In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Political Knowledge

  • Introduction
  • Data Sources
  • Attitude Change and Information Processing
  • Measuring Political Knowledge
  • Related Concepts

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Communication Political Knowledge
Lindsay Hoffman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 October 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0098


Political knowledge is one of the primary variables in political communication research. In the United States, as well as other democratic nations, the study of political knowledge is rooted in democratic theory, which suggests that citizens should be informed if they are to participate in a democratic society. Political knowledge is also sometimes referred to as political sophistication or political expertise, but knowledge is generally defined as holding correct information—whether that is civic, issue, or candidate information, or the structural relationships among cognitions. Scholars often examine political knowledge as a dependent variable—for example, by examining media effects on political knowledge—but knowledge can also be examined as a predictor, moderator, or mediator in a variety of communication relationships. In this sense, political knowledge may lead to political discussion, or it may moderate the relationship between media use and political participation. However, just as general knowledge cannot be directly measured—rather, it is assessed via test scores or grades—political knowledge is directly immeasurable. In other words, the content of political knowledge, generally, cannot be fully captured in a series of test questions. For that reason, scholars often conceptualize political knowledge in varying ways. However, scholars have come to agree on some measures of political knowledge as good representations of the information citizens must have to participate fully in a democratic society.

Data Sources

A number of organizations regularly test political knowledge among Americans. The following sources measure several variations of political knowledge (see Conceptualizations) as well as variables commonly found in studies of media effects and political communication, such as media use and political participation. For data over several decades with the same measurement, scholars often turn to the American National Election Studies. For more detailed and variable measurements of knowledge, the National Annenberg Election Survey and Pew Research Center offer a variety of publicly available data sets.

  • American National Election Studies.

    The ANES collect data on individuals’ political knowledge since 1986.

  • Krosnick, J. A., A. Lupia, M. DeBell, and D. Donakowski. 2008. Problems with ANES questions measuring political knowledge. Ann Arbor, MI: ANES.

    These authors identified several problems reported in the collection of knowledge data by ANES.

  • National Annenberg Election Survey.

    This data set examines citizens’ knowledge, media use, and participation, among other variables, in the context of presidential elections since 2000. Access to restricted data is available upon application (password-protected).

  • Pew Research Center.

    Pew offers a wide variety of available public opinion data sets, many of which examine political knowledge as well as media use. It has also actively measured timely issue knowledge through its News IQ Quiz, which anyone can take online and then compare his or her results to national results.

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