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date: 25 May 2017

Political Knowledge

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Communication. Please check back later for the full article.

Political knowledge is a concept of central importance in political communication research, yet exactly how it should be operationalized has been a long-running conversation among scholars. 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 referred to as political sophistication or political expertise. Generally, political knowledge is defined as holding correct information. However, the type of information can vary dramatically from study to study—from civic knowledge, to issue knowledge, to candidate information, to the structural relationships among cognitions.

Because political knowledge is so often seen as a bedrock of a democratic society, scholars often examine what cultural, economic, and political antecedents play a role in increasing or decreasing political knowledge. However, knowledge can also be examined as a predictor of behaviors like voting, a moderator in the study of framing effects, or a mediator between communication and political behavior. But the problem that plagues political knowledge research, just as it has plagued scholars of general knowledge for centuries, is how to measure it. Like general knowledge, which is often measured in exams or through IQ tests, political knowledge isn’t directly measurable. Political knowledge cannot be fully captured in a series of test questions. The challenge facing scholars interested in this important variable is one of measurement and interpretation, which means that there are many ways to measure political knowledge.