A Culturalist Theory of Political Change

Originally published in American Political Science Review, 82 (3), 1988
  • Harry Eckstein


Eckstein introduces the political cultural approach as one of two viable options for theory in political science, the other being rational-choice theory. He then explains why the “cumulative socialization” process that he associates with culture leads to what he calls “expectations of continuity.” In short, since earlier learning builds on later learning, people acquire considerable inertia to their orientations toward the world and cannot easily accommodate rapid, extensive change. But, Eckstein acknowledges, if the cultural approach fails to incorporate change, it offers little help in explaining a world in which change is ubiquitous. Instead political culture theory predicts that certain changes are likely while others are not. For instance, people routinely alter their actions in efforts to maintain their preferred social patterns in moderately new situations. Particularly among the members of modern societies, for whom such new situations are common, Eckstein thinks that social patterns capable of accommodating considerable flexibility gradually develop. But new situations that confront people with large-scale contextual changes likely will overwhelm culture-bound creatures. Faced with such circumstances, people are apt to lapse into various forms of incoherent and fragmented reactions rather than deftly revising their actions in ways that maintain their social patterns. Thus revolutionary transformations through which societies attempt to realize unprecedented objectives are not likely to achieve their intended outcomes.


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Copyright information

© Lane Crothers and Charles Lockhart 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  • Harry Eckstein

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