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Political Activism and Moral Reasoning: Political and Apolitical Students in Great Britain and France

  • Robert E. O'connor


The results of this analysis may be reduced to four inter-related findings. First, evident throughout the paper is the similarity of activists at all three schools. Cross-national similarities consistently predominate over differences. The same patterns of relationships are found everywhere. This fact, among other things, enhances the credibility of our findings.



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1 Data sets with large sample sizes have been collected, but the sampling methods have been poor and the analyses methodologically suspect. See, for example, Baird, Leonard L., ‘Who Protests: a Study of Student Activists’, in Foster, Julian and Long, Durward, eds., Protest: Student Activism in America (New York: William Morrow, 1970), pp. 123–33. An exception to the general lack of sophisticated and imaginative analyses utilizing the individual student as the unit of analysis is the work of Smith, Block and Haan. See Haan, Norma, Smith, M. Brewster and Block, Jeanne, ‘Moral Reasoning of Young Adults: Political-Social Behavior, Family Background, and Personality Correlates’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, x (1968), 183201, and Block, Jeanne H., Haan, Norma and Smith, M. BrewsterSocialization Correlates of Student Activism’, Journal of Social Issues, xxv (1969), 143–77. Their weakness, however, is that the response rate to their mailed questionnaire was only approximately 50 per cent. For a guide to bibliographic materials on student protest, see The Report of the President's Commission on Campus Unrest (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1970), pp. 513–18. The Scranton Commission's Report also includes an annotated bibliography of its own; see pp. 467–518 of the Report.

2 Kohlberg, Lawrence, ‘The Development of Children's Orientations Toward a Moral Order – Sequence in the Development of Moral Thought’, Vita Humana, VI (1963), 1133, and Kohlberg, Lawrence and Kramer, Richard, ‘Continuities and Discontinuities in Childhood and Adult Moral Development’, Human Development, XII (1969), pp. 93120.

3 The ‘red diaper’ explanation could easily be hostile to activists, if the humanistic-attitudes-learned-from-parents component were deleted. However, for Kenneth Keniston, the scholar with whom this explanation is most often associated, the humanistic-attitudes component is essential. See Keniston, Kenneth, Young Radicals: Notes on Committed Youth (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1969).

4 Membership in the Socialist Society was reported by 9.6 per cent of the Essex sample, and only 2.4 per cent were members of the Conservative Association.

5 Previous choices included Rudyard Kipling and the World War I general Douglas Haig.

6 Membership in the Conservative Association was reported by 12.4 per cent of the St Andrew sample.

7 Montpellier students would seem to be representative of French students to the degree that Languedoc is like the rest of France. Languedoc is disproportionately agricultural (16.5 per cent of the people vs. 9.9 per cent for all of France), under-industrialized (20.4 per cent worker vs. 28.0 per cent for all of France), elderly, and copiously supplied with small businesses (8.8 per cent merchants and only 6.3 per cent clerks). See Institut national de la statistique et des etudes economiques, Annuaire Statistique de la France, 1969 (Paris: A. Colin, 1969), p. 39. These data and the geographic location of Languedoc (Central-Far South) would lead us to predict that politically the area would be part of what Duncan MacRae calls ‘static France’ which supported the Poujade movement with its nihilistic view of government and never really valued General de Gaulle with his praise of the potential of government to realize the grandeur of France. Indeed, Poujadist candidates in 1956 received an excess of almost 10 per cent in Languedoc over their national average, and de Gaulle never did run well in Languedoc. Macrae, Duncan, Parliament, Parties, and Society in France, 1946–1958 (New York: St Martin's Press 1967) pp. 268–73.

8 The median time for completion was approximately thirty minutes with the mean being somewhat longer.

9 One bias with this approach is that students living in larger groups are oversampled. A student would more likely have been included in the sample if he lived in a commune of fifteen students than if he lived alone because the sample was of addresses rather than names. This bias is significant as it is related to activism, the dependent variable. Students living in apartments shared with other students are more active than students boarding with families in bed-and-breakfast arrangements. Students in their own flats are almost invariably in groups; students in bed-and-breakfast abodes generally live alone. Fortunately, the researchers anticipated this bias and attempted to compensate for it by oversampling bed-and-breakfast addresses. This was accomplished by including the addresses of first-year students, who live disproportionately in bed-and-breakfast dwellings, in the master lists from which sample addresses were selected. By oversampling bed-and-breakfast addresses, we compensate for the oversampling of individuals who live in larger groups. Although the bed-and-breakfast addresses often were found to include first-year students, these students were excluded from this study. First-year students would almost invariably appear to be non-active politically because their short tenure at university before the administration of the questionnaire afforded them little opportunity for political activism. For a more detailed discussion of sampling intricacies, see O'connor, Robert E., ‘The Activist Examined: Political and Apolitical Students at the Universities of Essex, St Andrews and Montpellier’, Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation, University of North Carolina, 1971.

10 Solomon, F. and Fishman, J. R., ‘Youth and Peace: a Psycho-social Study of Student Peace Demonstrators in Washington, D. C,'Journal of Social Issues, XX (1964), 5473.

11 Keniston, Kenneth, Young Radicals (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1968).

12 Lyonns, Glen, ‘The Police Car Demonstration: a Survey of Participants’, in Lipset, Seymour M. and Wolin, Sheldon, eds., The Berkeley Student Revolt (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1965).

13 Heist, P., Intellect and Commitment (Berkeley: Center for the Study of Higher Education, 1965); Watts, William A. and Whittaker, David, ‘Free Speech Advocates at Berkeley’, Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, II (1966), 4162; Block, Haan and Smith, ‘Socialization Correlates’; Haan, Smith and Block, ‘Moral Reasoning’; Robert H. Somers, ‘The Mainsprings of Rebellion: a Survey of Berkeley Students in November 1964’, in Lipset and Wolin, eds., The Berkeley Student Revolt.

14 Flacks, Richard, ‘The Liberated Generation: An Exploration of the Roots of Student Protest’, Journal of Social Issues, XXIII (1967), pp. 5275.

15 Gamson, Z. F., Goodman, J. and Gurin, G., ‘Radicals, Moderates and Bystanders during a University Protest’, paper delivered at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Society, Miami, Florida, 1966.

16 Westby, David and Braungart, R. G., ‘Class and Politics in the Family Backgrounds of Student Political Activists’, American Sociological Review, XXXI (1966), pp. 690–2.

17 Nevertheless, Block, Haan and Smith concluded that ‘Despite these differing selective criteria for student activism, the results across studies have been remarkably coherent. Activists are found to be intellectually gifted, academically superior, and politically radical young people from advantaged homes in which the parents are successful in their careers, comfortable in their economic position, and liberal in their political orientations’. See Block, ,Haan, andSmith, , ‘Socialization Correlates’, p. 144.

18 Differences between our measure of activism and students’ self-ranking are, in some cases, quite large. One student at Essex, realizing that there was quite a difference between his self-image as an activist and his inactivity in terms of specific items, angrily announced that, ‘This makes me out to be an armchair radical’. Lengthy discussion convinced the author that the student was indeed an armchair radical.

19 An item labelled ‘other’ was provided so that students could report political activities not covered by the listed items. Fewer than 4 per cent of the students at any university took advantage of this option. For the exact wording of the items in French and English, see O'Connor, ‘The Activist Examined’.

20 The absence of statistically significant differences in the items of attending rallies, marching in town, and demonstrating may be partially explained by the great deal of marching about town for non-political reasons by St Andrews students. Their active participation in Guy Fawkes night activities, charity parades, and similar non-political actions almost certainly swells artificially the percentages on the rallying, marching and demonstrating items.

21 The Coefficient of Reproducibility is one minus the total number of errors divided by the total number of responses, and varies from zero to one. A Coefficient of Reproducibility approaching 0.9 is generally considered to indicate a valid scale, meaning that it has the properties of unidimensionality and cumulativeness. For a discussion of scalogram analyses, seeEdwards, Allen L., Techniques of Attitude and Scale Construction (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1957) or Torgerson, Warren S., Theory and Methods of Scaling (New York: Wiley, 1958). The SPSS version of Guttman scaling procedures was employed in this analysis.

22 Kohlberg, ‘The Development of Children's Orientations’.

23 Pre-conventionality is in no way limited to children or to students. One adult writes, ‘So far, about morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after and judged by these moral standards, which I do not defend, the bullfight is very moral to me because I feel very fine while it is going on. and after it is over I feel very sad but very fine.’ Hemingway, Ernest, Death in the Afternoon (London: Jonathan Cape, 1932). P. 8.

24 Kohlberg breaks the trichotomy into six stages, the fifth of which gives much emphasis to the importance of maintaining contracts. We have coded individuals at this stage, which is difficult to distinguish from the law-and-order stages, as conventional. Our intent is not to imply that conventional moral reasoners are necessarily unprincipled, but that they choose obedience to authorities as their ultimate value in justifying their behavior. This choice is not only justifiable, but actually is preferable from a Hobbesian perspective.

25 R. In this case the theft can be justified because a human life is more important than money and in such a situation human life comes before all other considerations. Q. The husband was arrested a month later and brought before a judge. Should he be sent to jail?Why? Why not? R. No, he ought to be acquitted because his goal went in the direction of justice whereas the intransigence of the proprietor resulted from his (monetary) stake in it. Q. If the husband does not love his wife a great deal, should he steal the money for the ticket anyway? R. He must do it because a human life is at stake and this has the same value if he loves his wife or not. Q. Would you steal the money to save your wife's life? R. That depends on the circumstances but in the impossibility of doing otherwise the response is affirmative.

26 In Kohlberg's own studies, the interviews are with children and are entirely orally conducted. The adaptations used in this study are adopted from Haan, Smith and Block, ‘ Moral Reasoning’, who had the benefit of Kohlberg's personal assistance. The dilemmas were modified slightly by us to take into account cultural factors which would have caused confusion if the unmodified dilemmas had been used. Two coders made independent evaluations of the responses which were coded independently from the other sections of the questionnaire in order to minimize biases. The coders agreed on well over 90 per cent of their initial independent judgements and were able to reach agreement on the few other respondents through a careful re-reading and discussion.

27 Haan, Smith and Block, ‘ Moral Reasoning’.

28 Seymour Halleck, L., ‘Hypotheses of Student Unrest’, in Foster, and Long, , Protest, p. 107. For a presentation of the popular version of permissiveness, see Jencks, Christopher, ‘Is it all Dr Spock's Fault?’ New York Times Magazine, 3 03 1968.

29 DrSpock, Benjamin, Baby and Child Care (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1945).

30 Block, Haan and Smith, ‘Socialization Correlates’.

31 Block, Haan and Smith, ‘Socialization Correlates’.

32 At St Andrews activists are disproportionately working-class youths who report a stricter upbringing than do middle-class students,

33 The lower-income category includes students reporting parental incomes of less than £2,000 or NF 24.000; the middle-income category ranges from £2,ooo–£4,ooo or NF 24.000–NF 48.000; and, the upper-income category includes all incomes over £4,000 or NF 48.000. The finding that lower-income students who recall a stricter upbringing are disproportionately likely to be activists is surprising. One possible explanation is that lower-income activists come from strict homes wherein parents provide strong encouragement toward competitiveness for career success. Students may rebel at this striving for middle-class respectability and this rejection of their own class backgrounds. The data do tend to support this explanation. See O'connor, , ‘The Activist Examined’, pp. 133–9. Differences in the backgrounds of activists within different classes should not be permitted to obscure the more general finding that students with upper-income backgrounds are more likely to be activists than are students of lower-income backgrounds. Perhaps lower-income students are more concerned with personal economic security, rarely a political issue at the three campuses, than with the ‘post bourgeois’ issues which seem to activate upper-income students. See Inglehart, Ronald, ‘The Silent Revolution in Europe: Intergenerational Change in Post-Industrial Societies’, American Political Science Review, LXV (1971), 9911017. Permissiveness as measured in Table 8 includes only the two socialization items; current views toward authority and moral reasoning are excluded. See Table 7 for clarification.

34 Bettelheim, Bruno, ‘The Problem of Generations’, in Erikson, Erik H., ed., The Challenge of Youth (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1961), p. 93. See also Endleman, Robert,‘Oedipal Elements in Student Rebellions’, Psychoanalytic Review, LVII (1970), 442–71 and Mendel, Gerard, La Crise degenerations (Paris: Payot, 1969).

35 Essentially this is the argument of Bettelheim, ‘Problem of Generations’. Bettelheim does owe a strong debt to Erik Erikson, Identity Youth and Crisis (New York: W. W. Norton, 1968).

36 Bettelheim, ‘Problem of Generations’, p. 83.

37 In academic and/or intellectual circles, there are very few explicit statements that student protestors are disproportionately mediocre students. One exception is the ‘Black Papers’, a series of anonymously authored articles appearing in the Critical Quarterly in the late 1960s. The papers attacked plans for expansion of British higher education on the basis that ‘more means worse’. However measured, activists have consistently been found to be above average students. See Flacks, ‘Liberated Generation': Block, Haan and Smith, ‘Socialization Correlates’; and Kenneth Keniston, Young Radicals.

38 The term was originated by Kerr, Clark in his The Uses of the University (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963). One dissenter from Kerr's view is Nisbet, Robert, The Degradation of the Academic Dogma: The University in America, 1943–1970 (New York: Basic Books, 1971). Another differing view of the purpose of the university appears in Roszak, Theodore, ed., The Dissenting Academy (New York: Vintage Books, 1968).

39 Durkheim, Emile, Le Suicide (Paris: Alcon, 1897).

40 This explanation is clearly presented in Aron, Raymond, The Elusive Revolution (New York: Praeger, 1969).

41 Keniston, Young Radicals, interviewed sixteen leaders of the Vietnam Summer Project of 1967. Both his miniscule N and the fact that he interviewed only full-time leaders limit the usefulness of his study for this one.

42 The costs of participation for students are indeed low, as students take few risks by participating and have resources of flexibility and quantity of time; it is much more difficult for a family to participate as, for many people, even wearing a button with the word ‘peace’ can result in instant unemployment. The activity of some students may represent what their parents wish they themselves were able to do,

43 The ‘red diaper’ hypothesis is in part a specific case of the more general question of consistency between the political values of parents and of their children. See Maccoby, Eleanor E., Matthews, Richard E. and Morton, Anton S., ‘Youth and Political Change’, Public Opinion Quarterly, XVIII (1954), 2339; Nogee, Phillip and Levin, Murray B., ‘Some Determinants of Political Attitudes Among College Voters’, Public Opinion Quarterly, XXII (1958), 449–63; Middleton, Russell and Putney, Snell, ‘Political Expression of Adolescent Rebellion’, American Journal of Sociology, LXVIII (1963), 527–35; Jennings, M. Kent and Niemi, Richard G., ‘The Transmission of Political Values from Parent to Child’, American Political Science Review, LXII (1968), 169–84; Hess, Robert and Torney, Judith, The Development of Political Attitudes in Children (Chicago: Aldine, 1967); Frank A. Pinner, ‘Parental Overprotection and Political Distrust’, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, #351 (1965), 58–70; and Greenstein, Fred, Children and Politics (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1965). These articles are not directly relevant to this study because they do not deal with activism but with parent-child attitudinal and voting differences. The books are not directly relevant because they deal only with parent-young child relationships.

44 Cox Commission Report, Crisis at Columbia (New York: Random House, 1968), p. 4.

45 Our operationalization of the moralistic socialization explanation ignores non-parental sources of morality. Data on childhood peer groups and schools, unfortunately, were not collected. In the absence of these data, one is wary of quickly dismissing the moralistic socialization explanation. The morality explanation may well have been condemned primarily by an inadequate two-item measurement. This morality explanation closely resembles that of Gary C. Bryne, A Balance Model of Student Protest Behavior, Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

46 Overall, the best single predictor of activism is the students’ self-placement on a unidimensional scale of political views ranging from ‘far left’ to ‘far right’ and ‘plus à gauche’ to ‘plus à droit’.

47 Perhaps activists become involved not because they are post-conventional, but instead become post-conventional as a product of their involvement. It is at least theoretically possible that activists do not differ from non-activists in moral reasoning at the time of their initial involvement and that, in justifying this involvement to themselves, they adopt a post-conventionality which is generalized beyond strictly political stimuli. One problem with this argument is that it is by no means clear that left-wing political activity is justifiable only through postconventional activists. Another variant of the argument that activism brings about postconventionality is that new activists learn post-conventionality from more experienced activists as part of a solidarity associated with social movements. An obvious problem here is that of begging the question. Neither of these variants which suggest that activism produces postconventional moral reasoning help to account for the initial decision by students to become involved in left-wing political activity.

* The Pennsylvania State University. This article is a revision of a paper delivered at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Washington, D.C., September 1972. Charles Goldsmid, Jeffrey Obler, David Westby and Peter Wissel expressed wise dissatisfaction with earlier versions of this paper; I have not let them see the present version. A special acknowledgement must also go to Janet Muller who gathered over half of the data. Finally, acknowledged and appreciated is the financial support of the National Science Foundation and National Institute of Mental Health.

Political Activism and Moral Reasoning: Political and Apolitical Students in Great Britain and France

  • Robert E. O'connor


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