British Journal of Political Science

Research Article

Informal Social Networks and Rational Voting

Samuel Abrams, Torben Iversen and David Soskice*


Classical rational choice explanations of voting participation are widely thought to have failed. This article argues that the currently dominant Group Mobilization and Ethical Agency approaches have serious shortcomings in explaining individually rational turnout. It develops an informal social network (ISN) model in which people rationally vote if their informal networks of family and friends attach enough importance to voting, because voting leads to social approval and vice versa. Using results from the social psychology literature, research on social groups in sociology and their own survey data, the authors argue that the ISN model can explain individually rational non-altruistic turnout. If group variables that affect whether voting is used as a marker of individual standing in groups are included, the likelihood of turnout rises dramatically.

(Online publication December 10 2010)


* Abrams, Faculty of Politics, Sarah Lawrence College (email:; Iversen, Department of Government, Harvard University (email:; Soskice, Department of Political Science, Duke University, and Nuffield College, Oxford (email: This article was originally prepared for presentation at the 2005 Comparative Political Economy Workshop at the Center for European Studies, Harvard University. The authors thank John Aldrich, Jim Alt, Geoff Brennan, Jorge Dominguez, Mark Franklin, Bernie Grofman, Peter Hall, Arthur Lupia, Philipp Rehm, Ken Shepsle, Ken Scheve, Carole Uhlaner, Hugh Ward and the participants at a meeting,‘Empirical Implications of Theoretical Models’, in 2005 at the University of California-Berkeley for helpful comments.