a taxonomy of civic engagement measures

Civic engagement is important to measure both as an intrinsic good and as a predictor of various desirable outcomes for the individuals who engage and for their communities and governments. Organizations–from individual schools and nonprofits to the Census Bureau and Corporation for National & Community Service–often ask survey questions that measure it. But there are many available survey measures, and organizations often wonder which ones to use and how to cluster them. Here is a simple table that produces six categories, with sample survey items for each.

Citizens engage … with each other with institutions
by communicating
  • attending meetings
  • discussing public affairs
  • posting/reposting social media about public issues
  • reading/watching news
  • contacting officials
  • contacting media
  • protest/civil disobedience
by acting/working
  • working to fix a community problem
  • volunteering
  • doing one’s job with a public purpose*
  • voting
  • boycotting/buycotting
  • working in government (including AmeriCorps)*
  • social entrepreneurship*
by forming relationships
  • membership in groups
  • leadership roles in groups
  • trust in other people
  • service on boards and advisory committees
  • confidence in institutions

A few observations:

  • Deliberative democracy is the first row. Public work is the whole table.
  • With the exception of trust and confidence, these are measures of action, not of attitudes or knowledge. I include trust and confidence basically as proxies for actual working relationships, which would be ideally measured more directly. Attitudes and knowledge are also crucial, but they would require another table.
  • Asterisks denote constructs that are rarely measured and for which the items seem to be relatively weak.
  • I prefer survey measures of basic constructs that are relatively invariant across contexts. For instance, I don’t care whether people post on Facebook (which we may all stop doing in a few years, anyway), but I do care whether they communicate with fellow citizens about public issues. Likewise, I would count someone as doing public work whether it’s paid or not, so I am less interested in whether people spend hours volunteering than in whether they work on public issues. The challenge is that survey measures of abstract categories are hard to understand, but measures of highly concrete activities (like volunteering hours) tend to miss the point a bit. But we do our best with proxies.
  • One way to turn these separate items into larger wholes is psychometric–looking empirically at which clusters of items go together in a population, because clusters would ostensibly measure underlying psychological factors. I think that is valuable work but not the only way to proceed. These are not strictly psychological measures, manifesting the mental states of individuals. They have a lot to do with institutions and varying social needs. Further, we are not looking for individuals who approximate good citizenship as a psychological state. Rather, we are trying to improve democracy. That may require a division of labor in which, for instance, some people specialize in protest and have low confidence in institution, while others have high trust and volunteer a lot. What kinds of civic engagement we need is a social/political question, not a psychological one.
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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.