ON THE NATURE OF TOLERANCE:
Dichotomous or Continuous?*
James L. Gibson
The purpose of this article is to reconsider the claim made recently by Mondak and
Sanders that political tolerance ought to be thought to be a dichotomous rather than
continuous variable. Using data from both Russia and the United States, I demonstrate
that those Mondak and Sanders regard as uniquely tolerant are most likely no more
than people who were given insufﬁcient opportunity to express their intolerance. Even
if such a phenomenon of ‘‘absolute tolerance’’ exists (all ideas expressed in all ways are
to be tolerated), it is sufﬁciently rare that few practical implications are indicated for
those doing empirical work on political tolerance and intolerance.
Key words: political tolerance; measurement; dichotomous concepts.
In a recent article, Mondak and Sanders (2003, 496, emphasis in the
original) contended that ‘‘the question of tolerance versus intolerance is
inherently dichotomous, not continuous.’’ What they mean by this is that
some people will tolerate virtually anything by anybody, whereas the rest of
the population is intolerant to at least some degree (even if it varies in both
the breadth and depth of intolerance). They argue that it is useful to think
of tolerance as a concept referring only to those who would allow all forms
of dissent by all types of dissenters. They claim ‘‘that assessments of toler-
ance and intolerance logically involve two questions: whether individuals are
tolerant or intolerant, and, among the intolerant, whether that intolerance is
broad or narrow in scope’’ (2003, 497).
The idea that tolerance and intoler-
ance do not deﬁne the end-points of a continuous, unidimensional construct
Department of Political Science, Washington University in St. Louis, Campus Box 1063, 219
Eliot Hall, St. Louis, MO 63130-4899, United States; Fellow, Centre for Comparative and
International Politics, Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch, South Africa.
*I appreciate the valuable comments of Jeffcry Mondak on an earlier version of this paper.
Political Behavior, Vol. 27, No. 4, December 2005 (
0190-9320/05/1200-0313/0 Ó 2005 Springer ScienceþBusiness Media, Inc.