Draft Literature Review: The Causes of Political Participation

Sections: Introduction ->  What is Political Participation? -> The Causes of Political Participation ->  Inequality and Privilege -> Interim Observations ->  Privilege and Capital ->  Adapting Capital -> Reconciling Privilege and Political Participation ->  The Importance of Perception ->  Conclusion

 

As noted in the introduction the question of why people do or do not participate in politics this is one of the key motivating conundrums of political behaviour research. In seeking a convincing solution to that conundrum it is useful to refer again to the work of Sidney Verba, Kay Lehman Schlozman, and Henry E. Brady in Voice and Equality. Not only do they provide the basis for the above typology of participation but they also advocate moving ‘beyond SES’, or socio-economic status, to focus on how background characteristics translate into trends in political participation.[1] In advocating consideration of how those processes work rather than just observing correlation they adopt an approach to causality, expanded upon below, that informs the one adopted in the current research.[2]

Focussing on the United States, Verba, Schlozman, and Brady’s interest is not primarily in aggregate levels of participation but in who participates, especially in political activity. As expected on the basis of previous research they find that the likelihood of political participation, and the amount of money and time given when participating, reflect the societal cleavages of class (as measured using wealth), race and ethnicity, and gender. Specifically, the wealthy participate in political activity more than do the less wealthy, whilst Anglo-Whites participate more than African-Americans, Latino citizens, and Latino non-citizens in that order, and men participate more than women.[3] Interestingly these patterns of political participation do not apply across the board in relation to religious and secular volunteering. Whilst the same patterns relating to race and ethnicity apply to secular voluntary activity, African-Americans are the most likely to attend religious services and give time and money to their church, which Latinos attend services more than Anglo-Whites but give less time and money.[4] Women are roughly as likely as men to be involved in secular volunteering, and are more likely to be involved in church activities. However, they give the same amount of time and less money when they get involved than do men.[5] This observation of participation in non-political volunteering being less structured by background characteristics fits with the observation that the majority of Americans participate in at least two of secular, religious, and political activity.

Confirmation of the importance of background characteristics in structuring political activity, whilst interesting, is not the purpose of Voice and Equality, which focuses instead on explaining those well-documented patterns. In pursuing that line of enquiry Verba, Schlozman, and Brady begin by considering motivations for political participation. Drawing on rational choice theory, these are identified as selective material (i.e. focussed on material benefits to the individual), selective social (i.e. focussed on social benefits to the individual), selective civic (i.e. focussed on the duty or social expectation of involvement), and policy-based (i.e. focussed on specific policies that spark interest).[6] The possibility that such motivations are post-hoc rationalisations is accepted but, if this is the case, their importance remains because they can influence future behaviour and contribute to the discourse around civic voluntarism.[7]

In the first case, selective material motivations are found to be highly relevant to involvement in work-related political action committees (PACs), contacting representatives about issues of particular importance to one’s self, political organisation affiliation, and church involvement. In the second case, selective social motivations are found to be important for campaigning, protest, political organisation affiliation, and church involvement. In the third case, selective civic motivations are found to be important across the board, though less so in relation to involvement in work-related PACs, contacting representatives about issues of particular importance to one’s self, and non-political organisation affiliation. Finally, policy motivations are found to be generally quite important, and especially so in relation to voting, campaign work, candidate contributions, work-related PACs, issue-based organisation affiliation, contacting representatives about community or national issues, and protest.[8]

Motivations are clearly an important part of the process that leads to political participation and the above findings are of interest in their own right. However, their utility in explaining the processes that lead from background characteristics to political participation is less clear. It seems unlikely that differences in participation between classes, races, and genders, are based on those groups possessing markedly different motivations. If there are, in fact, different trends in motivations between those groups then the reason for those differences would need to be explained. In fact, it seems more likely that there are barriers to participation that affect some groups more than others, regardless of their motivations, and it is this line of thinking that informs the direction of Voice and Equality.

In moving beyond motivations to find a more complete explanation for patterns of political participation Brady, Schlozman, and Verba posit the civic voluntarism model that centres on the importance of resources, engagement, and recruitment. The first of those concepts encompasses the money, time, and civic skills that are at the disposal of individuals.[9] The first two components of resources are familiar but the third, developed in Voice and Equality, requires further explanation. The acquisition of civic skills:

begins early in life in the family and in school and continues throughout adulthood in non-political domains – at work, in organizations, and in church. These civic skills are, thus, developed in the course of activities that have nothing to do with politics: making a presentation to a client, organizing a celebrity auction for a charity, or editing the church’s monthly newsletter. Once honed, however, they are part of the arsenal of resources that can be devoted, if the individual wishes, to politics.[10]

The role of socialisation in transmitting civic skills is apparent and indicates a link from background characteristics to resources. This suggests, in turn that there may be patterns in the distribution of resources between different groups.

Based on the survey data that they gathered for their research Brady, Schlozman, and Verba find that resources are, indeed, distributed unevenly across the population. Education and employment status, which are related to background characteristics, are positively related to income and thus to the resource of money. Free time is more evenly distributed than money, though the unemployed have more of it and, in employment, Latinos have the least, followed by African-Americans and then Anglo-Whites.[11] Of course, there are other factors that impact on time, such as having pre-school or school-aged children to look after, and housework to do, both of which are still more likely to be left to women to deal with.[12] Moving beyond money and time, civic skills are related to job status, with Anglo-White men most likely to have high-level employment and thus the skills that come with it. At the same time, civic skills are also related to the patterns in non-political volunteering noted previously. Thus, whilst White-Anglo men are again advantaged in terms of civic skills by their tendency to be more involved secular voluntary activity, African-Americans and women can gain civic skills from their greater engagement with religious activities.[13] This tendency for churches to provide a route to civic skills for groups that are less involved in high-status work or secular volunteering leads to the suggestion that they act as an equalising force in American political participation in a similar manner to trade unions in Europe.[14]

The second concept posited by the civic voluntarism model to be of importance in political participation is engagement. That concept encompasses interest in politics, belief in the efficacy of political action, level of political information held, and identification with a political party.[15] These components of political engagement are often considered in research on political behaviour, and are commonly understood, so further explanation is not required. Of interest, however, is the fact that their distribution is observed to be uneven and related to background characteristics. In particular, education and income are positively related to all of the components of political engagement except party identification. Further, White-Anglos are more engaged that African-Americans and Latinos in relation to all of the components with the exception that African-Americans have the strongest party identification. Interestingly, gender is of little significance in relation to political engagement although women tend to hold less political information.[16]

Before considering the final component of the civic voluntarism model, recruitment, it is worth noting that Verba, Schlozman, and Brady emphasises the greater importance of resources and engagement. This is because they are considered necessary for political participation to occur whereas recruitment tends to activate those who have the requisite levels of resources and engagement rather than be a necessity in itself.[17] Nevertheless, the fact that recruitment fulfils such a role is important, not least because resources point only to who can get involved in politics, rather than who does.[18] Whilst engagement may suggest who does get involved in politics it is beset by issues of causality because components such as political interest and information could result from political activity rather than cause it.[19] Despite these caveats the impact of resources and engagement, considered further below, on political participation is strong, and is complemented by the impact of recruitment.

The concept of recruitment is not a complex one and is centred on requests to take part in political activities. Such requests may come from an array of sources including family and friends but Brady, Schlozman, and Verba are most interested in those that come in institutionalised contexts such as the workplace, church, or meetings of secular voluntary organisations.[20] In a similar vein to the above observations relating to resources and engagement, there are different patterns of recruitment between groups based on background characteristics. The starkest of those patterns is based on educational level and income (with the former strongly linked to the latter), which are positively related to requests to participate in political activity in the work, church, and secular voluntary organisational settings. Requests are also patterned by race and ethnicity, with Anglo-Whites receiving the most followed by African-Americans and then Latinos. This applies in both the work and secular voluntary organisational settings but in the church setting it is African-Americans who are most likely to receive requests.[21] It is also the case that a higher proportion of men than women are recruited to political activity in church or secular voluntary organisation settings, with a slight trend in the opposite direction in workplaces, though these trends are all slight.[22]

These patterns again point to religious institutions in the United States of America providing a route for otherwise marginalised groups to get involved in politics; not only do they offer a context in which civic skills can be developed but they also act as a source of requests to participate.[23] Of course, there is the risk that those who undertake more political activity subsequently receive more requests for further participation. As with engagement, this poses questions of causality relating to recruitment because we cannot be sure that requests to participate in politics necessarily precede that participation.[24]

The fact that there are causal questions relating to two of the key concepts in the civic voluntarism model, namely engagement and recruitment, suggests the utility of considering Verba, Schlozman, and Brady’s approach to causality. As is common practice in political science they utilise statistical analyses to examine probabilistic relationships.[25] That approach allows them to posit a causal path that begins with background characteristics such as parental class, gender, and race and ethnicity. Those characteristics precede and influence pre-adult experiences of politics at home, education, and extra-curricular activity at high school, which in turn impact on adult institutional involvement such as job status, organisational affiliations, and religious attendance. Ultimately, the preceding stages of the causal path are posited to influence the distribution of the participatory factors that constitute the civic voluntarism model; resources, engagement, and recruitment.[26]

Beyond positing a causal path Voice and Equality dedicates considerable space to testing those propositions, primarily by means of Two-Stage Least Squares statistical analyses. This testing leads to the conclusion that:

The data confirm the existence of two paths from characteristics of one generation to the acquisition of the factors that foster political participation in the next. The starting point of each one is the education of the parents, and respondents’ educational attainment figures importantly in both. One path is more or less socioeconomic. The main effect along this path is the impact of parents’ education on respondents’ education and from there to the job and income levels that they ultimately attain. The second path runs through political stimulation in the home and school. Well-educated parents are more likely also to be politically active and to discuss politics at home and to produce children who are active in high school.[27]

Having established that the proposed causal process leading to the formation of the key factors in the civic voluntarism model is supported by empirical evidence it is useful to turn to the last step in the causal process, that is the impact of the key factors on political participation.

The effects of resources and engagement are found to be wide-ranging and significant. In relation to time-based political activities Verba, Schlozman, and Brady find that civic skills, political interest, political efficacy, and political information are all positively related to participation. Turning to voting, it is found that political interest, partisanship, and political information are positively related to turning out. Unsurprisingly, income is unchallenged as the most significant factor relating to political donating whilst interest and information are positively related to political discussion. There are of course other factors that are found to relate to participation such as education, which is positively related to time-based activity, and citizenship, which is unsurprisingly related to voting.[28] However it is resources and engagement that are, as predicted by the model, found to be crucial components of the causal process that leads to political participation. The third factor in the model, recruitment, whilst arguably activating rather than enabling participation, is also found to be positively related to it.[29]

Building on the posited model Verba, Schlozman, and Brady note that, like recruitment, particular issues can activate political participation. In the mid-1990s when the research for Voice and Equality was being conducted abortion was, as it continues to be today, a major motivating issue in American politics. Focussing on that issue they found that there is a strong link between holding staunchly pro- or anti-abortion opinions and being active in the area. Such activation does not result from all issues on which people hold equally strong opinions so it is not the case that topics the provoke staunch positions are necessarily those that will motivate political activity.[30] Additionally, and crucially, issue activation does not trump the impact of the civic voluntarism model:

For a group that is resource-deprived, issue engagements go only so far in elevating a depressed level of participation. For a group that is well-endowed with participatory resources, issue engagements can give an additional participatory push. Thus, political participation is deeply enmeshed with the substance of politics. Yet the way in which political issues and conflicts are manifest in participatory input also depends fundamentally upon the structure of participatory factors having their origins outside politics.[31]

Thus, whilst acknowledging the importance of other factors, the civic voluntarism model is retained as the primary account of the causal process that leads to political participation.

To summarise, Verba, Schlozman, and Brady present a model that posits a causal path from background characteristics through early socialisation and subsequent organisational affiliation to the key concepts of resources, engagement, and recruitment, which account to a great degree for political participation. Those key concepts draw on well-established components such as income and political interest as well as a new component of resources in the form of civic skills. The posited model, including new and existing components, is tested using survey data gathered for the purpose and found to work as predicted. The model is not intended to be complete and other factors including motivations and issue activation are found to work alongside it without reducing its efficacy. Thus Voice and Equality provides an intellectually convincing and empirically robust account of the mechanisms that translate background characteristics into different patterns of political participation. Crucially, in providing that account it is not attempting to explain away the participatory inequalities that exist between classes, races and ethnicities, and genders but to illuminate how and why those very real inequalities do exist.[32]

Unequal levels of political participation across key societal cleavages are of particular significance because they can contribute to unequal outcomes resulting from the political process. In fact, the voting records of elected representatives have been shown to reflect the opinions and interests of their wealthy constituents, which may be in part because those constituents are more active.[33] The fact that political participation is structured by race and ethnicity, and gender as well as class suggests that the interests and opinions of privileged groups more generally may be better reflected by elected representatives. This lends additional significance to the ultimate and succinct conclusion of Voice and Equality ‘that the voices heard through the medium of citizen participation will be often loud, sometimes clear, but rarely equal.’[34]

Sections: Introduction ->  What is Political Participation? -> The Causes of Political Participation ->  Inequality and Privilege -> Interim Observations ->  Privilege and Capital ->  Adapting Capital -> Reconciling Privilege and Political Participation ->  The Importance of Perception ->  Conclusion

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[1] Brady, Verba, and Schlozman, ‘Beyond SES’; Verba, Schlozman, and Brady, Voice and Equality, p. 3, pp. 19-20.

[2] Verba, Schlozman, and Brady, Voice and Equality, pp. 24-25.

[3] Verba, Schlozman, and Brady, Voice and Equality, pp. 187-196, pp. 202-204, pp. 231-235, pp. 254-257.

[4] Verba, Schlozman, and Brady, Voice and Equality, pp. 241-247.

[5] Verba, Schlozman, and Brady, Voice and Equality, pp. 260-262.

[6] Verba, Schlozman, and Brady, Voice and Equality, p. 104, pp. 108-112.

[7] Verba, Schlozman, and Brady, Voice and Equality, pp. 97-99.

[8] Verba, Schlozman, and Brady, Voice and Equality, pp. 114-121.

[9] Verba, Schlozman, and Brady, Voice and Equality, p. 271.

[10] Verba, Schlozman, and Brady, Voice and Equality, p. 296, pp. 330-331.

[11] Verba, Schlozman, and Brady, Voice and Equality, pp. 291-294.

[12] Verba, Schlozman, and Brady, Voice and Equality, p. 296, pp. 302-303.

[13] Verba, Schlozman, and Brady, Voice and Equality, pp. 314-317.

[14] Verba, Schlozman, and Brady, Voice and Equality, pp. 332-333.

[15] Verba, Schlozman, and Brady, Voice and Equality, pp. 345-348.

[16] Verba, Schlozman, and Brady, Voice and Equality, pp. 348-350.

[17] Verba, Schlozman, and Brady, Voice and Equality, p. 270.

[18] Verba, Schlozman, and Brady, Voice and Equality, p. 343.

[19] Verba, Schlozman, and Brady, Voice and Equality, p. 344.

[20] Verba, Schlozman, and Brady, Voice and Equality, pp. 372-375.

[21] Verba, Schlozman, and Brady, Voice and Equality, pp. 375-377.

[22] Verba, Schlozman, and Brady, Voice and Equality, pp. 375-377.

[23] Verba, Schlozman, and Brady, Voice and Equality, pp. 380-388.

[24] Verba, Schlozman, and Brady, Voice and Equality, pp. 370-372.

[25] Verba, Schlozman, and Brady, Voice and Equality, pp. 24-25.

[26] Verba, Schlozman, and Brady, Voice and Equality, pp. 416-418.

[27] Verba, Schlozman, and Brady, Voice and Equality, p. 439.

[28] Verba, Schlozman, and Brady, Voice and Equality, pp. 352-364.

[29] Verba, Schlozman, and Brady, Voice and Equality, pp. 388-390.

[30] Verba, Schlozman, and Brady, Voice and Equality, pp. 391-415.

[31] Verba, Schlozman, and Brady, Voice and Equality, pp. 414-415.

[32] Verba, Schlozman, and Brady, Voice and Equality, pp. 522-524.

[33] Bartels, Unequal Democracy, p. 252.

[34] Verba, Schlozman, and Brady, Voice and Equality, p. 532.

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