I was recently prompted to think about what should be included in a new civic participation index. My first inclination was to brainstorm all of the behaviors that are hard to measure or capture:
- The cause and reasoning behind various forms of social media participation
- Accurate self-assessments of people as “political” or “activists”
- Perspectives of people who don’t want to take surveys about civics
- Informal knowledge of and engagement with government (e.g., zoning disputes)
- Downloads of civic apps versus active user base numbers (usually proprietary data important for startup valuation)
- Political news consumption and participation across screens: TV, social media, news sites, offline
- Political/ideological values and commitments that drive emotion-based voting versus rational, informed citizen self-images and self-assessments
- Internal and external political efficacy around different issues or in different venues (local, state, national)
- Trust in whole institutions or classes of institutions (legislatures) versus trust in individual politicians or officials
- Nonpolitical and casual activities: traditional forms of monitorial citizenship (Graeff forthcoming) or “eyes on the street” (the kind of intangible close-knit community practices that Jane Jacobs celebrated)
- Differences between youth and adults on the same indicators (often surveyed separately)
- Baseline levels of political efficacy and participation levels for people with different backgrounds and in different contexts (we need more baseline research, super important!)
- Triggers of political activity: word of mouth, news story, formal invitation to participate (social movement theory tell us this is important, but we need to make sure we capture it)
- Tracking of a citizen’s development across discrete, seemingly isolated, actions
- Conservative activism that uses similar tactics but is conceived of differently by the civic actor
How might we really track Bennett’s (2008) “actualizing citizen”?
Second, I started thinking that it would be nice to develop an empirical approach to finding and tracking Lance Bennett’s actualizing citizen, who is “rooted in self actualization through social expression” and channels personal interests through loosely tied networks with little distinction between production and consumption or between personal and political contexts (Bennett, Wells, and Freelon, 2009).
A dream study design would be able to capture all of the data listed below. But how we would manage to get data from companies and people’s personal devices, from a diverse enough cross-sample, and of course actually find an ethical and secure way to collect and store it all, I don’t know.
- Values assessment: ask people about their stance on particular various issues, so we capture their self-assessed valences
- Civic and political identity assessment: what kind of citizen (e.g., Westheimer and Kahne 2004) do they see themselves as when it comes to a particular issue or a particular venue?
- Media diary across TV, social media, and websites: see if media consumption and engagement correlates with data of actual activities online or offline
- Political efficacy survey items: probe across several specific issues and venues
- Cohort study: tracks these data for groups of friends and family members to see the influence between them
- Bennett, W. L. 2008. Changing Citizenship in the Digital Age. In W. L. Bennett (Ed.), Civic Life Online: Learning How Digital Media Can Engage Youth. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Bennett, W. L., Wells, C., & Freelon, D. G. (2009). Communication citizenship online: Models of Civic learning in the youth web sphere (A Report from the Civic Learning Online Project). Center for Communication and Civic Engagement, University of Washington.
- Graeff, E. forthcoming. Monitorial Citizenship. International Encyclopedia of Media Literacy.
Westheimer, J., & Kahne, J. (2004). What Kind of Citizen? The Politics of Educating for Democracy. American Educational Research Journal, 41(2), 237–269.