youth civic engagement: an institutional turn

In 2005, my colleague Jim Youniss (Catholic University) and I organized a conference, funded by The Carnegie Corporation of New York, that explored a particular perspective on youth civic engagement. We tried to shift the focus away from direct efforts to change young people’s civic skills, knowledge, and behavior (for example, through civic education or voter mobilization). Instead, we wanted to talk about reforms of institutions that might make participation more rewarding and welcome. The problem is not always inside young people’s heads; sometimes they are right to avoid participation in the processes and institutions that exist for them. For similar reasons, it is important to study (and perhaps to change) their ordinary, daily experiences, which form the context for their civic and political engagement.

We convened more than a dozen experts: pyschologists, political scientists, sociologists, and scholars of communications and education. They ultimately produced 14 short essays that CIRCLE released yesterday as a package (pdf, 53 pages long).

I believe that these essays are quite rich and stimulating. At the risk of leaving out some of the best parts, I’ll mention a few samples:

  • Diana Mutz argues that deliberation and participation trade-off. She finds “that although diverse political networks foster a better understanding of multiple perspectives on issues and encourage political tolerance, they discourage political participation, particularly among those who are averse to conflict. Those with diverse networks refrain from participation in part because of the social awkwardness that comes from publicly taking a stand that friends or associates may oppose. … The best social environment for cultivating political activism is one in which people are surrounded by those who agree with them, people who will reinforce the sense that their own political views are the only right and proper way to proceed. Like-minded people can spur one another on to collective action, and promote the kind of passion and enthusiasm that is central to motivating political participation.”
  • Jane Junn challenges the idea that education is simply good for civic participation. “While formal education may encourage the development of cognitive ability and individual resources, it may also be the case that these skills are less relevant to one’s placement in the hierarchy of American life. Instead, the importance of education to stratification may be the role it plays as a powerful socialization device, teaching students who are successful and who progress through educational institutions to also become initiated into the hierarchical norms of commerce, politics, and social life. In short, education may be a particularly effective means of reproducing cultural, political, and economic practices. … Education may reproduce and legitimate structural inequalities that in turn drive vast disparities in wealth, and nurture the persistence of the dominance of the in-group to the systematic disadvantage of out-groups. … In its role as a powerful socializer, education teaches the ideology of meritocracy, by grading on normal curves and assuring those who finish on the right tail that they will succeed because they deserve to. … It is necessary to have some mechanism which reliably reproduces the ideology that maintains the positions of power for those at the top who benefit from the system as it already exists. When outcomes are positional or scarce–when not everyone can be rich, and not everyone can be granted admission into a top school–the liberal democratic ideology must have an answer to its production of unequal outcomes. Merit can be used as a justification for inequality of outcomes in a system where the rules are supposed to be fair.”
  • Dietlind Stolle characterizes the new forms of politics that we see in the anti-globalization movement and elsewhere. (1) “These new forms of participation abandon traditional (that is to say formal and bureaucratic) organizational structures in favour of horizontal and more flexible ones. Loose connections, in other words, are rapidly replacing static bureaucracies.” (2) “In general these new initiatives are also less concerned with institutional affairs, such as party politics, which brings them into sharp contrast with more traditional political organisations. Life-style elements are being politicized and although the actors no longer label their action as being expressly ‘political,’ these preoccupations do lead to political mobilization.” (3) “These new forms of participation … rely on apparently spontaneous and irregular mobilization. The signing of petitions, or participation in protests and consumer boycotts all seem based on spontaneity, irregularity, easy exit and the possibility of shifting-in and shifting-out.” (4) “New forms of participation are potentially less collective and group-oriented in character. … While this form of protest and participation can be seen as an example of co-ordinated collective action, most participants simply perform this act alone, at home before a computer screen, or in a supermarket.”