Conceptual foundations of citizen competence

James H. Kuklinski, Paul J. Quirk

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


This article considers some of the challenges that attend efforts to assess citizen performance. We begin by demonstrating the often- unarticulated complexity of evaluating performance in any domain. To do this, we identify four distinct conceptual elements that comprise an evaluation - identification of task, selection of criterion, choice of empirical indicator, and explication of standard - and illustrate with an example that is relatively free of ambiguity: performance in basketball. Using this framework, we then review research in three general areas of study: mass belief systems and issue consistency, political knowledge, and the use of political heuristics. We find that no study articulates all four elements (or adequate substitutes associated with an alternative framework). As a result, problems arise. Most significantly, any particular study is likely to use criteria that are unsatisfactory in important respects or to employ empirical indicators that do not validly measure the criteria. Across studies, conclusions often vary as a function of unarticulated differences in assumptions, definitions, and measures. We conclude by drawing a few lessons for future research, while also recognizing the impressive progress that the study of public opinion and citizen competence has made over the last 40 years.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)285-311
Number of pages27
JournalPolitical Behavior
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1 2001


  • Citizens
  • Competence
  • Performance
  • Public opinion

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science

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