Nearly every study of political knowledge focuses on what people know about the nation or the world. Rarely do we see studies that focus on local political knowledge. It turns out, that can matter -- especially in understanding differences based on race or gender.
Public Opinion Quarterly (Fall 2012) looks at what factors predict knowledge at the local versus national level. The differences are fascinating.
Take race, for example. In general, whites outperform blacks on nearly every published study of political knowledge. Keep in mind nearly all studies focus on national or international knowledge (who is Speaker of House, who is Prime Minister of the U.K., etc.). In the study published by Lee Shaker at Portland State University, the national survey reflects this basic finding found over and over again. Even controlling statistically for other factors, such as education and income, blacks do poorly compared to whites, women do poorly compared to men.
Ah, but on local issues, it all changes.
In local knowledge, the differences between blacks and whites, or between women and men, disappear.
I can be PhDweebish about this and report regression coefficients, but instead just take my word for it. On the index of questions measuring national knowledge, blacks (and women) do significantly less well than whites (and men). On the index of questions measuring local political knowledge, being black plays no role. Nor does being a woman.
The survey was conducted, I assume, while Shaker was a doctoral student at Annenberg given the data is about Philadelphia (and national) politics. There are several questions that make up the local and national scales, all reasonable items you'd expect to find in such a survey.
The study also examines what predicts being a "know-nothing" at the local and national level. In other words, who makes up the segment of society who are clueless about politics -- at least as measured by political scientists and fellow travelers. The results are similar to above. Being black, after controlling for a bunch of other factors, does predict your likelihood of being categorized as a "know-nothing" at the national level, but it is negative predictor at the local level. In other words, being black makes you less likely as to be categorized as a know-nothing at the local level. On gender, men were less likely than women to be categorized as such at the national level. At the local level, no difference is seen.
I'd take this as a good news-bad news result, obviously. I'd love it if race and education and all the other factors that tend to predict political knowledge no longer actually predicted knowledge. That's damned unlikely. As Shaker notes, "Different citizens are knowledgeable about different matters based on relevance, accessibility, and aptitude." That's researchspeak that means, simply put, different stuff matters to different people, and local Philly news apparently matters a lot more to blacks there than national news.
Maybe these findings are unique to Philly, maybe not. But it's useful to ask, this local vs. national methodological question, because it probably says a lot about access and relevance, about knowledge that matters or is perceived as mattering.