Symbolism In Politics

Modern politics are as replete with symbols, ritual, ceremony, and myth as the societies more familiar to anthropological tradition. Politicians announce public support for positions they fail to defend in private (Edelman, 1964). Legislators vote for legislation while remaining indifferent to its implementation (Pressman and Wildavsky, 1973). Administrators solicit public participation in decision making in order to secure public support for policies to which they are already committed. Chief executives advocate reorganization of the public bureaucracy, announce plans for making reorganizations, and regularly abandon the plans (March and Olsen, 1983). Information is gathered, policy alternatives are defined, and cost-benefit analyses are pursued, but they seem more intended to reassure observers of the appropriateness of actions being taken than to influence the actions (Feldman and March, 1981).

In modern discussions of politics, these symbolic actions are characteristically portrayed as strategic moves by self-conscious political actors. Rituals and ceremonies are defined as window-dressing for the real political processes, or as instruments by which the clever and the powerful exploit the naïve and the weak. The hiring of experts lends legitimacy to policies (Meyer and Rowan, 1977); associating unpopular moves with popular symbols is reassuring (Edelman, 1964). Control over symbols is a basis of power, like control over other resources (Pfeffer, 1981a); and the use of symbols is part of a struggle over political outcomes (Cohen, 1974).


The New Institutionalism: Organizational Factors in Political Life, as printed in The American Political Science Review

See also

Political Process

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