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Political Careers and How to Study Them: a New Micro-Macro Approach

Comparative Politics
Elites
Gender
Institutions
Parliaments
Political Sociology
Candidate
Tomas Turner-Zwinkels
University of Basel
Tomas Turner-Zwinkels
University of Basel

Abstract

The academic interest in political careers dates back to social science classics such as Weber's essay (1919) ‘Politics as a Vocation', and Mills' (1956) 'The Power Elite'. Although influential, works following this tradition are often criticized for remaining overly focused on macro-level observations. This paper, which is an adjusted version of the introduction chapter of my PhD thesis, presents a new alternative approach that focuses on individual micro-level political careers. The following questions are central: ● What should a new micro-level decision-oriented approach to the study of political careers look like? ● What knowledge can political science and sociology gain from the application of a new micro-level approach to the study of political careers? The currently dominant approach to the study of political careers is to focus on institutions. Research has for example established that more women make it to political offices in countries with certain electoral institutions. Additionally, current research primarily uses aggregate data, like the percentage of women in parliament (e.g. how many of the 150 representatives in the Dutch lower house are women at a given point in time). An unfortunate consequence of such an ‘aggregate approach’ is that it does not allow us to empirically inspect the mechanism through which observed patterns come about. Knowing that there are typically more women in parliament in countries with proportional electoral systems is one thing. Understanding, however, how this comes about is a much harder, yet also much more interesting question. My central claim is that a new approach is needed to the study of political careers to get answers to these kinds of explanatory (‘how’) questions. In this new approach, the focus is no longer on institutions, but instead on the contextualised micro-level career decision behaviour of two key actors: (a) politicians and (b) the members of political selection committees. Institutions thus still play a role, but only insofar as they affect the micro-level career behaviour of these two key actors. My contribution investigates the main roadblocks currently hampering the study of political careers. I review five popular research topics: elite research, political professionalization, the representation of women, political career research as a stand-alone topic and American research that looked into the theoretical basis of rational career decision behaviour. I show that – with the latter literature being the exception – these literatures all struggle when it comes to answering explanatory (‘how’) questions. I subsequently identify the requirements for an alternative theory that is less troubled by this issue and outline the contours of an alternative micro-level career decision centred theory. This new theory specifies not only how individual politicians pick political positions but also how political selection committees pick individual candidates. By sketching the decision process for both of these key actors, the chapter tries to sketch a comprehensive overarching theoretical model. The aim of this model is to move beyond the mere description of political career patterns but instead provide insight into how they come about.