “agree” response to item 2 were coded as “efficacious”. The authors combined these items, exclusive of item 2, which was thought ambiguous, by means of Guttman scale analysis in order to produce scale types. Item 2 happens to be the only item running in a positive direction. Thus the resulting scale may be subject to acquiescence response set.

7 Cf. Pye, L. W. and Verba, S. (eds.), Political Culture and Political Development (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), p. 522.

8 The eight items were scattered through our eight cities' “Citizenship Attitudes #9” questionnaire which was administered to 12,052 purposively selected white, public school children, both middle class and working class in origin, in eight large metropolitan areas (two of each of the four major regions of the U.S.). The questionnaire was administered to the children in their regular classrooms in late 1961 and early 1962. These items were located as follows: 1. p. 16 #72, 2. p. 16 #74, 3. p. 17 #18, 4. p. 19 #29, 5. p. 19 #31, 6. p. 22 #43, 7. p. 22 #45, 8. p. 30 #27. Question 8 was part of a series: p. (#22–29).

9 The computations were performed at the University of Chicago on an IBM 7094 using a variable N tetrachoric correlation routine.

10 In error, we included two of our independent variables, reading achievement and I.Q., among the items used for this series of factor analyses. It turns out that these two measures of intellectual ability “load” on this component at grades 5, 6, and 8 (but not at grades 3, 4, and 7). The loadings of these two variables were as follows: reading achievement, .50, .50 and .37 at grades 5, 6, and 8 respectively; I.Q., .37, .41, and .32 at grades 5, 6, and 8 respectively. These have been omitted from Table 1.

11 See our earlier report, “The Child's Image of Government,” in Sigel, R. (ed.), “Political Socialization: Its Role in the Political Process,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 361 (1965), pp. 4057.

12 We are brought to such a cautious and somewhat intricate interpretation because here we are examining a set of attitudes and cognitions still in process of formation rather than in the fullfledged state usually encountered and tested among adults. With children we need to revise our conception of survey research and expect to handle materials much less tractable, in part because they are less well-defined and certainly less stable. Political orientations in process of formation are less easily investigated with instruments designed to detect and measure developed ones. But an exciting aspect of our data is that in spite of this we have been able to discover in children a structure of attitudes towards efficacy that shows a persistent identity as they move from third through eighth grade.

13 Our procedure in scoring was to cluster-score the five highest-loading items, weighting each item equally and giving the child a score from 1 to 16. The precise scoring procedure was to add up the scores on each of the items, which could range from 1 to 4 (eliminating the middle or “don't know” option). For children who answered three of the five questions other than “don't know” we multiplied his three-item score by 5/3. A similar procedure was used for children answering four questions other than “don't know” (i.e., multiplying by 5/4). Children who failed to answer at least three of the five items were not scored. Scores ranged from 5 to 20. Final scores, after subtracting 4, ranged from 1 to 16.

14 Our findings that this norm appears relatively early in childhood and that there is a fairly rapid growth of positive feeling in relation to it suggest that what several other observers have speculatively proposed, with less direct evidence, is true. Lane, for example, noted in Political Life (p. 151) that the S.R.C., data in The Voter Decides show a steady distribution of political efficacy over the (adult) age span to the middle fifties. From this he conjectured that “it appears that the standard of influence, then, is established relatively early— and is not the product of occupational experience so much as of the family and strata where one is reared, plus the personality support which such an attitude implies.” The authors of The Voter Decides (p. 187) themselves refer to political efficacy as a “broader and more enduring” political value and attitude. In The American Voter the authors went even further when they argued that “variables of this sort, in contrast to measures of involvement in the current election, may be conceived as lying at a relatively ‘deep’ level in any hierarchy of dispositions. That is, they represent highly generalized orientations toward the world of politics and could be expected to remain rather stable over a period of time. In this sense they are approaching ‘personality’ status” (p. 516). This statement suggests that the disposition is likely to begin to form in childhood, when personality development is at its peak, a suspicion that is now reinforced for the first time by data.

15 Cf. The American Voter, p. 516.

16 Cf. The American Voter, p. 515 n.; E. Douvan and A. M. Walker, op. cit.

17 We used as an indicator of socio-economic status the occupation of the respondent's father or guardian obtained either from the child in the classroom questionnaire administration or from the school files. In cases where neither was available, an estimate was used based on the average rank of the occupations of the fathers of the child's classmates in the child's own grade and school system.

18 The first-order partial correlations of I.Q. with efficacy, holding SES constant are as follows (where 1 = Eff., 2 = I.Q., 3 = SES):

The first-order partial correlations of SES with efficacy holding I.Q. constant are:

19 Cf. The Voter Decides; The American Voter; L. Milbrath, op. cit.; R. Lane, Political Life; H. Eulau, op. cit.; R. Dahl, op. cit.; J. E. Horton and W. Thompson, “Powerlessness and Political Negativism”; A. Kornhauser, et al., op. cit.

20 p. 191.

21 Cf. Brim, O. G. Jr., and Wheeler, S., Socialization After Childhood (New York: Wiley, 1966), pp. 8, 21 and 35ff.

22 Op. cit., p. 19

* Research from which this paper was drawn has been supported by a grant from the Office of Education under Cooperative Research Project 1078, Contract SAE 9004. The research design and collection of data were executed jointly by the principal co-investigators, David Easton and Robert D. Hess. The analysis of the political aspects of the data is the primary responsibility of David Easton and Jack Dennis. Jack Dennis is grateful for financial support during the analysis phase of this project from the Research and Development Center for Learning and Re-education at the University of Wisconsin.


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