We propose a complex systems approach to the study of political belief systems, to overcome some of the fragmentation in the current scholarship on ideology. We review relevant work in psychology, sociology, and political science and identify major cleavages in the literature: the spatial vs. non-spatial divide (ideologies as reducible to a spatially organized set of dimensions vs. as complex conceptual structures) and the person-group problem (ideologies as driven by psychological needs of individuals vs. by institutional and power structures of society). We argue that construing ideologies as conceptual networks of cognitive-affective representations embedded in social networks of people may provide a path for bridging these existing gaps and epistemological disputes. Tools from cognitive science and computational social science such as cognitive-affective mapping, connectionist simulations, and agent-based modeling are appropriate methods for a new research program that substantiates our complex systems perspective on ideology.
We describe and illustrate a new method of graphically diagramming disputants’ points of view called cognitive-affective mapping. The products of this method—cognitive-affective maps (CAMs)—represent an individual’s concepts and beliefs about a particular subject, such as another individual or group or an issue in dispute. Each of these concepts and beliefs has its own emotional value. The result is a detailed image of a disputant’s complex belief system that can assist in-depth analysis of the ideational sources of the dispute and thereby aid its resolution. We illustrate the method with representations of the beliefs of typical individuals involved in four contemporary disputes of markedly different type: a clash over German housing policy, disagreements between Israelis over the meaning of the Western Wall, contention surrounding exploitation of Canada’s bitumen resources, and the deep dispute between people advocating action on climate change and those skeptical about the reality of the problem.