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John Gastil Portrait

Professor

Communication Arts & Sciences and Political Science Senior Scholar, the McCourtney Institute for Democracy
The Pennsylvania State University

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Research

Topic Map

Research Topic Map Civil society and protest groups Communication in small groups The Australian Citizens' Parliament Jury behavior The Democracy Machine (online platform) The Group in society Democracy in Small Groups Civic Engagment The Jury and Democracy Group Decision Making Governance Theory and Practice of deliberative democracy Political Communication and Deliberation Delib. Democracy Handbook Democracy in Motion By Popular Demand The Citizens' Initiative Review Public forums, civic education, political socialization Direct Democracy
Sortition as an alternative to elections Participedia.net Public opinion and civic attitudes Public Opinion and Atts. Elections Cultural Cognition Project Voter Behavior, election dynamics, and campaings

Public opinion and civic attitudes

Citizens use common languages and discourse to engage in discussion and debate about current public issues. These exchanges can change minds and, ultimately, shift public opinion. Much of my research has studied the opinions that publics form and the processes whereby those opinions change.
My first piece of research on cognition and citizenship was “Why we believe in democracy: Testing theories of attitude functions and democracy” (1992). This study drew upon attitude function theory, which argues that messages are persuasive if they serve the psychological needs of listeners. My article tested the explanatory power of rival versions of the theory and used it to understand which arguments for democratic decision making have the greatest appeal.
Some of my research has examined the consistency and shape of opinions that publics hold toward particular institutions or on specific political issues. Many studies I co-authored at the University of New Mexico Institute for Public Policy explored the relations between citizens and their public institutions; unless one understands citizen views of these institutions, it is impossible to accurately gauge their perceived legitimacy. Toward this end I analyzed the ways in which New Mexicans perceive the University of New Mexico's academic performance, admissions standards, and budgetary priorities.1  This study complemented report summarized the results of a survey on how University of New Mexico employees views their jobs and the University.2
I've also co-authored four studies that looked at another public institution, the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). The first of these used regression analysis to clarify how political culture, ideology, and environmentalism shape perceptions of LANL.3  The second study explored the civic and environmental responsibilities that the public attributed to the Lab.4  The third study integrated the findings of several LANL surveys, along with new surveys of both the public and Lab employees, to better understand the differences in the political perceptions of three different northern New Mexican cultures.5 The fourth study explored how deliberation on LANL, particularly when it was perceived as containing balanced unbiased discussion, had positive effects on issue knowledge, attitude integration, and any misperception of public attitudes. 11
Another trio of studies looked at how New Mexicans who have physical, medical, or mental disabilities view public agencies—such as the New Mexico Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. In each survey I interviewed people with disabilities or, in some cases, the family members who cared for them. The first study examined the demographics, experiences, and attitudes of New Mexicans with physical and mental disabilities.6  A follow-up study, completed in 1997, collected another round of survey data and compared it with survey results dating back to 1991. The report found some changes in attitudes and experiences, suggesting that New Mexicans with disabilities were becoming more aware of available services and more favorable toward the institutions providing those services. In one of the disability studies, an additional set of questions permitted examination of the political lives of interviewees. That study resulted in an article.7
Other Institute for Public Policy studies have focused on issues more than on institutions. One such study analyzed the results of a telephone survey on public attitudes toward WIPP and showed how public perceptions of science and the government influence their attitudes toward government.8  “Understanding public reaction to the foreign spent nuclear fuel return program: 1994-1995” (1995) looked at panel public opinion data on the transport of foreign spent nuclear fuel through respondents' home communities. Another investigation involving environmental hazards, “A cognitive filtering model of the perceived risk of environmental hazards” (Jenkins-Smith, Gastil, Palier, Silva, & Stevens, 1994) looked beyond the particular topic to explore the more general process of message filtering and opinion formation. Another article examined the psychological underpinnings of driving under the influence of alcohol.9
I also co-authored ten issues in a series of reports on New Mexico public opinion (Quarterly Profile of New Mexico Citizens, 25-34, 1994-1997). These profiles were brief reports on survey data regarding state and national elections and issues ranging from abortion to wildlife preservation, and the Quarterly Profiles were widely read by policymakers, public officials, and activists. Typically, each received some attention in print and on radio news programs, so they also reached a wider audience of New Mexicans. Hank Jenkins-Smith, Gilbert St. Clair, and I used data from these and other surveys to write an article as well.10
I have engaged in what might be called "participant observation" of political campaigns. The basic goals of these campaigns was to influence public opinion toward candidates for public office, and campaign experience has given me a better appreciation for the difficulty of influencing the public's views toward political parties and candidates. I have managed New Mexico State Senate primary campaigns (Dede Feldman and Cisco McSorley, 1996), an Albuquerque City Council campaign (Feldman, 1995), and a U.S. Congressional general election campaign (Janet Gastil, 1992). I have also served as consultant for three New Mexico State Senate general elections (Feldman, McSorley, and Anita Miller, 1996), two New Mexico House general election campaigns (Mimi Stewart and Mary Ann Hughes, 1996), one California Assembly general election (Janet Gastil, 1996), and one U.S. Congressional primary and general election campaign (Janet Gastil, 1994).
In a different vein, I have focused on language and politics. My first piece of academic research, “Generic pronouns and sexist language: The oxymoronic character of masculine generics” (1990), focused on the use and interpretation of the generic use of “he.” The study found that even when used grammatically, “he” was not actually interpreted as equally representing males and females; the generic plural (“they”), by contrast, caused research participants to think of men and women in more equal proportions. As argued in the article, the findings suggest that the generic “he” not only “sounds” sexist, but it also has the psychological effect of equating males with the generic subject. This, in turn, could subtly reinforce gender inequities that undermine efforts to develop an egalitarian, democratic society.
Along these lines, in a 2007 study “Culture and Identity-Protective Cognition: Explaining the White Male Effect in Risk Perception” I and several co-authors find that race and gender interact with cultural worldviews to create lowered levels of individual risk-perceptions among white men, thus suggesting that such tendencies arise out of a desire to confirm self-perceived cultural identities. For more on the cultural cognition mechanisms regulating risk analyses, see my work on: Fear of democracy: A cultural evaluation of Sunstein on risk(2006); Cultural cognition of nanotechnology risk-benefit perceptions(2008); Who fears the HPV vaccine, who doesn't, and why? An experimental study of the mechanisms of cultural cognition (2010); and The cultural orientation of mass political opinion (2011).


1  Gastil, J. (1996). Through New Mexican eyes: How New Mexicans perceive the University of New Mexico.
2  Gastil, J. (1995). UNM faculty and staff perceptions of the University.
3  Gastil, J. (1995). 1994 Report on public perceptions of LANL.
4  Gastil, J. (1997). 1996 LANL survey: A report on how New Mexicans view affirmative action, community outreach, public involvement, and Lab operations
5  Gastil, J. (1998). The attitudes and beliefs of LANL employees and northern New Mexicans.
6  Gastil, J. (1994). 1994 Vocational rehabilitation needs assessment of New Mexicans with disabilities.
7  Gastil, J. (2000). The political beliefs and orientations of people with disabilities. Social Science Quarterly, 81, 588-603.
8  Gastil, J. (1996). The unfolding WIPP debate in New Mexico: A survey of public attitudes toward science, the EPA, and WIPP.
9  Gastil, J. (2000). Thinking, drinking, and driving: Application of the Theory of Reasoned Action to DWI prevention.Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 30, 2217-2232.
10  Gastil, J., Jenkins-Smith, H., St. Clair, G. (2002). Beyond green chiles and coyotes: The changing shape of New Mexico’s political-cultural regions from 1967 to 1997. New Mexico Historical Review, 77, 173-195.

11 Gastil, J. (2006). How balanced discussion shapes knowledge, public perceptions, and attitudes: A case study of deliberation on the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Journal of Public Deliberation, 2

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