Political Discussion Networks and Political Engagement among Voters of Color

Published date01 March 2020
Date01 March 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2020, Vol. 73(1) 79 –95
© 2019 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912919873729
Conversation theory tells us that individuals arrive at
meaning through conversation (Pask 1980). Conversation
is defined as “the kind of speech that happens informally,
symmetrically, and for the purposes of establishing and
maintaining social ties” (Thornbury and Slade 2006, 25).
We understand intuitively that people might find them-
selves in conversations about politics or current events.
We discuss what is happening in the world with friends.
We discuss the latest news with colleagues in the work-
place. Growing up, we depend on our family members,
teachers, and others to educate us, through conversation,
about how the political system works and what our role is
within it. What is so critical about these informal conver-
sations, and one of the reasons why they are so powerful,
is that they are casual and impromptu—they are typically
the byproducts of people going about their daily activities
and routines (Downs 1957; Klofstad, McClurg, and Rolfe
2009; Walsh 2004).
Yet we also know that these conversations are hap-
pening within very different community contexts; peo-
ple’s social environments are not all the same, particularly
along the lines of ethnorace. In this article, we explore
the importance of engaging in political conversation and
talk within political discussion networks for developing
connections that foster political engagement. Importantly,
these are informal discussions “of politics and current
events that occurs within a social network of peers:
friends, colleagues, family members, and other individu-
als who are present in our social environment” (Klosftad
2011, 9). The social networks within which those politi-
cal discussions occur are political discussion networks.
Decades of research on political discussion networks
has shown their influence in virtually all aspects of our
political behaviors and attitudes. Turning out to vote
(Bond et al. 2012), participating in political and nonpo-
litical civic activities, levels of political knowledge
(Eveland and Hively 2009), policy positions (Sinclair
2012), and candidate preferences (Huckfeldt, Johnson,
873729PRQXXX10.1177/1065912919873729Political Research QuarterlyCarlson et al.
1Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis, MO, USA
2University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA, USA
3University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Taylor N. Carlson, Washington University in St. Louis, One Brookings
Drive, St. Louis, MO 63130, USA.
Email: tncarlson@wustl.edu
Political Discussion Networks and
Political Engagement among
Voters of Color
Taylor N. Carlson1, Marisa Abrajano2,
and Lisa García Bedolla3
Despite a large and growing literature documenting the powerful and positive role that political discussion networks
exert on the political behavior among whites, we know little about how political discussion networks affect political
behavior among voters of color. To fill this void in the existing literature, we conducted an original survey in California
to gather information on a diverse group of registered voters’ political discussion networks and political engagement.
The social positioning of ethnoracial groups in society, we contend, will affect how network characteristics explain
their levels of political engagement. Our results support this contention. While we find that network characteristics,
including network size, partisan homogeneity, and discussion frequency are positively associated with validated voter
turnout and nonelectoral political participation, the effects are not uniform across black, Latino, Asian American,
and white respondents. This is the first study that examines the relationship between political discussion network
characteristics and political engagement among voters of color. Our analysis demonstrates that the opportunities for
political integration and engagement offered by political discussion networks are not afforded equally across the U.S.
electorate, which has important implications for broader patterns of engagement.
political discussion, networks, race, ethnicity, political participation
80 Political Research Quarterly 73(1)
and Sprague 2004) can all be affected by our political
conversations with others. However, the vast majority of
this research relies on survey data from predominantly
white Americans, making it difficult to draw conclusions
about whether—and in what ways—political discussion
networks operate among the most rapidly growing share
of the electorate (for the exception, see Leighley and
Matsubayashi 2009).
Given that the social positioning of ethnoracial groups
is different relative to that of whites, we expect political
discussion networks to play an important role in their
political engagement, but perhaps not in entirely the same
way as whites. At minimum, it is worth exploring whether
the previous findings regarding the relationship between
discussion network characteristics and political engage-
ment generalize from whites to ethnoracial minorities.
This in and of itself is an important contribution. But,
there are also theoretical reasons why we might expect
discussion network characteristics to operate differently
for ethnoracial minorities vis-à-vis whites.
In this paper, we theorize that the differences in politi-
cal discussion networks between ethnoracial groups are
rooted in variation in how members of these ethnoracial
groups are socially situated in U.S. society (Eveland and
Kleinman 2013). To empirically test this theory, we use
original survey data to examine (1) how the network size,
discussion frequency, and partisan composition of politi-
cal discussion networks differ among ethnoracial groups
and (2) how these three different network characteristics
impact political engagement differently across ethnoracial
groups. We partnered with four community organizations
that work with communities of color in California to con-
duct a survey of approximately 3,500 African Americans,
Latinos, Asians, and whites. In the survey, we used a name
generator to obtain information about respondents’ politi-
cal discussion networks as well as information about their
discussion partners.
The Importance of Social Position
Ethnoracial group membership in the United States is
important because of its impact on the social position that
a particular individual possesses within U.S. society. That
positioning is not under the person’s individual-level
control. In addition, we are not making an essentialist
argument that all group members are “naturally” the
same (Beltrán 2013). Rather, we contend that the contexts
within which people are often similarly situated and the
opportunity structures attached to those contexts can
affect their political attitudes and engagement. Those con-
texts, in turn, are shaped by an individual’s social position,
which, for political and historical reasons, is strongly
affected by their ethnoracial group membership.
We define a social group as “a collective of persons
differentiated from others by cultural forms, practices,
special needs or capacities, structure of power, or privi-
lege” (Young 1990). According to Young (1990), what
makes a collection of people into a group is “less some
set of attributes its members share than the relation in
which they stand to others.” In other words, defining a
particular population as a social group does not mean that
we need to assume that all group members are the same,
share the same experiences, or have the same goals or
aspirations. What is similar (but not necessarily always
the same) about the ethnoracial group members are where
they are placed in the U.S. racial hierarchy and how that
placement has affected their social, political, and eco-
nomic opportunity structures. As Eveland and Kleinman
(2013, 84) point out, “political discussion networks are
heavily influenced by the opportunity structure of the
social settings in which we are embedded.” We would
add that those opportunity structures also are influenced
by a particular person’s social position. Thus, it is impor-
tant to explore the ways in which political discussion net-
works vary among groups who hold different social
These opportunity structures, and the constraints they
may place on political behavior, are especially important
when considering the target voters in this study—mostly
low-income ethnoracial voters. These target voters belong
to social groups that historically have been excluded from
the polity, which has extended to the present day.
Numerous scholars, including Rogers Smith (1997,
2003), have shown how citizenship and inclusion in the
U.S. polity was defined ascriptively in terms of both race
and gender classifications (see also Gardner 2005;
Goldberg 2002; Jacobson 1998; King 2000; Ngai 2004).
These studies demonstrate the many ways that discourses
of political inclusion and exclusion were the product of
explicit public policies, particularly U.S. immigration
policies, which were designed to maintain the United
States as a white Protestant nation and to materially privi-
lege the white population (Haney-López 1996; King
2000; Lipsitz 1998). These ascriptive understandings, in
turn, have been found to affect the development of politi-
cal thought within ethnoracial communities, as well as
approaches to and engagement with political and collec-
tive action (Cohen 1999; Dawson 2001; García Bedolla
2005, 2014; Gutierrez 1995; Jones-Correa 1998; Kim
2000; Parker 2009; Tate 1993). All these factors derive
from individuals’ relative social position and, we con-
tend, play an important role in the structure and function
of their political discussion networks.
Social position also carries numerous implications for
an individual’s ability to exercise individual-level agency.
As Masuoka and Junn (2013, 25) point out, “the notion
that there is uniformity in political agency—in one’s abil-
ity to participate, to be mobilized by political parties and
elites, to consider political alternatives, to seek and con-
sume political information, to form positions on political

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