Civic engagment – defined and redefined

August 1st, 2010 by Neta

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 Facebook.com 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.                

References

Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, see http://www.civicyouth.org/

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:  http://www.heri.ucla.edu/publications-brp.php

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).

Explain yourself: Bridigng Discourse and its applications to Participatory-Civic Engagement Groups

July 15th, 2010 by Rhea Vichot

When individuals engage in behavior that might be considered inauthentic by other group members, they, or other members, often engage in bridging discourse to explain why the behavior is congruent with the idea of being period; in doing so, they demonstrate that their behavior is linked to the same ideology to which other group members link their behavior. When group members engage in behavior that others see as incongruent with the group’s ideology, they risk portraying themselves as deviant and indicating that they believe the ideology of the group is unimportant. Other group members may feel that such actions reflect poorly on the group as a whole, and this may change the collective identity of the group. When individuals engage in bridging discourse, they protect themselves, or others, from stigma but also maintain the collective identity of the group. Members accomplish this by reinterpreting the group’s ideology, redefining their behavior, or offering explanations as to why they should be excused from meeting the group’s standards.

Decker (2010)

Stephanie Decker’s recent article in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography argues for the idea of bridging discourse, that is, discourse that individual members of a group may employ in order to explain inconsistencies of action with the overall group identity, in an attempt to maintain cohesion. While the ethnographic research that serves as the basis of the paper is focused on participants in the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism), this model of intragroup discourse may prove useful for the group, especially in discussing groups that have a upper management which may be attempting to change the group’s focus/direction.

Decker’s piece as well as the work she draws on is primarily based on Goffman’s frame analysis work. Decker’s work builds from Snow et. al (1986) work on frame bridging. While frame bridging refers to the connections between two or more different, but compatible organizations with each other or an organization with an individual who has a different, but compatible frame, bridging discourse deals with intragroup discussion between individual members or between a member and the group in whole. Decker also cites research on frame alignment by Oliver and Johnson (2000), which focused on recruiting practices in social movement groups. Here Decker is trying to expand the types of groups this sort of research can focus on, but it is worth noting that, given the research group’s focus on social groups that are also, in various ways, social movement groups, that this line of work bears further inquiry.

Briefly, bridging discourse is described by Becker as a set of strategies employed by group members to help ease incongruities between their actions and the group’s overall identity in order to smooth over those differences and maintain group cohesion. In her work with the SCA, she describes several instances of members employing bridging discourse to explain their actions. In particular, the main use of bridging discourse in the SCA was explaining why someone was not in period dress. Sneakers and rubber soled boots in particular served as a focus for group dissonance since one of the group’s overall tenet is to maintain the illusion of period (medieval and early renaissance) garb. Examples of bridging discourse used was claiming to be a new member and therefore ignorant of group policy, apologizing profusely and claiming a time/logistical snafu prevented the proper garb from being worn, or (in cases where members are in period, but culturally clashing garb) by incorporating the seeming inconsistency into an elaborate backstory for the persona one was portraying in SCA events. Members who are reacting to this discourse may make exceptions to the behavior, especially if the deviant member in question is considered a valued member of the group, in order to maintain group identity.

Of course, this bridging discourse has certain limits. Members can choose not to employing bridging discourse and accept a reputation as a deviant within the group. Secondly in particular, if enough members behave consistently outside of the group’s frame, it may shift the frame of the group so that members are no longer deviating from the group. Decker notes that “[group members] explained that, while they did not want to include members who did not make an attempt to be historically authentic, they found it important for the sake of the group to accommodate members with various interpretations of the ideology… while such members often noted that this flexibility alters the concept of authenticity and lowers the groups standards for historically accurate behavior… this flexibility ultimately made it possible for the group to survive,” (292).

Bridging discourse, then, might be something worth noting in our conversations and other research on the group we are looking at. Especially considering groups such as Racebending and the HPA, which have or are planning to change the scope of the group’s identity from a top down angle, it may be useful to see how individual members react to this shift and whether bridging discourse is utilized to either enforce the old group identity or the new one. In a group such as IC, it may be useful to see if bridging discourse is utilized among members when talking about events or the group identity in itself.

Reference

Decker, S. (2010). Being Period: An Examination of Bridging Discourse in a Historical Reenactment Group. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 39(3) 273-296.

Icy Dead People

July 11th, 2010 by Chris Tokuhama

 

The sound is both unmistakable and unforgettable. Equal parts siren call, banshee cry, and woeful lament, the anguished scream of the female horror victim is a primal sound that instantly evokes unsolicited dread from somewhere deep within.
 
This image, often accompanied by an overhand stabbing pantomime reminiscent of Psycho, is the typical response that greets me whenever I mention my research interests in Horror. Many of my peers speak to me about their brushes with the genre and how various movies or television shows have served to instill a perpetual sense of fear in them:  to this day, friends will trace a hatred of clowns back to It, apprehension about blind dates to Audition, and a wariness of European hostels from, well, Hostel. Those around me see Horror as the representation of a force that serves to limit action, crafting a clear binary that contrasts the safe and acceptable with the foreign and dangerous.
 
To be sure, there is a certain amount of truth to what my friends believe; to live in a post-9/11 world is to be familiar with fear. As an American, I have been engaged in a “War on Terror” for my entire adult life, warned that illicit drugs fuel cartels, and have heard that everything under (and including) the sun will give me cancer. Sociologists like Barry Glassner talk about how our attempts to curb our fears just make us more afraid and Eve Ensler chimes in with a discussion of how an obsession with security only serves to instill an even greater sense of insecurity. Fear has become a sort of modern lingua franca, allowing people to discuss things ranging from economic recession, to depression, to moral politics. Perhaps worse yet, I have developed in an educational system that fostered anxiety as I struggled to get the best grades and test scores, desperate to find meaning in my college acceptances and hoping for validation in achievement—growing up, there were so many ways to fail and only one way to succeed. Whole parts of my identity have been defined by my fears instead of my hopes and although I rebel against the notion of being controlled by this emotion, I realize that it continues to have a pervasive effect on my life and my actions. I continue to quell the fears that I will not live up to expectations, that I will grow lonely, and that I will one day forget what I am worth.
 
And I don’t think I’m alone.
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Star Wars and Political Discussion

July 11th, 2010 by Chris Tokuhama

I’ve recently started the process to join a guild for Star Wars:  The Old Republic and have begun to wonder about how the fictional universe’s basic structure lends itself to fans developing ideas regarding political participation. Beyond the simple binary of the Republic/Empire, I am interested to see how fans talk about political values and ideals. While much of this discussion has already taken place around published media, I am interested to see how the introduction of an MMO during the Old Republic period will allow discourse that differs from Star Wars Galaxies. I think it will be interesting to see how the forums develop over the next 10 months as the game leads up to launch. In that vein, here are some of the things that I’ve been thinking about lately.

Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Participatory Fandom

Teaching Old Brands New Tricks

http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=4192

I’ve also including some of the readings that I used for a recent paper on Invisible Children.

Alice James and the Spectacle of Sympathy

Examining Social Resistance and Online-Offline Relationships

Muscular Christianity and the Spectacle of Conversion

Product RED Case Study and Ethics

RED and Causumerism

Youth Culture and Conflict Narratives

Bowling Off-Topic: rethinking the echo-chamber

July 9th, 2010 by jmcveighschultz

Image by drrt licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

Interactions in online forums don’t fit so easily into Cass Sunstein’s arguments about the internet as echo-chamber. This argument is basically the oft-quoted claim about the internet fostering cyberbalkanization. Others have built on this claim by citing the lack of hyperlinks connecting left and right wing blogospheres as evidence for a decline in the ability to communicate with civility across ideological barriers (Adamic and Glance, 2005).

But when we expand scope of inquiry to include models of online interaction outside of the typical political blog platform, the notion of internet as echo-chamber becomes less clear. A variety of counter-examples from online fandom and other modes of interest-driven participatory culture suggest that Sunstein’s argument about the limitations of online communication may need to be re-evaluated.

One interesting area that emerged in our research over the past year is the role of off-topic subforums within larger interest-driven forums. These off-topic subforums provide a space for diverse conversation on the sidelines of an otherwise fairly homogeneous forum. In this sense, they seem to parallel the function of what Ray Oldenburg calls ‘third spaces’ — spaces where a heterogeneous group of people come together (in cafes, bars, and other establishments) to have casual interactions outside of work and domestic experience. For our purposes, the contrast to professional and domestic space is perhaps less salient, but the idea of “thirdness” is still relevant insofar as these subforums are neither the primary focus of the group nor are they explicitly coded as sites of civic action. Instead, they are something in between.
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News and Notes

July 7th, 2010 by Lana Swartz

Matea Gold from the LA Times covers the controversy among feminists surrounding The Daily Show’s newest hire, Olivia Munn, the first female correspondent in seven years.

“Pictures, videos and slogans on T-shirts are tools of modern expression, and with a phenomenon as omnipresent as Twilight, fans should be free to engage, manipulate, remix and remake,” writes Christina Mulligan in the Washington Post.

Laura McCann from Neiman Journalism Lab writes about a new Pew Internet and American Life Project on Americans’ mobile device and wireless habits, which finds that young people are using texts to make donations. McCann wonders what about the potential impact of Apple’s donation app ban.

TED Talk on the value for innovation of copying in fashion by USC’s Lear Center’s Johanna Blakley.

Tracing the traces in online spaces

July 6th, 2010 by Kevin Driscoll

Soldering Time Fun!

Each of this week’s recommended links is about getting down and dirty with the technological details of internet communication.

In a new paper, Geiger and Ribes offer a compelling picture of Wikipedia’s “vandal fighting” editors that largely departs from the existing literature. By engaging with the day-to-day practices of the vandal fighters, the researchers learned to make meaning of an overwhelming heap of Wikipedia data in order to reconstruct the scene of a malicious user being banned.

Joel Spolsky usually writes for an audience of computer programmers and this essay about character encoding is no exception. In and among the technical details, however, Spolsky’s history of the digitized alphabet is a parable about the growing pains of a global computing network. Two hexadecimal bytes represent 255 unique values: plenty of space for American engineers to store 26 lowercase letters, 26 uppercase letters, 10 Arabic numerals, and a handful of punctuation — but what happens when we start to trade files with colleagues overseas? How do today’s software designers account for the thousands upon thousands of characters used around the world?

Finally, Asheesh Laroia runs a fascinating workshop about web scraping at PyCon, the annual gathering of Python programmers. In this play-along-at-home presentation, he walks the audience through a variety of tools and techniques to automate data collection from nearly any resource on the web. Novice programmers should feel comfortable to jump right in. Laroia provides plenty of example code to play with.

  • Laroia, A. (2009) Scrape the Web: Strategies for programming websites that don’t expect it. [Video] PyCon, Chicago, May 8. Retrieved from: http://blip.tv/file/2022154/

(If you’re not yet a programmer but want to learn, Python is a great language for beginners. If you’re looking for an introductory book, try Think Python.)

On Boycotts and Buycotts: in our PDF readers

June 23rd, 2010 by Lana Swartz

Here is a selection from what some of us are reading this week. Thoughts?

Michele Micheletti (2002). Consumer Choice as Political Participation. Statsvetenskaplig Tidskrift. 105 (3).

Dietlind Stolle and Michele Micheletti (2005). Politics in the Supermarket: Political Consumerism as a Form of Political Participation. International Political Science Review, 26 (3).

Richard A. Hawkins (2010). Boycotts, buycotts and consumer activism in a global context: An overview. Management & Organizational History, 5 (2).

Michele Micheletti and Dietlind Stolle (2008). Fashioning Social Justice through Political Consumerism, Capitalism, and the Internet. 22 (5).

“Mobile Publics” & “Flash Activism”: Comparing explanations for the socio-civic movements in the wake of Indian Idol 3 and Rang De Basanti

June 20th, 2010 by Ritesh Mehta

In this blog post, I take preliminary steps towards outlining the similarities and differences between the concept of “mobile publics” proffered by Aswin Punathambekar (forthcoming) to characterize the fan activism generated in the Indian state of Meghalaya in support of its resident Amit Paul during his participation in the third season of Indian Idol in 2007; and the twin concepts of “flash activism” and “flash fandom” that I informally put forth (http://sites.google.com/site/participatorydemocracyproject/case-studies/rang-de-basanti-and-flash-activism) while describing the case of the 2006 Bollywood film Rang De Basanti’s role in inspiring civic participation to demand justice in the high profile trial following the murder of model Jessica Lall. I will briefly discuss the two concepts in context of the cases they illuminate, before delineating the similarities and differences between them.

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@BPGlobalPR Speaks Out

June 8th, 2010 by Lana Swartz

Note: On this blog, sometimes we’ll post more in-depth thinking, and sometimes we’ll just take note of relevant news, events, readings and such. This is the first of that second kind of post.

Leroy Stick, a pseudonym for the twitterer behind @BPGlobalPR, recently released a statement and gave an interview. With more than 140,000 followers, the biting and hilarious @BPGlobalPR has ten times the followers of official BP twitter feed, @BP_America. More after the jump. Read the rest of this entry »