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"To the Editor":
Ideological Themes Expressed by
Individualist and Collectivist
Newspaper Letter Writers

Dennis R. Fox



Here's the abstract and table of contents of my dissertation, which I completed at Michigan State University for my doctorate in social psychology. It was a qualitative interview study--an effort to do the required empirical research, but in my own way, on topics of interest to me.

It took forever. Back in the early 1980s, qualitative research was still suspect. My dissertation committee was not too pleased, but they let me do it (partly, I think, out of deference to my dissertation chair, Charles Wrigley). I don't think I did it all that well, but I found it interesting enough to keep at it.

I never got it published, but I did present some of the material at a couple of conferences. One of the conference papers was placed in the ERIC database: "Personal Autonomy, Psychological Sense of Community, and Political Ideology." [ERIC Clearinghouse on Counseling and Personnel Services, Document Reproduction Service No. ED 266 398]

I did insert into the dissertation, as a separate chapter, my already-published article Psychology, Ideology, Utopia, and the Commons. It sort of fit.

My reluctance to spend my time on empirical research is not that I think empirical research is always useless, but that I don't think everyone needs to do it. In much of my other work since 1985 I've tried to raise issues in ways that time spent on mainstream research would have interfered with.


Debates over potential solutions to societal problems often mask differences in underlying assumptions about "natural" behaviors and "appropriate" values. This study examined the relationship between political ideologies and basic assumptions, in the hope of aiding the search for comprehensive solutions.

Seven men and three women (including undergraduates, graduate students, and nonstudents) who had written letters to newspapers from nonmainstream perspectives (ranging from right-wing libertarian to left-wing revolutionary communist) participated in three or four intensive, openended, semistructured interviews directed by a flexible interview guide. Each series of interviews, which ranged from four and a half to seven and a half hours, included such topics as perceptions of widespread problems, views of human nature and utopia, political ideologies, and personal goals. Participants were encouraged to raise topics important to them. The interviews were taped, transcribed, coded, and analyzed through a qualitative content analysis.

Five general themes were identified: the Difficulty of Political Self-Definition; the Importance of Looking at Issues in Context; the Rejection of Mainstream Assumptions; the Belief That the United States is a Sick Society; and the Desire to Influence Others. Three additional themes differentiated between two subgroups: Individualism versus Collectivism; Personal Consequences of the Sick Society (Personal Immunity versus Personal Susceptibility); and the Prospect of Technological Solutions (Technological Enthusiasm versus Technological Caution). Individualists and Collectivists were not diametric opposites; Individualists placed primary personal and political emphasis on values associated with personal autonomy, while Collectivists simultaneously emphasized both personal autonomy and a psychological sense of community. Although Individualists were generally more optimistic and enthusiastic than Collectivists, participants routinely displayed idiosyncratic patterns that require any categorization and generalization to be done cautiously.

Although this nonquantitative, nonexperimental approach goes against the grain of mainstream social-psychological research, a thematic content analysis allows increased understanding of the way the world looks to individuals. Such phenomenological understanding complements the traditional positivist emphasis on determining causality. Institutional change within the field of psychology is recommended so that studies using qualitative methods, as well as studies of important but controversial political topics, are more likely to be undertaken.

Table of Contents





A Tentative Two-Value Approach to Political Ideology

  • I High Autonomy--High Psychological Sense of Community
  • II High Autonomy--Low Psychological Sense of Community
  • III Low Autonomy--High Psychological Sense of Community
  • IV Low Autonomy--Low Psychological Sense of Community


  • Background
    • The "Exploratory" Dismissal
    • Across Disciplines
    • Phenomenology
    • Social Psychology
    • Related Political Perspectives
      • Feminist methodology
      • Critical social psychology
      • Anarchistic methodology
  • Qualitative Tone
    • The Notion of "Subjects"
    • General Flexibility
    • Hypotheses and Statistics
    • Objectivity, Bias, and Mutual Benefit
      • Acknowledging bias
      • Experimental bias
      • The virtues of subjectivity
      • Mutual benefit
      • Personal research
  • The Qualitative Interview
  • Focused Interviewing
    • Interview guide
  • Small Sample Size
  • Heterogeneity and Sample Selection
  • Note-Taking
  • Analysis
    • Continuous
    • Analytic description
    • Thematic content analysis
    • Coding
  • Conclusion


  • Participant Selection
    • Initial Intentions
    • Sampling Strategy
      • Letter writers
      • Selection criteria
  • Contact Procedures
    • Request Letter
    • Participant Response
      • Initial mailing
      • Second mailing
    • Final Sample
    • Subsequent Contacts
      • Interview arrangements
      • Informal interactions
      • Follow-up contacts
  • Interview Process
    • General Context
      • Interview length and number
      • Taping
      • Tone
      • Consent form and confidentiality
    • Interview Guide
      • Scenarios
    • Preparation
  • Note-Taking
    • Pre-Interview Notes
      • Cover sheet
      • Letter photocopies
    • Notes During Interviews
    • Post-Interview Notes
    • Tape Transcription
    • Analysis and Observation Notes
    • Dissertation Diary
  • Coding and Analysis
    • Development of Coding Categories
      • Individual participant codes
    • Coding Procedures
      • Preparation
      • Process
    • Copy, Cut, and File
    • Themes
    • Analysis Assistance
  • Participant Feedback Option


Participants Generally Supportive of the Major Aspects of Capitalism

  1. Allen
  2. Bill
  3. Christine
  4. David
  5. Eve

Participants Generally Opposed to the Major Aspects of Capitalism

  1. Paul
  2. Roberta
  3. Scott
  4. Timothy
  5. Victor


General Theme 1: The Difficulty of Political Self-Definition

  • Ambivalent Attraction of the Term "Liberal"
  • Circuitous Reasoning on Voting Decisions
  • A Note on Religious Self-Definition

General Theme 2: The Importance of Looking at Issues in Context

  • Complexity of Political Issues
  • Search for Multidisciplinary Knowledge
  • Confidence in Own Analytical Ability
  • Interview Process as Self-Clarification

General Theme 3: The Rejection of Mainstream Assumptions

  • Suspicion of Hidden Public Sympathy
  • Gradual Attainment of Current Beliefs

General Theme 4: The Belief That the United States is a Sick Society

  • Negative View of Television's Place in American Life

General Theme 5: The Desire to Influence Others

  • Interest in Writing, Teaching, and Political Activity
  • Lack of Interest in a Conventional Political Career


Differentiating Theme 1: Individualism versus Collectivism

  • Individualism
  • Collectivism

Differentiating Theme 2: Personal Consequences of the Sick Society

  • Personal Immunity
  • Personal Susceptibility

Differentiating Theme 3: The Prospect of Technological Solutions

  • Technological Enthusiasm
  • Technological Caution


A Comment on Political Psychology

Personal Autonomy, Psychological Sense of Community, and Political Values

Cautions in Categorizing Individuals

Directions for Future Research

  • Speculations on General Themes
  • Speculations on Differentiating Themes

Implications For Qualitative Methodology

Implications For Political Psychology and Political Change


  • A. Sample Request Letter
  • B. Response Form--"Public Issues Study"
  • C. Research Consent Form
  • D. Interview Guide
  • E. Scenarios
  • F. Participant Information Cover Sheet
  • G. General Coding Categories
  • H. Additional Individual Coding Categories
  • I. Sample Follow-Up Letters



Related Material

Article Incorporated into Dissertation

Paper Based on Dissertation

Personal Autonomy, Psychological Sense of Community, and Political Ideology

Reading Suggestions for the Curious Social Psychology Student

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Page updated September 30, 2007