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Diffusion and spatial equilibrium of a social norm: voting participation in the United States, 1920–2008


  • Stephen Coleman



Social conformity can spread social norms and behaviors through a society. This research examines such a process geographically and over time for voting, which is strongly influenced by the norm that citizens should vote. A mathematical model for the spread of voting participation under the influence of social conformity is developed based on the diffusion equation, and predictions are tested with spatial analysis of state-level voter turnout in American presidential elections from 1920 to 2008. Results show that voter turnout has converged to a stable equilibrium in its geographical distribution across the states—but it is an equilibrium that results in persistent differences at the state level. Results are compared to individual-level and agent-based models. The model may be applied to other types of social diffusion that depend on specific geographical location. Copyright Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Suggested Citation

  • Stephen Coleman, 2014. "Diffusion and spatial equilibrium of a social norm: voting participation in the United States, 1920–2008," Quality & Quantity: International Journal of Methodology, Springer, vol. 48(3), pages 1769-1783, May.
  • Handle: RePEc:spr:qualqt:v:48:y:2014:i:3:p:1769-1783
    DOI: 10.1007/s11135-013-9873-x

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Cho, Wendy K Tam & Rudolph, Thomas J, 2008. "Emanating Political Participation: Untangling the Spatial Structure Behind Participation," British Journal of Political Science, Cambridge University Press, vol. 38(02), pages 273-289, April.
    2. William A. Brock & Steven N. Durlauf, 2001. "Discrete Choice with Social Interactions," Review of Economic Studies, Oxford University Press, vol. 68(2), pages 235-260.
    3. Nikolay Nenovsky & S. Statev, 2006. "Introduction," Post-Print halshs-00260898, HAL.
    4. Knack, Stephen & Kropf, Martha, 1998. "For shame! The effect of community cooperative context on the probability of voting," MPRA Paper 27258, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    5. Coleman, Stephen, 2004. "The Effect of Social Conformity on Collective Voting Behavior," Political Analysis, Cambridge University Press, vol. 12(01), pages 76-96, December.
    6. repec:cup:apsrev:v:102:y:2008:i:01:p:33-48_08 is not listed on IDEAS
    7. M. Ruth & K. Donaghy & P. Kirshen, 2006. "Introduction," Chapters,in: Regional Climate Change and Variability, chapter 1 Edward Elgar Publishing.
    8. Young, H.P., 1999. "Diffusion in Social Networks," Papers 2, Brookings Institution - Working Papers.
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    More about this item


    Social norm; Voter turnout; Social conformity; Spatial model; Equilibrium; Diffusion;

    JEL classification:

    • C02 - Mathematical and Quantitative Methods - - General - - - Mathematical Economics
    • D72 - Microeconomics - - Analysis of Collective Decision-Making - - - Political Processes: Rent-seeking, Lobbying, Elections, Legislatures, and Voting Behavior
    • Z13 - Other Special Topics - - Cultural Economics - - - Economic Sociology; Economic Anthropology; Language; Social and Economic Stratification
    • C21 - Mathematical and Quantitative Methods - - Single Equation Models; Single Variables - - - Cross-Sectional Models; Spatial Models; Treatment Effect Models


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