Social Cleavage Theory

Updated June 19, 2017

The social cleavage theory is a concept used in sociology and political science to explore how society is divided into groups. Social cleavages are acknowledged divisions in society based on specific factors and are used to describe, among other things, voting behaviour.

Social Cleavage Conditions

According to social scientists Lipset and Rokkan, for a social grouping to be termed a social cleavage, it must meet three conditions. First, there must be a division in society based on a particular demographic or socioeconomic factor. Examples of such factors are class, vocation, ethnic group and religious affiliation. This characteristic must serve to separate them from other members of society. Second, people on one side of a social divide (or cleavage) must be aware of the characteristic that bonds them together, and they must demonstrate willingness to act to promote the interests associated with their social identity. Finally, there must be some sort of institution in place that can provide organizational support to the interests of those on a particular side of the social divide.

Theory Formation

Seymour Martin Lipset and Stein Rokkan developed the theory of social cleavages in the 1960s as they examined political behaviour displayed in Western Europe. They asserted that the political trends being observed were the result of decades-old social divides framed in terms of class, religion and region. Therefore they began to see divides over the breadth of the state's influence and the moral character that defined "family" as not just individual issues but patterns of political behaviour that stemmed from these deep-seated social divides.

Social Cleavage and Party Systems

Social cleavages can be used to describe how political party systems are formed within a society. As groups exhibit disparate voting tendencies based on fractures in society, they associate more and more with bodies of ideological thought that turn into political parties. The breakdown of party affiliation and proportion of representation in each party solidifies over time, as people exhibit the same voting behaviour based on the same social rifts. With the passage of time, then, party systems emerge, with old parties carrying the same constituencies decade after decade and defining the political landscape of the society.

Challenges to Lipset and Rokkan's Theory

The party systems described by Lipset and Rokkan were built on such strong fundamental divides that they were able to consistently withstand attempts by other parties to enter the political fray. The 1970s, though, saw an explosion of minor party participation that seemed to defy the traditional groupings. Many suggested, therefore, that the Lipset and Rokkan analysis no longer applied because society had been mobilised to action based upon a diversity of modern motivations, which dismissed the uniform block voting of the past.

Social Cleavages as Issues, Rather than Parties

Others have endorsed the continued use of the term social cleavages but adapted it for a less rigid purpose than that which Lipset and Rokkan had in mind. In this viewpoint, the party system itself, as seen in sheer number of distinct parties, is not the most important factor to determine inherent social divides. Instead, the diversity of hidden social conflicts is where social cleavages lie. Party loyalties, then, take a back seat to specific issues in society, which party elites try to harness to sway voters.

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About the Author

Charlie Jay has written for publication for close to five years, with experience on community and college newspaper staffs. He has a Bachelor of Arts in English and Spanish and served in several editorial positions for publications at his college.