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University of Sunderland

What is social and political orientation and why does it matter?

Posted on: May 10, 2023
Wooden cube with the words 'left' and 'right'.

Why are global governments not doing more to solve the climate emergency? Are more societies descending into authoritarianism? What shapes our social attitudes, political attitudes and public opinions?

Politics governs all of our lives, shaping the societies we live in and the lives we lead – and its landscape shifts every day. Worldwide, there are diverse types of political systems in operation; the distinguishing factor between them is the level of control held by the government or party leaders, and the level of freedom extended to the population.

Political polarization and division across the world

Increasingly, it appears that we live in a polarized world, where different beliefs, political opinions and ideas of how society should operate are causing deep divisions among global populations. Many of us have ethical and moral questions about how political authority is exercised, and how governments and political leaders are tackling some of the world’s most pressing issues.

The last several years alone have provided countless examples: the 2016 Brexit European Union referendum in the United Kingdom, the ever-widening divide between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party in the United States, and the rise of a far-right ruling party in Poland. Other countries across the world are experiencing similar fracturing of political opinion, including Brazil, India and Turkey to name but a few.

It’s no simple task to balance opposing visions for our countries and our shared futures. Beliefs often have deep societal roots, existing at complex intersections and drawing on cultural, historical and national heritages. Where one political party is passionate about pushing a green agenda, another might prioritise the development of infrastructure and economy. As one takes a hard line on restricting the individual rights of others, another will favour a more liberal approach. What some regard as regressive, others will deem progressive.

Each will have its own stance on fundamental concepts such as:

  •       identity
  •       borders
  •       environment
  •       health
  •       security
  •       autonomy
  •       education
  •       freedom
  •       human rights
  •       economy

Our cultural climate also shapes political views and developments. In recent years, for example, social media platforms have been used to both positive and negative effect in influencing political and social discourse.

Further upheavals are predicted in 2023. The Council on Foreign Relations highlights five elections to watch this year, from Nigeria – whose high population and influence mean the result “will matter not just to Nigerians but all of Africa and beyond” – and Argentina, one of 24 democracies where voting is mandatory.

Let’s take a closer look at the different ideologies and political beliefs that are at play in these multi-faceted, interconnected ideas and systems of governance.

What are the main political ideologies?

Ideologies are specific sets of ideas and beliefs, held by particular groups and individuals, which lie at the core of all political positions. These doctrines attempt to offer a blueprint that can be applied to wider social order.

Political ideologies can be mapped on a broader political spectrum. Put simply, it’s a system ranging from left to right-wing, from liberal-conservative, that helps to classify and clarify both various political positions and the beliefs generally associated with that group. It’s important to note that positions on the spectrum are moveable, and that it’s a highly nuanced, complex system in practice.

Let’s take the UK and its main parties as an example: the Labour Party is categorised as centre-left and traditionally viewed as the party of the ‘working class’, the Conservative Party are centre-right, and traditionally the party of the ‘upper class’, the Liberal Democrats are a centrist party, the Green Party are ‘libertarian left’, and parties such as UKIP are ‘authoritarian right’.

Here are some of the most common political positions:

  • Liberalism – based on individual freedom and creating a society in which people can realise and pursue their own interests. Liberals believe in progress, flexibility, equality for all, democratic – albeit limited – government, and economic liberty.
  • Conservatism – based on upholding traditional institutions, values and practices, and favouring free enterprise, the free market and private ownership. Conservatives are characterised by their bids to maintain the status quo, and their preference for conformity, order, stability and hierarchy.
  • Socialism – based on public and collective ownership of property, natural resources, and production within an egalitarian society. A key facet of left-wing, socialist political philosophy is that distribution of income is subject to social control.

There is also a multitude of other ideologies, including libertarianism, communism, authoritarianism, anarchism and fascism.

What is System Justification Theory (SJT)?

There are myriad reasons why individuals subscribe to, and vote for, various political parties and regimes – reasons which may not always make logical sense to us at face value.

John T. Jost – a social psychologist who specialises in the psychology of political ideology – developed SJT to examine and explain the factors that contribute to political decision-making by individuals and groups. Jost posits that individuals are often motivated to “defend, bolster and justify prevailing social, economic and political arrangements” – even when they are personally damaging or detrimental to themselves. The degree to which an individual is motivated depends on a variety of dispositional and situational factors.

An individual who holds system-justifying beliefs deems their status in society as fair, deserved and merited. For example, in the US, this could refer to the classic American belief that ‘hard work pays off’ and that money and progression is there for the taking – despite the fact that a person may live below the poverty line, be afforded fewer opportunities than others, and is forced to navigate numerous other social, cultural and economic barriers.

Understand how political ideologies intersect with law and social order

Are you interested in social justice, public policy, and the laws governing the social and welfare state?

Explore the legal ramifications of political ideology with the University of Sunderland’s online LLM Master of Laws programme. Gain in-depth legal expertise to support you in your role, developing a keen understanding of theory, doctrine and practice across key areas such as employment law, contract law, family law, tort law, land law, and dispute resolution.

Whether you’re training to become a lawyer, seeking specialisation within your current legal career, or gaining legal knowledge to apply within an organisation or business, our 100%-online, self-guided programme – designed for individuals from both legal and non-legal backgrounds – will equip you with the skills and knowledge to succeed.

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