In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Social Networks, Mass Publics, and Democratic Politics

  • Introduction
  • Cross-National and Comparative Studies
  • Family Networks and Socialization

Political Science Social Networks, Mass Publics, and Democratic Politics
Pavel Bacovsky, Katie Runge, Anand Edward Sokhey
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 September 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0340


The study of social networks as they relate to mass political behavior has roots in foundational social scientific works (e.g., Lazarsfeld, et al. The People’s Choice: How the Voter Makes Up His Mind in a Presidential Campaign. New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1944). Huckfeldt and Sprague ushered in the contemporary era of political networks research (e.g., “Networks in Context: The Social Flow of Political Information” in American Political Science Review 81.4 (1987): 1197–1216, and Citizens, Politics, and Social Communication: Information and Influence in an Election Campaign. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995), picking up on the Columbia scholars’ early efforts to measure interpersonal influence and the consequences of group memberships in the United States. Drawing theoretical and conceptual distinctions between networks and contexts, Huckfeldt and Sprague popularized survey techniques for measuring individuals’ core discussion networks via name generators, and demonstrated relationships between individuals’ social networks and their opinions and perceptions. Subsequent works by these and other scholars have moved beyond community study designs, examining network effects in the areas of vote choice, attitude formation, and political participation. Major debates have focused on the extent to which individuals are exposed to disagreeable information via their social contacts (e.g., Mutz. Hearing the Other Side: Deliberative Versus Participatory Democracy. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2006); questions about causality (e.g., McClurg, et al. “Discussion Networks” in The Oxford Handbook of Political Networks. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017); and the identification of mechanisms of influence (e.g., Sinclair. The Social Citizen: Peer Networks and Political Behavior. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012). Scholars have studied the role of social networks in mass publics around the world (e.g., Gunther, et al. Voting in Old and New Democracies. New York: Routledge, 2016), and how family networks and processes of socialization shape political attitudes. Current work is documenting how factors like gender, personality, emotion, and geography facilitate or hinder social influence; how online and offline worlds intersect; and how scholars can better measure broader patterns of social exposure and interaction.


Contemporary research on social networks as they relate to mass political behavior has developed from two “stages” of work: early community studies conducted in the 1940s that helped advance the techniques of modern social science (survey research, panel designs, quantitative analysis) and the updates to these works ushered in by the efforts of R. Robert Huckfeldt, John Sprague, and colleagues starting in the 1980s.

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