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Culture wars? Applying categorical variation measures to the study of sociocultural and political polarization




Willis, Jamie L., author
Lacy, Michael G., advisor
Hempel, Lynn M., committee member
Snodgrass, Jeffrey G., committee member

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Over the last 20 years, an extensive literature has examined the "culture wars," or increasing socio-cultural and political polarization within the United States. A major focus of the debate has been whether attitude polarization within the public has increased over that time. While the diversity of perspective and methods within this literature makes understanding their conflict difficult, in general, this debate has centered around differences in the definition and measurement of polarization, consensus, and dissensus. Several researchers have attempted to clarify the divide within the literature, but with insufficient attention to the role of methodological differences. Therefore, the first contribution of this paper is to analyze this literature so as to clearly separate out the distinct and interesting aspects of mass polarization. Beyond that conceptual contribution, the empirical focus of the current work is to illustrate the use of three statistical measures designed specifically to study attitude variation or polarization, which have not previously been used within this literature. These measures, the Index of Qualitative Variation, the RQ Index, and the Index of Ordinal Variation, each offer a unique approach to the measurement of dispersion or polarization in a categorical variable, and thus offer new ways to examine whether the United States has experienced increasing socio-cultural and political polarization within the public. Each of these measures are designed to examine variation in categorical data, which has not been treated as such in the literature. Within this paper, these measures are applied to 120 variables drawn from the American National Election Studies and the General Social Survey over the last 40 to 50 years to examine changes in dispersion or polarization over time. These findings are used to illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of these measures for capturing increasing social and cultural fragmentation within the public, and to compare the findings of these measures to those of the interval level measures used within this literature.


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culture war
social conflict
quantitative measurement


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