Political Behavior

, Volume 39, Issue 3, pp 553–583 | Cite as

Is the Left-Right Scale a Valid Measure of Ideology?

Individual-Level Variation in Associations with “Left” and “Right” and Left-Right Self-Placement
  • Paul C. BauerEmail author
  • Pablo Barberá
  • Kathrin Ackermann
  • Aaron Venetz
Original Paper


In order to measure ideology, political scientists heavily rely on the so-called left-right scale. Left and right are, however, abstract political concepts and may trigger different associations among respondents. If these associations vary systematically with other variables this may induce bias in the empirical study of ideology. We illustrate this problem using a unique survey that asked respondents open-ended questions regarding the meanings they attribute to the concepts “left” and “right”. We assess and categorize this textual data using topic modeling techniques. Our analysis shows that variation in respondents’ associations is systematically related to their self-placement on the left-right scale and also to variables such as education and respondents’ cultural background (East vs. West Germany). Our findings indicate that the interpersonal comparability of the left-right scale across individuals is impaired. More generally, our study suggests that we need more research on how respondents interpret various abstract concepts that we regularly use in survey questions.


Left-right scale Ideology Left Right Survey measurement Interpersonal comparability Measurement equivalence 



We thank the participants of the political behavior colloquium at the European University Institute, the participants of the EPSA 2014 Panel ‘Big Data and Political Psychology’, the participants of the EQMC and ESA RN21 conference 2014 and in particular Geoffrey Evans, Neal Beck, Molly Roberts and Matthias Fatke as well as the three anonymous reviewers and David Peterson for valuable comments and suggestions. Reproduction files: 10.7910/DVN/ERNXOP. Data available from:


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Paul C. Bauer
    • 1
    Email author
  • Pablo Barberá
    • 2
  • Kathrin Ackermann
    • 3
  • Aaron Venetz
    • 4
  1. 1.European University InstituteSan Domenico di FiesoleItaly
  2. 2.University of Southern CaliforniaLos AngelesUSA
  3. 3.University of BernBernSwitzerland
  4. 4.Gfs.bernBernSwitzerland

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