Essays academic service


The importance of political participation among citizens

Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited. Summary and Keywords Vibrant democracies are characterized by a continuous expansion of the available forms of participation.

Jan W. van Deth

This expansion has confronted many researchers with the dilemma of using either a dated conceptualization of participation excluding many new modes of political action or stretching their concept to cover almost everything.

Because social, societal, and political developments in democratic societies the importance of political participation among citizens made the search for a single encompassing definition of political participation obsolete, an alternative approach is to integrate the core features of political participation in a conceptual map.

Five modes cover the whole range of political participation systematically and efficiently, based on the locus politytargeting government area or community problemsand circumstance context or motivations of these activities. While the rise of expressive modes of participation especially requires the inclusion of contextual information or the aims and goals of participants, attention is paid to the dis advantages of including these aspects as defining criteria for political participation.

Ever since the famous funeral speech of Pericles 431 BC politicians and scholars have stressed the unique character of democracy by emphasizing the role of ordinary citizens in political affairs. By now, the list of participatory activities has become virtually infinite and includes actions such as voting, demonstrating, contacting public officials, boycotting, attending party rallies, guerrilla gardening, posting blogs, volunteering, joining flash mobs, signing petitions, buying fair-trade products, and even suicide protests.

Political participation is relevant for any political system, but it is an indispensable feature of democracy: Thus, the extent and scope of political participation are important—perhaps even decisive—criteria for assessing the quality of democracy.

Search The Canadian Encyclopedia

The growing salience of government and politics for everyday life, the blurring of distinctions between private and public spheres, the increasing competences and resources especially education of citizens, and the availability of an abundance of political information resulted in a continuous expansion of available forms of participation. The list of these last examples can be extended simply—and with each additional form the problems of demarcating political participation become more evident.

Apparently, almost every activity by some citizen somehow can be understood sometimes as a form of political participation van Deth, 2001.

Yet particularly this expansion—or fragmentation—has confronted many researchers with the dilemma of using either a dated conceptualization excluding many new modes of political participation or stretching their concept to cover almost everything.

The most important consequence of the waning analytical sharpness of the concept political participation is that it significantly hinders the assessment of the quality of democracy. Whereas a restricted definition of participation usually results in rather pessimistic conclusions for example, decreasing electoral turnout challenges the legitimacy of representative democracybroader approaches typically present less alarming inferences for example, rapidly spreading political consumerism shows that ordinary people are very committed.

A mutual understanding of political participation, therefore, is not only a conditio sine qua none for meaningful discussions about participation, but, more importantly, also for every discourse on the merits and chances of the importance of political participation among citizens.

To find a comprehensive solution for these conceptual problems, neither the development of all-encompassing nominal definitions nor deductive analyses of prevailing forms of participation seem to be helpful.

This article does not attempt to develop a single, comprehensive definition of political participation, but follows an alternative and very different strategy instead: The core features of political participation are integrated in a conceptual map of political participation covering five distinct, clearly specified variants of political participation van Deth, 2014.

These variants cover the whole range of political participation systematically and efficiently, based on the locus politytargeting government area or community problemsand circumstance context or motivations of these activities.

Additionally, the conceptual map of political participation offered could easily include future participatory innovations, which are the hallmark of a vibrant democracy. Expanding Participation The main features of political participation are clear and undisputed. First, it is understood as an activity or action —simply watching television or being interested in politics does not constitute participation.

Political participation, second, is voluntary and not ordered by a ruling class or obliged under some law. Third, participation refers to activities of people in their role as nonprofessionals or amateurs and not, say, as politicians, civil servants, or lobbyists.

Fourth, political participation concerns government, politics, or the state in broad senses of these words and is neither restricted to specific phases such as parliamentary decision-making processes or executing lawsnor to specific levels or areas such as national elections or contacts with party officials.

Thus, any voluntary, nonprofessional activity concerning government, politics, or the state is a specimen of political participation. Various types of political behavior meeting these criteria can be easily identified: By increasing the level of abstraction, participation can be understood as a latent concept usually measured as a continuum covering more than one form of participation as specific manifestations.

Several forms of participation sharing some basic feature are called a mode or type of participation. For instance voting and party activities can be depicted together as an electoral mode of participation.

A repertoire of political participation unites all available forms—and, of course, also all modes—of participation cf.

Tilly, 1995pp. In the last five or six decades the repertoire of political participation expanded continuously; that is, new forms of participation were constantly added to existing activities. Since the scope of government activities and responsibilities also expanded in many countries in the last decades, the domain of political participation grew considerably. That is, political participation has become relevant in areas that would be considered private, social, or economic only a few decades ago.

Typically, empirical political the importance of political participation among citizens research follows expansions of the repertoire and the domain of participation with some delay and with discussions about the nature of newly added activities as forms of political participation.

  • The effectiveness of such systems, however, depends very much on the details of their implementation;
  • After all, views and preferences are only partly determined by the social origin and professional position of representatives.

These developments can be easily traced with the publication of a few landmark studies. By the mid-twentieth century the rise of representative democracy and the struggle for universal suffrage in many democracies resulted in a rather strict understanding of political participation as election-related activities. Consequently, the seminal voting studies of the 1940s and 1950s focused on forms of political participation such as voting, campaigning, and party membership Berelson et al.

  • Fewer still run for office;
  • There are distinctive political differences of opinion within the 'selective group of participants' concerning the formulating and solving of political problems and issues;
  • Contacting public officials, visiting the burgomaster, protest actions, demonstrations, sit-ins, signing petitions, the attendance of meetings, donating money, and many other forms of political behaviour belong to the repertoire of political means available to citizens;
  • Neither the search for common aspects among available nominal definitions of political participations, nor the enumeration of various forms of participations seems to result in an encompassing conceptualization of political participation;
  • Notice that it is the character of the problem dealt with that has to be collective or shared, not the organizational aspects of the activities undertaken;
  • Yet stressing the behavioral nature of any phenomenon eventually to be labelled as a specimen of political participation does not avoid all ambiguities.

Contacts between citizens and government officials were added to this repertoire and by the early 1960s political participation was broadly understood as voting and other citizen activities in the context of statutory political institutions Campbell et al. These activities became known as conventional or institutionalized modes of participation.

The disappearing borderline between political and nonpolitical spheres and the revival of Tocquevillean and communitarian approaches stimulated the next expansion of the repertoire of political participation with civil activities, volunteering, and social engagement in all kinds of voluntary associations.

Tocquevillean and communitarian argumentations, however, emphasize that the quality of democracy is directly related to the existence of a vibrant civil society Putnam, 1993. Yet the question whether civil activities, volunteering, and social engagement are specimens of political participation still is disputed, and the idea obviously challenges the use of simple definitions of the concept. The disappearing borderline between political and nonpolitical societal spheres also stimulated forms of participation, that explicitly deny the need for organizations or organized actions.

Instead, a strong emphasis lies on the expression of moral and ethical standpoints in actions that can be practiced by individual citizens alone. Important examples of such modes of creative participation or individualized collective action are boycotts and buycotts: The spread of Internet-based technologies facilitate these individualized actions by offering opportunities to express ideas, demands, and frustrations that are instantly accessible to everyone at practically no costs.

Furthermore, these technologies make typical political associations even more superfluous. The continuous expansion of the repertoire of political participation is matched by a similar expansion in empirical research.

Survey-based studies, however, cannot simply expand the list of questionnaire items because only relatively small parts of the populations are involved in most forms of participation. And standardized techniques do not cover newly arising forms in their early stages. Analyses of media coverage of political events appear more adequate for detecting the rise and spread of new forms of participation and usually report long lists of protests, riots, stunts, street actions, and the like see Ortiz et al.

The enormous amount of data on the Internet is still rather difficult to explore empirically due to restrictive policies of providers and the conceptual complications of distinguishing between communication, mobilization, and participation see Cantijoch et al. Thus, the recent expansions of the repertoire of political participation in democratic societies seem to be based on a shift in the nature of involvement. Older modes of political participation are specific activities devised and used to influence political processes: As such, refusals to buy a specific brand of coffee, volunteering in a hospital, being a member of a sports club, or posting a blog on whales are not specimens of political participation, but nonpolitical activities that can be used for political purposes.

These activities need not require some organization or coordinated action. Surely, to the importance of political participation among citizens effective a large number of people should behave in a similar way, but they can all act individually, separately, and with distinct aims and motivations. Furthermore, the Internet reduces organizational costs of participation to practically nil, which enables all kind of concerns and aims to be mobilized that would not have been articulated before.

  • Research shows three factors of major importance where this division is concerned;
  • Ever since the famous funeral speech of Pericles 431 BC politicians and scholars have stressed the unique character of democracy by emphasizing the role of ordinary citizens in political affairs;
  • If—in specific circumstances—the purchase of coffee or volunteering in a hospital can be just as well specimen of political participation as going to the polls or signing a petition against government policies, how, then, do we recognize a form of participation if we see one?
  • Introduction If one speaks of democracy as government by the people, one is also speaking of participation.

In this way, the recent expansions of the repertoire of political participation differ clearly from previous enlargements. By now almost every conceivable nonprivate activity can be understood as a form of political participation when a political context is evident or political goals are manifest.

If—in specific circumstances—the purchase of coffee or volunteering in a hospital can be just as well specimen of political participation as going to the polls or signing a petition against government policies, how, then, do we recognize a form of participation if we see one?

As these examples show, increasing the level of abstraction allow us to cover new forms of participation easily—at the price of losing analytical rigor and empirical precision.

Neither the search for common aspects among available nominal definitions of political participations, nor the enumeration of various forms of participations seems to result in an encompassing conceptualization of political participation. A more pragmatic approach is needed based on the identification of indispensable requirements for some phenomenon to be recognized as a specimen of political participation.

A fresh approach can be based on the development of an operational definition of political participation specifying the exact properties that are required to determine its existence.

In his seminal work on taxonomies and classifications, Hempel 1965 pointed out to two general requirements for operational definitions. By pointing to, for instance, voluntariness or government directedness in definitions of political participation, such criteria are already widely used in exactly this way. What is needed is a systematically developed set of decision rules to answer the question whether we depict a specific phenomenon as political participation.

Second, Hempel not only stated that these decision rules have to be unambiguous, he stressed that they have to be efficient by placing them in a hierarchical order. Following this recommendation for political participation we need to develop a minimalist definition of the concept before more complex variants are considered. Suppose we have some phenomenon for which we want to know whether the term political participation does or does not apply.

This question can be answered for any phenomenon by going through various steps, each the importance of political participation among citizens a decision rule in a hierarchical scheme. If a certain property is available we move on to the next property—if a property is not found, the phenomenon under consideration is not a specimen of political participation.

The eight rules to define political participation can be briefly summarized in the following way: Is it an activity or action? Nominal definitions of participation all start with references to behavioral aspects; participation requires an activity or action. Being interested in politics or watching newscasts is not sufficient. Yet stressing the behavioral nature of any phenomenon eventually to be labelled as a specimen of political participation does not avoid all ambiguities.

Specific abstentions of activities—for instance boycotting certain products, staying away from the ballot box, refusing to donate money—are, strictly speaking, not instances of activities or actions. Is the activity voluntary? In a democracy political participation should not be a consequence of force, pressure, or threats, but be optional and based on free will.

Examples of such coercions are, first of all, legal obligations or mandatory tasks, but also economic or social extortions.

Political Participation

However, paying taxes, sitting in a traffic jam, or appearing in court are all examples of involuntary acts with potentially political consequences that should be excluded from the concept of political participation.

Contrary to what the term suggests, actually casting a vote cannot be mandatory in any system guaranteeing secret elections a main feature of democracy. In some countries citizens are obliged to report to the polling station on election day, but no democracy enforces actual voting.

The importance of political participation after the election

Is the activity conducted by nonprofessionals? Most definitions explicitly refer to citizens in order to differentiate the relevant behavior from the activities of politicians, civil servants, office-bearers, public officers, journalists, and professional delegates, advisors, appointees, lobbyists, and the like.

Essential as the accomplishments of these functionaries and officials might be for the political system, using the concept of political participation in those instances would stretch the range of relevant behavior to cover conceptually and functionally very different phenomena. The same applies to commercial activities. Since we want to arrive at a minimalist definition of political participation first, this rule should be based on the most straightforward condition available.

What is Political Participation?

These four decision rules already suffice to reach a minimalist definition of political participation. By focusing on the locus or arena of participation—rather than on outcomes, outputs, contexts, actors, intentions, etc. Certainly in the initial stage of their application these modes intend to challenge the conventional understanding of the scope and nature of politics and the domain of government in a society.

Although the actions usually aim at expanding the understanding of politics and government, they are also used to limit state intervention for instance when workers blockade streets to stop the deregulation of labor conditions. If the objectives of the activities indeed include politics or the addressees are located in government or the state, then this is a second main type of political participation Political Participation-II.