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Looking for social class and civil society in political discourse in Portuguese democracy (1976-2006) - content analysis approach

Paula do Espírito Santo


O discurso político dá uma pista importante acerca da importância de conceitos-chave com relevância política ideológica, no sistema político. Este é o caso da classe social, da religião e dos partidos políticos, considerando o seu papel em termos políticos e eleitorais. O conceito de classe social tem sido longa e amplamente debatido na sociologia política. A sua importância na linguagem e no discurso políticos constitui o objeto desta investigação. O foco deste estudo é a importância da classe social, considerando a segmentação dos diferentes grupos da sociedade civil citados no discurso político. O objetivo é analisar os discursos políticos do ator político mais importante do país, o Presidente da República. O enfoque da análise centra-se no período a partir das primeiras fases na democracia Português após a Revolução de Abril, de 1974, e estende-se até 2006. A técnica de análise de conteúdo será a utilizada para esta concretização. Os resultados esperados apontam para a perda de importância da classe social, como conceito-chave tradicional, o qual evoluiu de modo bastante extensivo, na sua aplicação a mensagens políticas contemporâneas. Este estudo tende a convergir com a literatura dominante que elaborou sobre a perda estrutural e permanente da importância do conceito de classe social na política, incluindo em termos eleitorais.

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Notas da redacção

Received: June 23, 2013

Accepted: September 17, 2014

Texto integral

1. Class concept

1The aim of this research is to analyse the place and importance of social class in political discourse. Connected to this concept, civil society will be central and analysed from the standpoint of content analysis technique. Considering the large extension of subsidiary concepts in this domain, speech segmentation content analysis indicators will cover a wide range of social, political, cultural subsystems or structures within the state (see tables 1, 2 and 3).

2Social class was one of the most evolutionary concepts throughout the 19th and 20th centuries and can be expected to continue to intrigue scientists in the 21st, at least regarding its functions and role in society and politics. Based on the 19th century Marxist vision of class struggle, contributions have regularly revised the effective impact of social class on society and politics. In fact, social class has been one of the most debated concepts at least in socio-political terms. Class struggle was studied by Ortega y Gasset (1930), who translated its severe vision of strength and homogeneity, working systematically to influence the state's political paths, in the form of the ‘mass-man’. Other contributions have emphasized the concept of social class in its traditional protests, homogeneity and distance from the political elite and government (Hoggart, 1957). In Britain, social class and religion (Anglicans versus Non-Conformists) was an important electoral and political factor in the early 20th century (Norris, 1997). Also, according to Norris (1997), the difference between contexts is evident in terms of social class and religion. For instance, while social class was important in Sweden from the 80s on, in the USA its influence in electoral terms was smaller and in Britain it was somewhere in the middle. Religion was much more important in the USA than in the other two democracies. Toffler’s (1980) Third Wave exhaustively documented the deep changes in Western society, which were a result of all the changes in technology, including areas such as medicine and aeronautics, leading to a new ‘white-collar’ class society. Bourdieu (1989) stressed the importance of the ruling culture and class as a powerful integrative social factor, the basis of the dominated classes’ demobilisation and the legitimacy of the functional role of the hierarchical order.

3Several contributions have analysed the decline of class voting and its political and electoral importance (Lipset, 1959; Inglehart, 1977; Inglehart, 1990; Inglehart & Abramson, 1995; Dalton, 1996a), much anchored on the 60s so called ‘silent revolution’, and a great emphasis on self-expression and defence of life quality high standards. Also in the sixties, Western democracies experienced a decline in religion and social class as independent variables that could no longer explain political and electoral behaviour (Lipset, Rokkan, 1967). The loss of importance of the social class variable was clear in such geographically distant democracies as Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany and Japan (Lipset, 1959). However, other social class related categories such as the ‘wealth effect’ (Capdevielle, Dupoirier, 1981) or the business sector (Singly, Thelot, 1988) have also contributed to the effects of social class on political and electoral behaviour, due to the new effective differentiation introduced by these characteristics. Also Dalton et al. stressed the importance of discussing electoral change as a regular, permanent factor deriving from shakier social alignments (Dalton, Flanagan, Beck, 1984). Dalton's (1996b) contribution based on WVS data for 18 countries (1990-91) stressed the loss of class's importance in the USA, Canada, Portugal and Japan. However, the opposite was the case in Norway, Denmark, Austria, Iceland and Britain. In fact, according to Espírito Santo (2006: 240), “the importance of social class must be constantly reviewed, as its trends do not follow a linear pattern”. The loss of importance of social class in Portugal, as a traditional ‘anchor of partisanship’, brings up the recognition that, even so, democracy will survive. Though, generally, social class is no longer a central issue to democracy, in a longitudinal comparison, it will certainly be, indefinitely, a sensitive feature, in each nations’ political culture and political system.

4Knutsen and Scarbrough (1995) reviewed the concept of political cleavage on the basis of its three basic dimensions (social structure, value orientations and party support) and the importance of religion and social class as indicators of social structure, which was still prevalent in some less industrialised democracies (such as Ireland and somewhat less in Portugal). Other contributions have emphasised the importance and evidence of the ‘democratic social class struggle’ as a fundamental electoral impulse, considering the traditional conflict between white and blue-collar workers, as analysed in several western democracies from 1945 to 1990 (Nieuwbeerta, Dirk de Graff, 1999: 23). We can say that social change is prevalent and fast nowadays, meaning that social class may still be a pioneer and vital driver of politics in Western democracies.

5Civil society is the starting point and the broad categorical concept in this analysis. In this context, our inquiry focuses on social class as an operative concept. Civil society as a category is based on a diversity of indicators and is supported by classical contributions that have enhanced its permanent change and adequacy to the state and nation’s inner functions, characteristics and cultural and socio-economic vicissitudes. From Machiavelli's ‘civic virtue’ to the power of Locke's ‘controlling majority’ or the importance of Kant's ‘community’ and ‘civic integration’, there have been a number of philosophical and socio-political contributions that have helped to sustain an increasingly complex, wide, alive and mobile concept. The diversity of civil society as a fundamental systemic element is consensual. According to Delue, civil society includes different kinds of group structures that may be family based, as well as of a religious nature. It can be professional or neighbour based too and so on. It’s systemic and autonomous structure that “does exist outside the formal structures of Government” (Delue, 1997: 13). The political importance of civil society was also analysed by Oakeshott (1991 [1962]), based on the importance of the close relations that support organizational structures and private objects and interests of civil society groups. He argues that there is a constant search for a balance between civitas and universitas and a permanent predisposition to achieve a responsible concept of freedom as an ideal human condition (Oakeshott, 1962/1991). The question about the importance of civil society membership appears as a secondary issue, in terms of political behavior, at least in transnational terms, stated by o Kotzian and Steffer (2013). According to these: “Membership CSOs neither differ substantially from non-member CSOs in their political behaviour, nor they differ in important aspects of legitimacy, such as transparency or effects to include beneficiaries” (Kotzian and Steffer, 2013: 55). Bellucci, Maraffi and Segatti (2007), discuss the role of non-political voluntary associations, in terms of social participation, considering its different degrees of politicization and the way they interfere on electoral turnout and partisan choice. The associations’ repercussions on the political system are quite different and complex, accordingly to the different contexts and social conditions fomented. In spite of the importance of associations, in older democracies, there isn’t a regular pattern in terms of forseeing better or higher voting involvement in those cases.

6Civil society is a recipient of each nation and democracy. Civil society is one of the most important categories operative concepts and effective elements of nation. Though democracy is an evolutionary concept, the stage at each moment of a state’s history depends, strongly, on the democratization process conducted by its leaders and undertaken by civil society. To find out how civil society and social class are important and revealed through the words of the highest leader of a nation, the President, may give an important insight about how people can be relevant in the vision of the nation’s most fundamental figurehead. In the case of a considerably recent democracy, such as Portugal, this relevance is higher. For a long period civil society and class were exiguous as political categories (in 1974, the ‘carnation’ revolution opened the Portuguese democratic process, with free elections and political freedom, after 48 years of a dictatorial regime headed by Oliveira Salazar).

2. Methodology

7This research includes a set of political speeches made by the President from the first democratic presidential elections in 1976 to 2006. The content considered is the Portuguese Presidents' inauguration speeches to the nation when they took office. This is one of the classical political speeches in Portugal and it, symbolically, represents a moment of cohesion in the political elite and between the President and the Portuguese people in all political, social and economic spectrums.

8The first democratic presidential elections after the 1974 Revolution took place in 1976. Presidential elections in Portugal are held every five years and each presidential term can only be renewed once. Since 1976 each President has served two terms, adding to a total of four Presidents from 1976 to 2006. In 2006, Aníbal Cavaco Silva won the elections as the first candidate supported by the right wing parties, including the PPD/PSD (Popular Democratic Party/Social Democratic Party).

9This research is based on content analysis. The use of this technique and its concept is, currently, based on contributions made by early 20th-century American authors, such as political research and developments by Harold Lasswell, Bernard Berelson, Paul Lazarsfeld. From an early quantitative view, from the eighties on, there was a revitalisation of an already used but not so far, academically, accepted qualitative approach. This research uses simple frequencies (Bardin, 1977, 2001; Bryman, Hardy, 2009), and also a qualitative approach based on the interpretation of singular features of the research content (Krippendorf, 1980; Babbie, 2008).

10The use of content analysis applied to political speeches has had multiple approaches that differ widely but are consistent considering the type of material, the subject of the analysis and multiple research approaches, that are usually based on a quantitative and, when appropriate, quantitative and mathematically sophisticated analysis (Kernell, 1997; Laver, Benoit and Garry, 2003; Eshbaugh-Soha, 2006). Kernell (1997) focused on the political speeches’ effects (considering the American Congress, public leadership and management strategies and abilities). Laver, Benoit and Garry (2003) proposed a new content analysis model, based on a ‘language-blind’ scheme, supported on the attribution of a ‘score’ to words and uncertainty mathematic measure algorithm. This contribution sought to furnish a new tool for the analysis and interpretation of political positions, useful in terms of long corpora, which, indeed, may open the discussion, considering new analysis insights. These corpora are often replicated by different agents, with different intentions. So, the considered tool might be useful as far as long public speech and debate are concerned. In terms of the effects of speech, Eshbaugh-Soha (2006: 1) considered speech as a source of presidential power, and devoted the use of content analysis to the discussion of the strategic effects of speech, in political and social terms.

11Considering the present contribution, the indicators structure organization was, directly, supported on a previous contribution (Espírito Santo, 2007), concerning the same corpora of speeches (1976-2006). The later contribution analysed these speeches from a broader perspective, including all the key issues, categories and indicators that could be organized in these speeches considering a so-called ‘miles’ (Bardin, 1977; 2001) perspective. In Espírito Santo (2007) there is a range of categories comprising a set of: socio-political representations; political and ideological representations; systems and political structures; institutions and political bodies; political and religious features; and civil society (see figure 1). This present research focuses on the last one, ‘civil society’, which is the broadest (multiple indicators) and has the richest (diverse or heterogeneous indicators) set of indicators, especially in the first two presidential terms, during the post-revolutionary period (1976 to1981) and President António Ramalho Eanes (see tables 1, 2 and 3). In the former contribution, the objectives and, particularly, the scope of analysis were centred on the speeches’ different contents angles, considering the categories mentioned above. The intention was to compare left and right wing supported Presidential speeches, in terms of the main categories represented in these contents, above mentioned too. Espírito Santo (2007: 63) looked for a systematization of the “objectives, values, symbols and patterns of communication, seen in a socio-political angle, through the eyes of the highest personality in the State, the President”. It stressed that, even in the early years of the Portuguese democracy, and throughout the 30 years of political speech, there is a moderate speech, in political and ideological terms. The dominant characteristic, in political communication terms, is that the President develops a conciliated ability with political agents and institutions and civil society. This characteristic was pursued and developed, as a common political culture trait, considering the Portuguese Presidents acting, during the maturing process of the Portuguese democracy, since 1974. “The first discourse is categorical and symbolical of the beginning of the Presidential functions. Political conciliation and integration has been a fundamental objective of the Highest Figure in the Nation, in this first moment of his official entry in political and public State life” (Espírito Santo, 2007: 78).

12The extensive corpora of 30 years of Inauguration Presidential speeches (presented just after elections) were the origin of the categories and indicators making process. The research units used were based in the ‘word’ and ‘sentence’ counting units. The construction of indicators was supported in a set of principles: internal homogeneity; exhaustiveness; mutual exclusion; pertinence; objectivity and productivity, following a validity process much anchored in Bardin’s (1977, 2001) contribution. The corpora analysed allowed finding redundancy within the codification process, in order to achieve a stabilized set of indicators.

13 The former contribution (Espírito Santo, 2007) opened an important space in terms of further research for developing the role of ‘civil society’, considering its enormous segmentation in indicators content analysis terms, and its importance in democratic terms. Having this objective in mind, the present contribution isolated the ‘civil society’ category, the larger and structured part within these corpora (30 years of President political speeches, including seven speeches). The present objective is to find out the presence and connection of social class to civil society, both eminent categories, in democratic terms. The question in this research is: how did civil society grew and developed throughout 30 years, in speech terms, considering its importance in a recent democracy, such as Portugal, where people should be central in the public speech and, consequently, in the democratic system?

14Consequently, the hypothesis made aims to analyse to the political importance of people as a fundamental category for a democratic State. The research hypothesis is the following: civil society is, highly, segmented in terms of indicators. However, the civil society category does not include enough different social and economic agents to give a consistent, clear characterisation of the concept of social class in all its political diversity, richness and heterogeneity.

3. Results

15In the post-revolutionary speeches (1976 and 1981) there is a clearly distinct use of the social class concept considering different relevant agents and groups, while later speeches (from 1986 onwards) did not represent the social class concept but rather used the civil society concept and category, in its broader sense, neither socially nor economically anchored. This later vision of civil society is independent of considering left-wing political speeches or President Cavaco Silva's right wing discourse.

16The concept of civil society has a wide set of indicators, most of which do not reflect any kind of political or economic position. With the wide civil society category as a starting point we went on to find a closer relationship between it and the social and economic context in the speech's conceptual references. The social class concept in this research is, highly, dependent on fundamental indicators anchored in the civil society category. These conceptual indicators embody the groups, activities and actions that define specific symbolic connections to society and to the political system. In concrete terms, we include within social class each indicator that can give a sufficiently diverse social, economic or political position. Conceptual indicators also reflect specific systemic anchoring, in spite of a concrete, symbolic political commitment to their context.

17In presidential inauguration speeches after the 1974 revolution, the use of civil society, as a categorical concept was most frequent in the first two, with Eanes (1976, 1981) and Sampaio (2001). However, in the latter case, the civil society concept was less rich in diversity than with Eanes (1976, 1981) (see tables 1, 2 and 3).

18The revolutionary period brought up a new extensive and rich use of new political categories derived from the importance of civil society’s power and ability to participate in the political system. However, generally the speeches, made over a 20-year period, are not anchored in social class terms. The indicators used, most within the broader concept of civil society, were quite neutral, such as ‘people’, ‘citizens’, ‘society’, ‘populations’ and ‘voters’. These expressions do not include any specific socio-economic connotations. They also reflect a careful political meaning, in terms of an expected nationwide democratic discourse, the intention of which is to maintain social and political cohesion. The exception to this is the use made by Cavaco Silva (2006) when referring to the ‘business class’ and the ‘political class’. This President, was elected supported by a right wing ideological basis, anchored in PSD (social democratic party) and CDS/PP (democratic and social centre/popular party). This President was, politically, conservative and was elected with the support of an important part of the economic elite.

  • 1 “À classe empresarial cabe ser o agente motor da mudança nas empresas, fomentando modernização tecn (...)

19Quoting Cavaco Silva (2006)1:

“Business class is the agent of change in companies, by fostering technological upgrading, innovation in products and processes by promoting human resources development, encouraging creativity and rewarding merit”.

  • 2 Num momento de muitas preocupações, em que há tanta coisa difícil para fazer, os Portugueses gostar (...)

20Cavaco Silva (2006)2

“At a time of high concern, when there are so many difficult things to do, the Portuguese would certainly appreciate to know that the political class is, as far as is possible in a democracy, willing to join efforts to overcome differences and to work together”.

21On the other hand, Jorge Sampaio, a President elected with a majority of the leftist votes, and himself a socialist, referred to the ‘political class’ too. However, he did so in order to criticize its use.

  • 3 Temos que criar organizações menos fechadas e mais abertas à cidadania. Esta é a razão porque, em d (...)

22Jorge Sampaio (2001)3

“We have to create organizations which are less shut and more open to citizenship. This is why, in a democracy, it is not appropriate to speak of ‘political class’. Politicians cannot and should not constitute a class based on any corporate solidarity of interests or privileges”.

Table 1. Civil society members in inaugural speeches by Portuguese Presidents between 1976 and 2006

Table 1. Civil society members in inaugural speeches by Portuguese Presidents between 1976 and 2006

A – The people B - a. citizens; b. fellow citizens; c. democratic citizens; d. patriots C - a. socialist society; b. society; c. civil society D - populations/inhabitants E – workers F - trade union and cooperative activity G – the unemployed H - displaced persons from Africa I - voters/electorate J – opinions

Figure 1 – General view about values prevailing in presidential inauguration speeches

Figure 1 – General view about values prevailing in presidential inauguration speeches

Source: Espírito Santo, 2007

Table 2. Civil society members in inaugural speeches by Portuguese Presidents between 1976 and 2006

Table 2. Civil society members in inaugural speeches by Portuguese Presidents between 1976 and 2006

A – Emigrants B - African immigrants C – Immigrants D – Minorities E – Majority F - Lobbies G - Civic and political associations H – Business class
I – Political class
* New indicator

Table 3. Civil society members in inaugural speeches by Portuguese Presidents between 1976 and 2006

Table 3. Civil society members in inaugural speeches by Portuguese Presidents between 1976 and 2006

23The speeches analysed did, however, have a political and economic feature, which can be found again in the wide civil society category. The use of intentionally socially distinctive expressions, such as ‘socialist society’, ‘workers’, ‘trade union activity’, ‘unemployed’, ‘entrepreneurs’, ‘investors’, ‘minorities and ‘majorities’ reveal a clear political and even ideological intention. This intention was shown almost exclusively in the two speeches made up to the early eighties by President Eanes, a serving general who was the first President elected after the April 1974 revolution. After Eanes, the next Presidents were Mário Soares (1986, 1991), Jorge Sampaio (1996, 2001) and Cavaco Silva (2006). These Presidents were civilians who represented a range of political deep social, economic and, essentially, political changes and evolution (e.g. the Portugal ECC adhesion in 1986) that helped to consolidate the Portuguese democratic regime.

24 Social class has not been a political discourse concept, at least since the eighties, based on the words of the Presidents' most significant political speech. However, there is a wide, multiple, rich use of the civil society concept, which can be said to be politically and especially ideologically neutral. In political terms, civil society is a pragmatic concept aimed intentionally at the nation's cohesion and conciliation. In other words, the use made of civil society, politically, in discourse terms, by the Chief of the Nation, was rather careful. The discourse meant to achieve clearly a wider and neutral perspective of inclusion, in political participation terms. There is an evident intention of building and transmitting a balanced and inclusive political message.

25 The study's hypothesis was confirmed: civil society is highly segmented in terms of indicators. However, the civil society category does not include enough different social and economic agents to give a consistent, clear characterisation of the concept of social class in all its political diversity, richness and heterogeneity.

26 The misuse of the social class concept, meaning the lack of an extensive and detailed use of its broader formulations, is significant and might be inferred as intentional. We find, within this argumentative context, an intention to build a balanced compromise between a set of public influences and agents over a significant time, aiming to achieve broader, more inclusive political consensus in the public arena. In the first 30 years of Portuguese democracy, we find a systematic search for an extensive over-classed meaning for civil society's role in the democratic system, in the first public address with one of the most important political messages in a democratic system, the presidential inaugural speech. In other words, there is a clear political awareness that the state's performance depends on systematic building of a permanent, strong, cohesive socially based political subsystem. Despite the vital importance of social class as a ‘pioneer and vital engine of politics’, as discussed above, its absence or marginal use, in official political discourse, might be considered a sign of its latent political power and strength. The general conception of ‘civil society’, as a broader and inter-classist concept, might be considered a natural political discursive strategy aiming to bring the different sides of the political bridges inside the democratic system. We conclude that in contrast with a hypothetically class and ideology oriented propaganda message, the official presidential speech is a more civil-society oriented message, designed to reinforce broader political consensus about the President's character and performance, as the nation's highest authority. To deepen the research into the meaning of social class in propaganda discourse might be a significant challenge for obtaining substantive data about the way this fundamental political category has been used to achieve better electoral results and greater electoral participation.

Final remarks

27Social class may be a significant element in political discourse. Having this key reason in mind, this article’s aim was to draw conclusions on the use and the misuse of the concept of social class through construction of a contextual category concept, civil society, providing the basic indicators for achieving the goal above. Considering this analysis corpus, it is clear that, except for the speeches up to the early 1980, the issue of social class, as a concept linked to civil society, is not reflected in speeches by the state's highest Officer, the President. We can conclude, having in mind the importance of the President's first political speech to the nation that the tendency from the eighties on has been towards a more political and less socio-economic class discourse. In fact, it seems that the importance of social class in political discourse may tend to disappear or to lose its relevance if we consider a trend that denotes a mischaracterization of the discourse, in terms of the different civil society groups. Formal presidential political speeches seem not to be class oriented, and do not regard class as a supporting argument for achieving legitimacy or larger audiences. One of the possible answers for the misuse of class expressions may be the decreasing presence of ideology as a field and context for presidential speeches, in Portuguese public democracy. Ideology and class have not gone out of fashion in presidential speeches simply because ideology and class are not presidential arguments. The speeches' neutrality and a general lack of brilliance seem to be a common feature of all political cycles and personalities, even when positioned on different sides of the political combat. In other words, the President's first speech seems to contrast with the former period and the inflamed propaganda speeches during the electoral campaign. The President's first speech is his opportunity to unite the different sides of the political battle and is a different discourse designed to place the office at a higher level in the political arena.

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1 “À classe empresarial cabe ser o agente motor da mudança nas empresas, fomentando modernização tecnológica, a inovação nos produtos e nos processos, promovendo a qualificação dos recursos humanos, incentivando a criatividade e premiando o mérito”.

2 Num momento de muitas preocupações, em que há tanta coisa difícil para fazer, os Portugueses gostariam certamente de perceber que a classe política está, até onde em democracia é possível, disposta a juntar esforços para ultrapassar diferenças e fazer obra em comum.

3 Temos que criar organizações menos fechadas e mais abertas à cidadania. Esta é a razão porque, em democracia, não é adequado falar-se em “classe política”. Os políticos não podem nem devem constituir uma classe assente numa qualquer solidariedade corporativa de interesses ou privilégios.

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Índice das ilustrações

Título Table 1. Civil society members in inaugural speeches by Portuguese Presidents between 1976 and 2006
Legenda Legend: A – The people B - a. citizens; b. fellow citizens; c. democratic citizens; d. patriots C - a. socialist society; b. society; c. civil society D - populations/inhabitants E – workers F - trade union and cooperative activity G – the unemployed H - displaced persons from Africa I - voters/electorate J – opinions
Ficheiro image/png, 13k
Título Figure 1 – General view about values prevailing in presidential inauguration speeches
Legenda Source: Espírito Santo, 2007
Ficheiro image/png, 9,2k
Título Table 2. Civil society members in inaugural speeches by Portuguese Presidents between 1976 and 2006
Legenda Legend:A – Emigrants B - African immigrants C – Immigrants D – Minorities E – Majority F - Lobbies G - Civic and political associations H – Business class I – Political class * New indicator
Ficheiro image/png, 11k
Título Table 3. Civil society members in inaugural speeches by Portuguese Presidents between 1976 and 2006
Ficheiro image/png, 11k
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Referência eletrónica

Paula do Espírito Santo, «Looking for social class and civil society in political discourse in Portuguese democracy (1976-2006) - content analysis approach »Comunicação Pública [Online], vol.10 nº 18 | 2015, posto online no dia 15 outubro 2015, consultado o 23 janeiro 2022. URL:; DOI:

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Paula do Espírito Santo

Instituto Superior de Ciências Sociais e Políticas (ISCSP)
Centro de Administração e Políticas Públicas (CAPP)
Universidade de Lisboa (ULisboa)
Rua Almerindo Lessa
1300-663 Lisbon, Portugal
Tel. (00) (351) 213 619 430

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