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Completed research programmsInstitutions and Social Change

Completed research programms

Research Unit
Institutions and Social Change

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Research Goals

v Basis
v Theoretical Frame of Reference
v Research Design
v Data Sources
v Structure of the Research Program


The general point of departure for the research program is the question how capable political institutions in modern societies are of responding to and processing the multiple problems and the demands of citizens. In recent decades, two fundamental processes of change have radically altered the prerequisites and conditions for responding to and processing societal problems and demands.

First, social and economic-technical change has generated new problems in western democracies and a new orientation towards politics among citizens. Citizens are articulating new demands (e.g., environmental protection, quality of life) and claiming greater participation from political institutions. Second, radical changes and transformation since the end of the eighties have set central and eastern Europe on the path towards establishing democratic political systems. This has been accompanied by changes in all areas of society that confront fledgling political institutions with special challenges. Changes in central and eastern Europe have not only affected these nascent systems. The end of the East-West conflict has meant that they have also affected the complex of problems facing western democracies and legitimation conditions in these countries.

In view of these two fundamental processes of change, it must be asked whether democratic systems are reacting appropriately to the new conditions in their environment. In other words, their performance is in question. For established western democracies, this means asking how capable their political systems are of handling the new problems and the new relationship between citizens and politics. For central and eastern European countries, the efficiency of political systems is an issue with particular implications. Not only do they have to respond to and process the problems and demands change has brought, they also have to consolidate the new democratic institutions.

The Unit’s research program addresses the performance of political institutions and the empirical clarification of certain central hypotheses by comparative methods. International comparative studies investigate the western OECD democracies and the developing democracies, especially in central and eastern Europe.



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Theoretical Frame of Reference

The general theoretical frame of reference for the empirical studies is provided firstly by a systems theory model of the political process in democracies. Secondly, democratic criteria are specified and applied in evaluating these processes. The general theoretical basis for research has been developed and condensed into a meta-theory of the democratic process (Fuchs, Discussion Paper FS III 93-202 and FS III 93-203). Drawing on established systems theoretical concepts, the political system is understood as a performance system with the specific function of producing and implementing collectively binding decisions. The process is conceptualized as a directional sequence of action products by various actors of the political system (Figure 1).

  Figure 1: A Model of the Democratic Process (Excerpt)

Figure 1 as pdf-file (6,5 K)

According to the basic democratic norm, this process begins with the demands of the citizens. They are articulated both directly by citizens themselves and indirectly by interest groups, social or political movements, and the mass media. Political parties make a selection. The demands they take up become the subject of competition between parties, they become political issues, and to some extent are included and packaged in party policy programs. Through democratic elections certain programs gain access to parliament and government and are transformed into collectively binding decisions, which the administrative apparatus subsequently implements. Decisions have effects (results) that are assessed by citizens and their organizations (approval). The results and approval of political decisions in turn affect the societal problems and demands of the citizenry.

Systematic criteria have been developed to evaluate the quality of the political process (Fuchs 1998). The focus is on the extent to which collective political actors respond to the societal problems and demands of citizens (responsiveness), to what extent they are realized (effectiveness), and how this performance is judged by the citizens.


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Research Design

The empirical research program of the Unit addresses both the micro and macro-analytical level. The micro-analytical level is concerned firstly with the citizens and their political attitudes and behavior in the context of the democratic political system and towards this system and its performance. Secondly, the micro-perspective focuses on the attitudes and behaviors of political elites as actors in the political system. At the macro-level, the structures and products of collective actors and political subsystems are examined. The focus is on what influence structures have on the performance of collective actors and subsystems. The different levels are brought into systematic relation. The first concern is the extent to which the performance of elites and collective actors in the political system meets the societal problems and demands of the citizenry. Secondly, differences between countries at the micro-level are explained by systematic variations at the macro-level.



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Data Sources

The most important sources of data for the Unit’s research program at the micro-level are representative public opinion polls and elite surveys, and at the macro-level, structural and performance indicators of the collective actors and subsystems of the political system. To some extent, existing data can be used at both the micro and the macro-levels. For certain fields of research, however, the Unit needs to conduct substantial surveys of its own, which are generally financed through third-party funds. For the period under review, the sponsoring institutions included the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), the Thyssen Foundation, the Volkswagen Foundation, and the European Commission.



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Structure of the Research Program

The research program distinguishes systematically between three subjects of study: citizens, collective actors and subsystems in politics, and political elites. Correspondingly differentiated topics divide the program into three major areas. In each several primarily international comparative research projects are being carried out, related in subject matter and interlinked by cooperative structures.

> 1. Citizens and politics

> 2. Collective actors and political systems

> 3. Political elites and political representation



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Fuchs, Dieter, Eine Metatheorie des demokratischen Prozesses, Discussion Paper FS III 93-202, Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung (WZB) (Abstract) 

Fuchs, Dieter, A Metatheory of the Democratic Process, Discussion Paper FS III 93-203, Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung (WZB) (Abstract) 

Fuchs, Dieter, "Kriterien demokratischer Performanz in Liberalen Demokratien", in: Michael Greven (Ed.), Demokratie – Eine Kultur des Westens?, Opladen: Leske + Budrich 1998, p. 151-179


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Last change: 2002-03-11 14:55