Civic engagment – defined and redefined

Civic engagement – defined and redefined

Neta Kligler Vilenchik

 As our research team is interested in the ways in which groups that gather around shared interest and participatory culture may ‘evolve’ into civic and political engagement, the question of how to define these spheres of engagement has been raised several times.

Questions of terminology are of particular importance to our work, on several levels. First, we strive to understand how members of the organizations we are interested in define their own participation. Do they see it as charity? volunteering? civic engagement? political action? Second, and while taking into account the definitions used by interviewees, we need to establish the terms through which we as researchers discuss and interpret these activities. The terms and definitions we use must, in turn, be established in relationship and through conversation with other terms and definitions used in academia, whether in communication or in other, related disciplines. Finally, the ways in which we define these groups’ forms of engagement also have wider implications to the point we wish to make with our research. While being observers, we also have our own stake, in striving for wider forms of civic and political participation of young people to be acknowledged, accepted and valued.

                In this blog post, I would like to survey some work that was been done in the political science literature, which calls for accepting wider forms of civic participation of young people. The field of political science is often considered, within and outside of that discipline, as the ‘authority’ for questions of forms of political action[1]. Surveying this work serves to show the contribution of our own work, which calls for a dual widening of the sphere of the political: both in terms of the types of action that is acknowledged, and in regards to the diversified styles of action that is valued.

                A good starting point for this discussion is what Shea and Green (2007, p. 5) call “the myth of self-centered, apathetic younger Americans”. This refers to the view, common both in lay discussion and in many parts of academia, that young people in America are lazy, selfish, self-absorbed, and apathetic to civic matters. This myth, as Shea and Green quickly show, is very much mistaken. They cite studies showing that volunteering rates are higher among young people than among older adults, and higher among young people today than they were among the same age-group 20 years ago (see Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement). In contrast to what many think, young people volunteer not only due to service requirements in high schools and in order to be admitted to college, but—according to the amount of time donated—much beyond that. This tendency can furthermore be seen not only in college candidates, but throughout different ethnic groups and socioeconomic classes. Shea and Green conclude (2007, p. 5): “young Americans are anything but apathetic and immoral”.

                Why then the gap between reality and common perceptions? Here comes the main point Shea and Green (2007) are trying to make. Along with a group of academics (e.g. Longo, 2004; Colby, 2008), they are worried that while young people increase their civic engagement, this does not extend, and even comes instead of, political involvement: “While youngsters seem more than willing to lend a hand cleaning up streams, helping others learn to read, and volunteering at the community soup kitchen, they shun politics—the very process that could produce solutions to polluted streams, poverty and adult illiteracy” (p. 8). Longo (2004) calls this the “scissor effect”—the claim that while young people volunteer much more (Longo, p. 63, calls this “service politics”), but participate much less in actual politics. The alleged reason for this is that young Americans feel marginalized with the political process, and so prefer to volunteer in specific projects, which enables them to feel immediate, concrete paybacks of their involvement. This is seen as creating “nothing less than a crisis of our democracy” (Longo, 2004, p. 61).

                In fact, this view may be outdated, as recent findings show that political conversation among college freshmen in 2008 was at its highest in the last 40 years, and keeping up-to-date with politics was increasing (Higher Education Research Institute, 2009). But even if this were not the case, the problem with this point is the clear distinction it creates between political participation and civic engagement/volunteering. Political participation is implicitly defined here as engagement that happens within party politics, whereas volunteering—while appreciated—is deemed as politically insignificant[2]. But does this distinction hold water?

Consider the case of Mara. Mara, 22, was interviewed as a member of the LA chapter of the Harry Potter Alliance. Mara defines herself as politically active in a wide range of issues she sees as important, such as libertarian groups, gay rights groups, Jewish groups. Mara spends between an hour and two hours daily (!) as an ‘online activist’. She subscribes to the mailing lists of dozens of political groups, both ones she agrees with, and one she doesn’t, receiving and reading around 25 political emails a day. She researches about these groups, and uses her connection to groups she disagrees with in order to resist their efforts and send her own messages. For example, if an anti-gay-rights group calls members to protest companies that seem to support gay rights, she sends those same companies emails with the opposite message, calling them not to cave to the pressure of such groups. Several times a month, Mara attends events of the different groups she belongs to, and has been part of beach clean-ups, book donations, commemoration of soldiers and war victims, and other activities. But Mara is not registered for a political party, and sees the Democrats as being no better than the Republicans. According to traditional definitions, which see political action as occurring within the frames of party politics, Mara may be seen as another “disengaged young American”.

                This aspect of participation, however, is not completely lost within the political science literature. One example is Russell Dalton’s book The Good Citizen (2008). Refuting the argument of declining political participation among young people, Dalton calls to accept new forms of political activism. According to this argument, what is changing are the norms of citizenship: duty-based norms of citizenship, the ones stimulating political voting, are declining. However, “engaged citizens apparently are not so drawn to elections, but prefer more direct forms of political action, such as working with public interest groups, boycotts, or contentious actions” (Dalton, 2008, p. 55). Dalton claims that the repertoire of political action is expanding, including not only voting, but also actions such as contacting officials directly, protesting, or engaging in communal activity: working with others to address political issues (p. 62).

This aspect is increasing within the realm of the Internet. As Dalton (p. 66) argues, “the Internet is creating a form of political activism that did not previously exist. The Internet provides a new way for people to connect to others, to gather and share information, and to attempt to influence the political process… The potential of the Internet is illustrated on the Web site, where young adults communicate and can link themselves to affinity groups that reflect their values as a way to meet other like-minded individuals”. Part of the reasons for young people’s new forms of engagement, in his view, has to do with “the growth of self-expressive values encouraging participation in activities that are citizen initiated, less constrained, directly linked to government, and more policy oriented” (p.68). Thus, “The engaged citizen is more likely to participate in boycotts, “buycotts”, demonstrations, and other forms of contentious action”.

Dalton finally names two examples of these new forms of engagement (p. 76), the example of Alex, an 18 year old from California who switched shampoos over animal testing, does not buy clothes produced by child labor, and helped organize a protest over the genocide in Sudan in her high school, before she was even eligible to vote. Jaime, a high school student in Maryland, created a teen group to encourage high school students to become socially involved, which boomed through Facebook. Dalton claims: “These two examples are not representative of all young people, but they illustrate the new focuses and forms of political activism that exist beyond elections, and that can enrich our democratic process if we understand these new forms of political action” (p. 76).

                Dalton’s position, then, is much closer to the one our research team takes, than that of Shea and Green (2007), Longo (2004), or Colby (2008), in that it accepts and acknowledges new forms of engagement as politically significant. In the political science literature, Dalton’s expanded definition of what is seen as ‘engaged citizenship’ is seen as a “provocative thesis” (see David Magleby’s review of the book).

The work we do in our research team, however, goes a step or two further. We focus on these non-traditional forms of engagement, that do not consist only of voting, but include “boycotts, “buycotts”, demonstrations, and other forms of contentious action” (Dalton, 2008, p. 68). While some of this political action takes place in physical locations, much of it happens online, and this online action plays a big role in our research (whereas Dalton acknowledged it, but did not study it). Going further, the groups we examine show new ways of recruiting members and of creating shared grounds of interest and commonality among them. For the Harry Potter Alliance, for example, a shared love for the content world of Harry Potter enables participants of diverse backgrounds, ages, and views, to come together for political action such as protecting marriage equality and other actions we are now learning of.

This review of some of the literature in political science assists us to base our claims within an ongoing scholarly conversation. The argument we make and the cases we examine place our research team in a key position in this conversation, not only implementing the up-to-date arguments in the field, but taking them several steps further. Still, we must also keep in mind that the dominant view of many is that politics only matters when it is performed within the frame of political parties. The argument that other forms of politics matter too will need to be justified in response to such claims.                


Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, see

Colby, A. (2008).  The place of political learning in college.  Association of American colleges and universities, Spring / summer, 4-12.

Dalton, R.J. (2008).  The good citizen: How a younger generation is reshaping American politics.  Washington, DC: CQ Press.

Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA (2009).  The American Freshman: National norms for 2008.  Los Angeles, CA. Available:

Longo, N. (2004). The new student politics: Listening to the political voice of students. The Journal of Public Affairs 7(1), 1-14.

Shea, D.M., & Green, J.C. (2007).  The turned-off generation: Fact and fiction.  In D.M. Shea and J.C. Green (Eds.), Fountain of youth: Strategies and tactics for mobilizing America’s young voters (pp. 1-18).  Plymouth, UK: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

[1] Thanks to Ben for raising this point, as well as challenging it.

[2] Colby (2008), who is also worried that the increase in civic engagement does not lead to political learning, but still thrives to accept wider forms of participation, sees as a key criterion of distinction that “political activities are driven by systemic-level goals, a desire to affect the shared values, practices, and policies that shape collective life” (p. 4).


  1. Thanks Neta for your post.

    I feel that arriving at definitions, however cautiously, precisely and eclectically, may be helpful only to a point. What we need is future empirical verification of our definitions. In other words, we need longitudinal studies in our research, especially since the effects of Internet-driven engagement are too new and still unfolding. First ask members of organizations such as HPA and IC now — how would you categorize what you are doing? Do you see a difference between civic engagement, volunteering, philanthropy, activism and political participation? Then return to the same members 5 or 10 years later. Ask them how they would categorize their experience in HPA at that future date. Were there other activities they were involved in that they would categorize differently? What is the meaning of all this engagement? What real consequences has it had on them personally and on society in general? I suspect some members will find their past involvement serious and “political”, others temporarily indulgent. “civic” and social-networking-type, and yet others in between. (This too will not be overly helpful since people are not the best categorizers of their own experiences, and memory is selective.)

    Also, I wonder about those who are not privileged enough to be able to participate in the types of organizations or activities we have been studying. Many of them are beneficiaries of all this Internet-driven civic engagement. But how do they themselves participate and voice their thoughts? What about those on the leeward side of environmentalism, who donned blue in protest in the wake of ‘Avatar’ — these are not the young people of the Internet age, and yet, they are engaging civically during the Internet age. Implication: how, if at all, has civic engagement taken off internationally, or is it largely an American or Western phenomenon?

    I also wonder whether this growth spurt in civic engagement (there is a spurt, right?) is producing a generation of young people who in their 40s will become different kinds of politicians than the ones today, e.g., with a tree-rather-than-forest view of issues; or businessmen with different attitudes towards charity?

    Finally, is this recent spurt in civic engagement merely a phase; i.e., what about those born today — will they be part of a counter culture against civic engagement around 2027?

  2. The idea that buycotts can/should be connected to politics/civic engagement reminds me of this recent link from the Invisible Children blog:

    It comes from a progressive Christian blog and basically says that it’s ok to buy things to spread political messages, but gives suggestions for how consumers could be made to “earn” their purchases so that the political message is more authentic. I liked the article as an example of the kinds of informal conversations people at Invisible Children might be having about the ethics of consumption.

  3. This is an important thread.

    One place I’d like to expand: The *moral*-political divide around citizenship (which parallels the public-private delineation). By looking beyond the traditional notion of citizenship, we also legitimize more forms of participation. This is discussed by Haste and Hogan in 2006 in a journal that is far from political science: the Journal of Moral Education. Here’s a link and the abstract:

    * TITLE: Beyond conventional civic participation, beyond the moral-political divide: young people and contemporary debates about citizenship

    * LINK:

    * ABSTRACT: In Western thought, the relationship between the moral and political domains has been dominated by a version of political philosophy which, based on the distinction between ‘public’ and ‘private’, argues that the moral is different from the political. In parallel, and related to this, has been a delineation of the ‘political’ as concerned with structural aspects of representative democracy, privileging electoral behaviour in particular. We challenge this distinction on the basis that it is not useful for addressing the motivational dimensions of political behaviour, which are crucial for crafting citizenship education. We explore the ways in which the concept of citizenship has become contested in the realities of the range of contemporary political engagement, and how current debates, for example that between liberals and communitarians, expose the underlying moral perspectives behind their theory and their prescriptions. Emerging from this we present an argument for three different modes of civic engagement; voting, helping and making one’s voice heard, in which the moral and political play out differently. This model is explored through data from a study of British young people’s involvement with civic issues and actions.

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