Political Participation Research Paper

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Political participation refers to the activities of the mass public in politics, including, for example, voting in elections, helping a political campaign, giving money to a candidate or cause, writing or calling officials, petitioning, boycotting, demonstrating, and working with other people on issues. Political participation figures in philosophical discussions of democracy and representative government since ancient times because it provides the means for citizens to communicate their views. Normative interest in the topic remains vigorous. This research paper focuses upon the empirical study of political participation. Scholars look for systematic patterns that explain why some individuals are inactive and why others choose certain activities. The patterns reflect the political context and both reflect and affect the structure of political power.

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Participation provides the link from the mass public to the political elite who are presumed—and sometimes shown—to respond.

1. Differing Definitions Of Participation

Scholars differ in their definition of political participation. The currently dominant view limits participation to actions that might affect others, as in the following definitions. ‘By political participation we mean activity by private citizens designed to influence government decision-making’ (Huntington and Nelson 1976, p. 3). ‘By political participation we refer simply to activity that has the intent or effect of influencing government action—either directly by affecting the making or implementation of public policy or indirectly by influencing the selection of people who make those policies’ (Verba et al. 1995, p. 38). The restriction to private citizens is meant to exclude from the concept activity undertaken in their official capacity by those for whom politics and governing are a vocation. A few scholars (cf. Milbrath 1965) include political involvement and activities to support the regime as participation. For these scholars, reading about politics is also political participation, while under the dominant definition it is not (since it does not have direct effects on others).

Another definitional debate in the field concerns the extent to which actions that have the effect of influencing policy without that being the actor’s intent also count as political participation. Adopting the more common view, Verba et al. (1995, pp. 38–39) restrict their study to voluntary activity, which they define as follows: ‘By voluntary activity we mean participation that is not obligatory—no one is forced to volunteer—and that receives no pay or only token financial compensation.’ In contrast, Huntington and Nelson (1976, p. 7) explicitly include not only ‘autonomous’ participation but also ‘mobilized’ participation, ‘defined as’ ‘activity that is designed by someone other than the actor to influence governmental decision-making’. Under that definition, they would include as a participant a worker who attends a rally because his boss threatens to demote him otherwise, even if the worker has no intent of affecting government. In practice, it can be difficult empirically to distinguish mobilized from autonomous activity. For answering questions about the impact of participation upon political outcomes, the two are equivalent. The distinction is useful, however, when one focuses on the motives for participation or the impact of participation upon the actor.

2. The Study Of Participation

2.1 Participation As Electoral And Hierarchical: Early Studies

The modern empirical study of political participation began developing in tandem with the modern study of electoral behavior using sample survey data. Election outcomes depend not only upon people’s preferences but also upon which citizens choose to exercise their preference at the polls. Partially reflecting that link, many of these studies truncated political participation to electoral participation, that is, voter turnout and occasionally some campaign activities. Much empirical work was done in the United States, and much of that was connected to the Michigan Survey Research Center, especially under the leadership of Warren Miller and Philip Converse. These investigators also collaborated with colleagues outside the United States, especially in Europe, producing further studies addressing participation, especially voting. Under the leadership of Stein Rokkan, Scandinavian scholars produced a substantial body of work on participation as part of their more extensive studies of political behavior (see for example Rokkan 1970). These studies painted a clear sociodemographic and psychological picture of voters (and occasionally of participants in campaigns). In contrast to nonparticipants, participants in general had more money and education, were more interested in politics, more partisan, more efficacious, more likely to be men, more involved in organizations, and more rooted in their community. Some, including Rokkan, also paid close attention to the relationship between political behavior, including participation, and the citizen’s position in the social cleavage structure.

Milbrath summarized the findings to date in 1965. He included political support as participation as well as electoral activities beyond voting. He promoted the influential organizing idea that participation lay on a hierarchical scale—there was a ladder of activities, with the easiest at the bottom and the most difficult at the top. ‘Persons who engage in the topmost behaviors are very likely to perform those lower in rank also’ (Milbrath 1965, pp. 17–18). Given the emphasis on electoral activities and given the frame created by the ladder concept, levels of participation in the United States were perceived as low.

2.2 Large-Scale Cross-National Studies

Interest in democratic stability prompted cross-national projects that took political participation as an important variable. For Harry Eckstein, participation provided the link upwards from subordinates to superordinates (Eckstein and Gurr 1975, pp. 60–7). For Almond and Verba in The Civic Culture (1963), the participatory behavior of citizens in a country was one important component in characterizing their political culture, but they were just as interested in attitudes and beliefs about hypothetical behavior as in activity. Nonetheless, the data, collected in 1959 and 1960 in five countries (the United States, Mexico, Italy, West Germany, and Great Britain) provided the first major database used for cross-national comparisons of political participation, especially beyond voting turnout. Some of these analyses contributed the important conclusions that persons involved in organizations participate more in politics and that societies with denser organizational structures exhibit higher levels of participation.

Within the decade (1966 to 1971) Verba was in the field again, with an international team of collaborators, studying political activity. Surveys were completed in the United States, Japan, Austria, the Netherlands, India, Nigeria, and the former Yugoslavia. Some of the first products of this research (e.g., Verba and Nie 1972) overturned the conception of participation as a hierarchy of electoral activities. Instead, participation was expanded to include nonelectoral activities and reconceptualized as modes of activity in any one or more of which individuals might specialize. Although often these are positively correlated, meaning that a participant in one is more likely to take part in others than a randomly selected person, many people nonetheless partake in one or some to the exclusion of other forms of participation. In particular, substantial numbers of people who avoided electoral politics did engage in nonpartisan participation, such as involvement with community groups.

As reported in Verba and Nie (1972) and Verba et al. (1978), as well as other publications from the project, wealth and education were reaffirmed as important predictors of participation. But the main theoretical point is that the strength of that relationship varies across societies as a function of the strength of other, ‘group,’ resources. Where these are strong, such as in countries with strong political cleavages tied to ascriptive characteristics, or with sociological or occupational segments with strong political leadership, the relationship of socioeconomic status (SES) to participation was relatively weak. Certain well-off segments of the population were ‘inhibited’ from participation while other, possibly disadvantaged, segments were ‘mobilized,’ thereby together attenuating the relationship between SES and participation. While others had noted similar phenomena, the finding now had wide cross-national grounding.

The Verba and coworkers’ studies deliberately ignored political protest, that is, participation in activities outside accepted conventional norms, including some that are illegal. This omission seemed unfortunate by the 1970s in light of the frequency of real-world protest. Out of the study of revolution and political violence came renewed interest in relative deprivation. But many protest activities are not violent.

A group of European and American scholars launched the Political Action project, a cross-national study focused on protest. They conducted surveys in the United States, West Germany, the Netherlands, Great Britain, and Austria in 1973 to 1974, in Italy, Switzerland, and Finland two years later, and a second wave in the first three countries in 1979 to 1980. The results appeared in Political Action (Barnes et al. 1979), Continuities in Political Action (Jennings et al. 1989) and other publications. One objective of this research was to understand the relationship between protest and conventional participation. The Political Action project clearly showed that enough persons who participated in conventional politics were adding protest to their ‘action repertory’ to conclude that conventional and protest participation were complements rather than substitutes. The Political Action studies differed from their predecessors in showing that variations in values predict both who will be active and the form of their activity. Specifically, persons with postmaterialist values are more active and more likely to protest than are materialists. Interpretation of the results is hampered slightly by the inclusion of respondents’ hypothetical willingness to protest in some of the measures of protest activity.

Other scholars investigated the effect of political institutions on participation. In particular, they showed that cross-national variations in voter turnout rates reflect differences in electoral systems, party competitiveness, registration systems, government structure, and requirements to vote.

Attention to participation in organizations shades into studies of social movements. Where a political scientist sees a participant in a voluntary organization addressing a specific problem (and thus somehow engaged in the communal mode of participation), a sociologist sees someone active in a social movement. The latter have produced another extensive, related literature.

Approaches and/or theories from these cross-national projects have been influential in many country-specific studies of participation. These studies have contributed much that is new, but their conclusions have also tended to support the theories developed in the large projects.

2.3 Mobilization As A Predictor Of Participation, Not A Type, And The Civic Voluntarism Model (CVM)

The next major theoretical development in the study of participation involved incorporation of the recognition that people are more likely to participate when they are asked to do so (i.e., when they are ‘recruited’ or ‘mobilized’) and, moreover, that mobilization follows systematic patterns. Rosenstone and Hansen (1993) developed this idea in their study of participation in the United States from 1956 to 1990, claiming that a decline in mobilization over that period accounts in large part for the observed decline in participation.

Verba et al. (1995) use the related concept of ‘recruitment’ cross-sectionally in their study of political participation in the United States based on a 1989–1990 survey. It is the third component of the CVM; the first two are ‘resources’ and ‘engagement.’ They argue that higher levels of any of these factors lead to greater participation—people participate in politics because they can, because they want to, and because someone asks.

‘Resources’ are most readily measured by income and education, but these serve as proxies for more fundamental measures. The most interesting components of resources are the ‘civic skills,’ operationalized by Verba et al. (1995) as writing a letter, making a speech, and attending or planning a meeting where decisions are made in one or more nonpolitical settings, such as on the job, at church, or in a voluntary association. Civic skills turn out to explain the long-observed association between organization member- ship and participation. ‘Engagement’ includes interest, efficacy, political information, and partisan attachment, and also specific issue or ideological concerns. Note the connection between this part of the model and the finding that postmaterialists are more participatory. ‘Recruitment’ includes both requests from individuals and those from persons in authority (e.g., on the job, at church, or in an organization). This latter route provides one path by which group re- sources operate.

People with greater wealth and education in general have more resources, are more engaged, and are more likely to be recruited, so overall the relationship between socioeconomic status and participation is positive. The CVM model provides a fuller under- standing however of why the relationship holds. Moreover, were it applied cross-nationally, it would point to components that need measuring. For example, churches play a role in the United States not likely to be replicated elsewhere.

Cost and benefit analyses inspired by rational actor models influence much contemporary work on participation, including that of Rosenstone and Hansen (1993) and Verba et al. (1995).

Many of the factors that lead to high levels of political participation are associated with high levels of social capital notably including substantial organizational involvement. Since social capital is also measured with political participation, the relationship among the concepts and the phenomena need more attention.

3. Conceptual Issues In Research On Political Participation

3.1 Participation Outside Advanced Democratic Countries

Most of the research discussed above has focused on economically-advanced democratic countries, with the occasional addition of other research sites. The restriction to democratic countries reflects the particular role of political participation in a democracy. Participation provides the means by which people control their government, most decisively so in elections which determine who rules. The unique power of the vote to change rulers provides the force for most of the other modes of participation. Campaigning, expressions of opinion, community organizing, and other actions command attention in part because ultimately the opposition can win an election.

In an authoritarian regime, the electoral connection no longer exists. Nonetheless, there is still political participation. Although the people no longer select the rulers, the rulers still need to keep the population reasonably satisfied to forestall revolt, and, to do so, they need information on the people’s preferences, and they need to respond to discontent. Several very interesting studies have examined participation in authoritarian regimes, such as Friedgut’s study of the USSR (1979) and the work by Shi (1997) on China.

In economically less-developed countries, one frequently finds that government institutions are also less well developed, that the associational networks are weak, or that loyalties to local groups outweigh those to governmental institutions. In these circumstances, much political participation may consist of informal involvement in the local arena or in traditional institutions (see, for example, Dietz 1998).

Issues of cross-national and cross-cultural comparability loom large in all studies of participation, but they are especially salient for research in nondemocratic or less-advanced countries. One must rethink what counts as ‘political’ in these contexts in light of the institutional situation. For example, some of these studies led to the suggestion that participation includes activity directed towards altering the implementation of policy, rather than just its formulation, or that bribery is an important mode. Certain actions that are nominally the same can serve very different functions in differing contexts. For example, ‘voting’ may just show regime support in one country but select a government in another. The independent variables of importance also vary. For example, because of the particular circumstances in China, ‘education’ does not usefully measure resources there (Shi 1997, pp. 145–8). In many countries, other institutions are likely to play the role of churches in the United States as a source of civic skills.

Matters become more complex when an authoritarian regime democratizes. Many current studies examine participation in Eastern Europe and the republics of the former Soviet Union. With the abrupt changes in regime, the process of political socialization will probably also change, providing good conditions in which to observe the effect of political attitudes on participation.

3.2 Leadership

If people participate more when they have resources, are engaged, and are recruited, then elite action can significantly alter the level of participation by affecting engagement and recruitment. Political leaders provide resources to make participation easier (such as a babysitter, a ride to the polls, or information on what to support). Leaders contact people, directly or through proxies, asking them for action. Leaders can increase engagement by framing the public debate in a way that increases the stakes of political competition by communicating this message to their listeners.

The contemporary mass media play a role very similar to leaders. They frame issues and strongly affect (at times, negatively) engagement and recruitment. However, their motivations differ from those of leaders as they seek attention rather than support, and their actions are not targeted.

The political world contains many persons vying for power, each of whom needs large numbers of supporters to achieve power. Only some are successful in recruiting others and, as noted above, theory has not yet explained the circumstances of success. But political participation will increase when many are active and successful, and it will be higher than otherwise expected for persons who are targets of their efforts.


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