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Studier i symbolpolitik


  • Peter Santesson-Wilson

Summary, in English

Symbolic politics is the degree to which political decision-making is motivated, not by the tangible aspects of the decision, but by the interpretation of what the decision represents symbolically. While symbolic politics is widely recognized as an important aspect of political decision-making, the phenomenon is insufficiently explored in political science. The first aim of the present dissertation is to develop and systematize concepts and mechanisms necessary for the study of symbolic politics. The second aim is to make a preliminary evaluation of the explanatory power of the suggested concepts. This is done by applying the concepts in two case studies of current Swedish policy-making. The first case is a study of the decision in 2000 to give state subsidies to broadband Internet connections. The second case is a study of the decision in 1997 to commence the nuclear power phase-out by closing the Barsebäck nuclear power plant. Symbolic politics is suggested to be defined negatively, as being those aspects of a political decision that are not tangible. The taxonomy of symbolic politics consists of four varieties: categories, principles, examples, and expressions. Categories are ways to create a symbolic connection between political issues by cognitively grouping them together. Principles are ways to give the categorization normative implications: since the issues are alike, they should be treated alike. Examples are instances where a single member of the group is offered as prototypical example of the entire group. An expression is the communicative use of political decisions, a deliberate signal or an unintended symptom of the actor’s intentions. The taxonomy of symbolic politics can be incorporated in general theories of policy processes and political decision-making. Categories play an integral part of almost all public policy theories, and can help to explain problem-definition processes. Principles are techniques to expand the scope of a political conflict and mobilize new groups of actors. Examples are important to raise attention, both on an individual level, and on the political agenda. Expressions can be used both to expand and to contract the scope of a political conflict. The first case study, the broadband decision in 2000, reveals a mixture of instrumental and symbolic factors explaining the decision. Broadband connections were used as a prototypical example of Internet and information technology. In order to signal governmental commitment to it, the social democratic government changed their previously demand-based policy towards a more supply-oriented one. The second case study, the decision in 1997 to commence the nuclear power phase-out by closing the Barsebäck nuclear power plant, reveals a similar mixture of motives. It was decided in 1980 that all Swedish nuclear power should be phased-out before 2010. Fifteen years on, the credibility of this decision had successively eroded. By closing one nuclear reactor, and thereby sending a signal reassuring of the government’s commitment to the phase-out, it was possible to abandon the 2010-limit without being accused of disrespecting the popular will. The symbolic political taxonomy is concluded to hold enough promise to warrant further elaboration.

Publishing year





Lund Political Studies



Document type



Department of Political Science, Lund University


  • Political Science


  • Political and administrative sciences
  • nuclear power
  • information technology
  • policy studies
  • symbolic politics
  • decision-making
  • Statsvetenskap
  • förvaltningskunskap




  • [unknown] [unknown]


  • ISSN: 0460-0037
  • ISBN: 91-88306-31-3

Defence date

26 May 2003

Defence time


Defence place

Carolinasalen, Kungshuset, Lund


  • Gunnar Falkemark (Docent)