Political Science Party Networks
by
Seth Masket
  • LAST REVIEWED: 04 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0091

Introduction

The study of party networks is a subset of social network analysis within political science. Social network analysis has a venerable history in mathematics and has been adopted by the social sciences over the past few decades but has really only taken hold within political science since the late 1990s. In general, social network analysis examines the relationships between individual actors, relying upon links (or “edges”) between individuals (or “nodes”) to reveal hidden but important patterns in behavior. Such an investigative tool is ideal for the study of political parties, given their multicephalous structures and occasionally secretive behavior. A relatively new branch of scholarship views political parties (American political parties, in particular) as networks. That is, they are not hierarchical organizations with clearly defined leaders and roles; rather, they consist of associations of candidates, officeholders, donors, activists, consultants, and others who conspire to affect elections and influence the direction of government. As such, a social network research approach is likely to be more productive and more accurate in understanding just what parties are and how they function. The network approach allows us to see, for example, how donors advantage a small number of candidates in party nomination contests, how legislators signal their support for bills and build coalitions for their passage, the extent to which interest groups are tied to political parties, and so on. These analyses provide useful descriptions of parties but also go beyond that; recent innovations in network studies allow for empirical tests of causal arguments. The application of social network techniques is proving to be an incredibly powerful and revealing tool in the study of parties, one of the most inscrutable topics within political science.

Theoretical Framework

Several political science works regard parties conceptually as networks without specifically using social network techniques in their analysis. The theoretical framework is nonetheless important, allowing us to see parties as collections of actors working toward common goals. Bernstein 2005 offers a handy review of some of this scholarship as of the mid-2000s. Schlesinger 1985 argues that a new form of political party is emerging in which ties are stronger between candidates and officeholders. Monroe 2001 finds evidence of such a new type of party in a study of political staffers in California. Cohen, et al. 2008 argues that informal networks of political elites conspire to determine the outcome of presidential primaries, a finding echoed at the congressional level in Dominguez 2005 and at the state legislative level in Masket 2009. Bawn, et al. 2012 expands on these findings somewhat to offer a more general model of parties as collections of intense policy demanders whose preferences do not necessarily align with those of voters. A few scholars, however, point out the risks of viewing everything as a network. Noel 2011 (cited under Party Networks in Nominations), in particular, implores scholars to ask whether something is conceptually a network before analyzing it as such. Fowler, et al. 2011, meanwhile, describes some of the difficulty of dealing with causality and homophily in networks research, both of which can undermine findings.

  • Bawn, Kathleen, Marty Cohen, David Karol, Seth Masket, Hans Noel, and John Zaller. “A Theory of Political Parties.” Perspectives on Politics 10.3 (2012): 571–597.

    E-mail Citation »

    Argues that parties are collections of intense policy demanders who advantage nominees through the strategic allocation of campaign resources. Proposes a “blind spot” in which voters cannot perceive ideological extremism of candidates and suggests that parties seek to nominate as extreme a candidate as possible while staying within the blind spot.

  • Bernstein, Jonathan. “Party Network Research, Factions, and the Next Agenda.” Paper presented at the 2005 State of the Parties Conference, Akron, OH, 5–7 October 2005.

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    Reviews the leading research on party networks as of 2005, focusing mainly on earlier versions of Cohen, et al. 2008; Masket 2009; Monroe 2001; Schwartz 1990 (cited under Party Networks in State Politics); and Dominguez 2005. Suggests a framework for understanding party networks and factions.

  • Cohen, Marty, David Karol, Hans Noel, and John Zaller. The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

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    Finds that a small clique of party elites—including members of Congress, governors, major donors, and leading activists—determines presidential nominations in each of the major parties. They do so by endorsing candidates, and elite endorsements are found to predict each major party’s presidential nominee since 1980.

  • Dominguez, Casey Byrne Knudsen. “Before the Primary: Party Participation in Congressional Nominating Processes.” PhD diss., University of California, Berkeley, 2005.

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    Demonstrates that elite networks of political actors help to determine the outcomes of congressional primary elections.

  • Fowler, James H., Michael T. Heaney, David W. Nickerson, John F. Padgett, and Betsy Sinclair. “Causality in Political Networks.” American Politics Research 39.2 (2011): 437–480.

    DOI: 10.1177/1532673X10396310E-mail Citation »

    Explores some of the methodological challenges associated with social networks research, particularly those affecting party networks. Topics included are causality and homophily, both of which need to be addressed by researchers before their findings can be taken seriously. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Masket, Seth E. No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009.

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    Focuses on the California Assembly, which is one of the most partisan legislatures in the country despite a relative lack of strong formal party organizations in the state. Argues that informal party organizations—networks of donors, activists, and officeholders—conspire to advantage extreme candidates in primaries through deployment of endorsements, funding, and expertise and to deprive more moderate candidates of those resources.

  • Monroe, J. P. The Political Party Matrix: The Persistence of Organization. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.

    E-mail Citation »

    Explores links between staffers and officeholders in California, finding a network of professional political employees that constitute a political machine even in the absence of patronage or elaborate bureaucracy.

  • Noel, Hans. “Toward a Theory of Parties as Networks.” Paper presented at the Conference on American Political Parties: Past, Present, and Future, Charlottesville, VA, 8 October 2012.

    E-mail Citation »

    Attempts to compare the definitions of party and network and asks whether a party should properly be considered a network. Political actors united due to homophily of ideology or a shared political environment may be a network but are not necessarily a party. A party may involve the influence of one actor over another, but this influence is more difficult to demonstrate.

  • Schlesinger, Joseph A. “The New American Political Party.” American Political Science Review 79.4 (1985): 1152–1169.

    DOI: 10.2307/1956253E-mail Citation »

    Views parties as “office-seeking coalitions” and examines the institutional rules, party systems, and party organizations affecting these coalitions.

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