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Relationship Participation, Citizenship and Political Education

Literature Review


Why is it important for people to participate in democratic processes? What purpose does this participation have for the society we live in and for the systems that govern it? Tocqueville (1840) argued that wider political participation from the general public strengthened society and was good for the people. ‘In order to ensure that men remain or become civilised, the skill of association must develop and improve among them at the same speed as the spread of equality of social conditions.’ (Tocqueville, 1840, 2003 version, p600). Tocqueville made an intrinsic link between democratic association, equality and civilised behaviour. He observed that as societies moved from autocratic rule by the aristocracy, where people were bound by the authority held by the head of state, towards democracy, where power rested with the people, political association and involvement of the people was essential for maintaining the harmonious workings of that society.

Link through commitment to democratic practice in youth work.

One of my central values as a youth worker is that if young people should be involved in decisions about the projects they take part in. Not only does this participation support the development of democratic skills, it also improves young people’s ownership of their projects, increasing the chances of success, whilst ensuring there is a focus on young people’s needs. If this argument is scaled up from youth work projects to the management of organisation or local, regional and national government then the same benefits could be seen to apply, indicating that ‘social policy measures…are more likely to succeed if they are conceived in response to wants and needs as expressed by young people themselves’ (Fitzsimons, Hope, Russell, & Cooper, 2011, p42). This raises the question that if people are not doing well in a democracy, to what degree are their troubles signs of failings in the political system? More specifically, if participation focusses a government on meeting the needs of the people, what does the failure to meet those needs do to their participation and to what degree does lack of participation impact on the likelihood of a government succeeding at meeting those needs? This failure could be explained in different ways, either through people not being allowed or given the opportunity to participate or through people lacking the will to participate. The first problem could arise where a government openly resists efforts from citizens who want to participate, or through them neglecting to offer opportunities for participation. This could include failing to educate and prepare citizens for participation. The second problem is the disengagement of the people from their political systems. Disengagement could happen for many reasons, whether through people feeling the system has failed to meet their needs or through distractions or other forces in everyday life that get in the way preventing them from participating. One problem with this position is that it assumes that given the right circumstances and support all people would participate to the same degree and effectiveness. This seems unlikely, as it ignores the complexity of human beings, whose personal differences, values and attitudes rarely support arguments that suggest the same inputs with different people will produce identical results. Therefore, any exploration of the relationship between participation and democracy should consider how an individual’s personal make up, including their identity, culture, gender, position in society, their values, attitudes and beliefs, inform their participation in democracy. How are these values, attitudes and beliefs formed? How do they change and why?
Reduction or transformation

Young people’s involvement in politics is a hotly debated topic. How do young people develop their political identities and behaviours? Are they more or less involved than previous generations (Putnam, 2001) or is their involvement changing? (Juris & Pleyers, 2009). Putnam (2001) was concerned about reductions in young people’s civic participation in the US, whether this involved membership of political parties or clubs and societies, arguing that this withdrawal from civic life presented a serious risk to democracy, similar concerns in the UK led to the development of citizenship education (Crick, 1998). Others have argued that young people’s interest has not declined, rather their political behaviours have changed. Juris and Pleyers (2009) felt emerging youth citizenship had a greater ‘emphasis on lived experience and process; a commitment to horizontal, networked organisation; creative direct action; the use of new information and communication technologies (ICTs); and the organisation of physical spaces and action camps as laboratories for developing alternative values and practices’ (Juris & Pleyers, 2009, p1). Others explain how youth activism has moved towards ‘more personal, interpersonal, reflexive, DIY and more informal political action’ (O’Toole & Gale, 2010, 141) describing a situation where young people had joined with a political party for an anti-war march, but had little interest beyond working with them on the action that appealed to them. Whilst these studies do not directly contradict Putnam’s concerns around the reduction of collectivism, they offer a more optimistic picture, retaining the potential for democratic social change. Dalton (2017) agreed with Putnam on the reduction of electoral participation, but evidenced an increase in non-electoral participation, the other efforts made by people to influence political decision making, agreeing with those who argue that participation has changed. However, he showed this increase mainly came from groups who were economically and educationally advantaged, showing that groups with lower economic and educational status had in fact experienced larger drops in electoral participation, as well as failing to keep up with increases in non-electoral participation. The resulting gap ‘distort(s) democratic policy outcomes towards those with the skills and resources to be active.’ (Dalton, 2017, p212) He argued that despite this inequality, increases in participation should be applauded, but that that attention needs to be paid to the problem, either by increasing inclusivity, through political parties focussing on the needs of the poor or by increasing the opportunities for ‘civil-society activities for the interests of lower-status citizens.’ (Dalton, 2017, p219) This study aims to look at the influence of such activities, working with people living in deprived communities and exploring civil and political action and their experiences of political and civic engagement and participation.

Consider Bang – Everyday makers.

Definitions and typologies

This section will attempt to clarify the scope of this study and some of the terminology used. It will use of two typologies that describe civic engagement and political participation. There is a huge problem with definition of terms in this area, the terms civic, political, engagement and participation will be central to some of my discussion, yet they need to be used with some caution, as their meanings are contested and some of them have been used to mean the same or different things in different contexts. If a term is ‘used by scholars to mean completely different things, it is basically a useless concept—it confuses more than it illuminates’ (Ekman & Amnå, 2012, p284). The terminology debate is well documented in (Adler & Goggin, 2005; Ekman & Amnå, 2012; Matto, 2017) who demonstrate the range of meanings attributed to civic engagement, from an umbrella term that includes political engagement to one specifically referring to non-political activity aimed at improving the community. The confusion stretches outside of academia, with some seeing engagement as government or organisation led, compared to participation being described as people led (Garrigues, 2017) and others seeing engagement as a superior level of active attention, as opposed to passive participation (Brains On Fire, 2009)This is the direct opposite of academic definitions, such as Ekman & Amnå (2012), where participation is seen as a higher-level category of engagement. Percy-Smith (2010) highlights how in the UK participation has been broadly interpreted as consultation, leading to a top down focus, which is a reversal of Garrigues position and demonstrates the need for clarity. This review will draw upon the work of Zukin (2006) and Ekman & Amnå (2012) whose typologies help illuminate the breadth of the topic and will be used to explain the scope of this work.

Ekman & Amnå (2012) mapped various forms of civil and political participation from non-engagement to civil participation and then political participation. Non-engagement is described as both passive and active, ranging from those who are apathetic about politics to those who actively avoid it. Civil participation encompassing both attention and action focussed participation that falls within the civil realm (social involvement, volunteering, discussing politics etc). Lastly, political participation includes formal participation through elections and the political system and activism, seen as direct attempts to influence the political institutions. It is tempting to see this in terms of a hierarchy, making a value judgement that the more active elements of the typology are more important or potent than the elements that seem passive in comparison. This judgement risks oversimplifying the dynamics at work, where non-engagement could very well have greater impact on decision making and political outcomes than activism could ever hope for. Indeed, although presented in a clear order of intensity, the authors stress that they do not intend to imply any ‘underlying causality’ (Ekman & Amnå, 2012) rather describing the typology as gathering together all the parts of the puzzle.

Zukin (2006) describes types of engagement, including political, civic, cognitive and expressive. This typology groups various behaviours together under the banner of engagement. Matto (2017) presents a useful visualisation of this typology, using four overlapping squares, putting political and civic behaviours on an x-axis and cognitive and expressive on a y-axis. Here the definition between civic and political is clear, with the political focussing on the formal or party political activity, such as voting, making campaign contributions or wearing a party badge and the civic being around community actions such as forming groups, volunteering or fundraising ‘participation aimed at achieving a public good, but usually through direct hands-on work in cooperation with others.’ (Zukin, 2006). The cognitive and expressive elements can happen in either the political or civic domain and are helpful for understanding the complexity of engagement. Cognitive engagement deals with how people become aware of and process information related to politics, including discussions, reading and watching the news, whereas the expressive domain includes various activities that aim to influence change by raising awareness or articulating a viewpoint to the wider community or by specifically influencing an institution or organisation. This could include forms of protest, boycotting, petitioning or contacting a politician. It is easy to see how both of these can cross over into the political and civic, with people learning about issues in their local community through the local news or conversations with neighbours, in the expressive domain, or engaging with issues in the political domain on a local, national or international scale. Equally the tools of expression are applicable to either domain from a group of people putting up posters to discourage littering, in the civic domain, to attending an anti-austerity march in the political. These domains necessarily overlap and blur. If engagement is to be understood, it is through examining the spaces in-between these domains. The cognitive and expressive elements give insight into how the civic and political relate to each other, how national or international issues can also be seen within local contexts.

This review will concentrate on engagement as the overarching concept, using Zukin’s typology as a guide to the mix of behaviours of interest. For the sake of clarity, I define engagement as people’s interest, attention or involvement in decision-making whether in relation to the organisation of the world around them and how it impacts on their lives and those of others. I define participation as the activities of people seeking to influence decision making. In this sense engagement is the broader term, covering anything from interest to action, whereas participation is more specifically about action. When discussing research or issues, it will be necessary to draw attention to whether engagement or participation is organisation or citizen led and this will be made clear, however the primary interest of this study is bottom up engagement and participation that comes from young people or from within their families and communities. Where necessary civic, political, expressive or cognitive labels will be used to indicate what part of engagement is being discussed, however, the term engagement will also be used on its own to refer to the wider context.

  • It is of course important to say what is meant by terms such as participation or engagement. You have used Zeldin, but perhaps also worth considering other interpretations as well and then decide on how you will use the term
  • It is important not to get too bogged down in definitions but instead cut through and move beyond these discussions to what your study is about.

Structural poverty and Voter inequality

One of the most compelling arguments for improving participation in our political system is that by doing so we may improve their ability to tackle inequality and work towards eliminating poverty and the disadvantages it causes. Pickett and Wilkinson (2010) evidenced a significant relationship between the size of the gap between a society’s richest and poorest citizens and the occurrence of wider social problems(Pickett & Wilkinson, 2010). For them the gap was more important that the scale of the poverty, which could indicate that the problem exists in the distance between decision makers (who tend to be at the top of society) and the people experiencing deprivation at the bottom, supporting Dalton’s (2017) analysis of the participation gap. This distance is perhaps both cultural and experiential, perhaps suggesting that the gap is as much one of ability to communicate and understand each other, as it is one of relative wealth. Schlozman et al (2017) demonstrated that not only is the gap a problem, but in America it is one that has been expanding since at least the 1970s. They outlined that as wealth supports people to have greater access to political decision making, the increasing gap is preserved and grown by the dominance of the wealthy in the political sphere, because they tend to make decisions that benefit the wealthy or at least help to maintain their situation. They argue that trickle-down economics (Schlozman, Brady, & Verba, 2017), where everyone benefits when those at the top get richer, helps to uphold this situation and it is easy to see why those who might benefit most from this concept (the wealthy) would persist with this strategy, especially if they are so removed from those living with poverty that they are not able to fully comprehend its results. At the same time, Dalton argued that the loss of working-class institutions has impacted on voter mobilisation, pointing to the ‘declining size and activity of working-class oriented labor unions.’ (Dalton, 2017, p218)

Lister (2011) argued that children are uniquely effected by poverty ‘Children in poverty are victims of an unjust distribution of societies resources. Their rights as children are undermined and both their childhood and life chances are constrained.’ (Lister, 2011, p127)These constraints could be argued to include the ability of the child to influence their situation or by extension decisions that could help of hinder their situation, which would agree with (Townsend, 1979) who linked poverty to reductions in people’s ability to engage and participate in society. If the child in poverty is seen as a victim of circumstance, born into a difficult situation, what opportunities are available for them to change their situation? Are they further disadvantaged in by a lack of capacity to implement or effect change? It could be argued that starting in poverty limits the resources and opportunities available to a child to escape poverty, either through the sheer scale of material disadvantage, or through reduced opportunities to learn and develop skills, attitudes and knowledge that would support them to take action to improve their situation in adulthood. The problem with this argument is that it risks depicting those living with poverty as entirely powerless and fails to recognise their efforts or abilities to influence change in their own lives. Lister (2004) shares this concern over seeing the people as deficient, stressing the importance of rights based, participatory approaches to tackling poverty and putting forward evidence that ‘people in poverty are actors within their own lives, but within the bounds of frequently formidable and oppressive structural and cultural constraints.’ (Lister, 2004, p157)This better recognises the potential of people to influence and lead change, whilst acknowledging the considerable challenges they might face.

Holman (1978) goes further, stating ‘the poor need the political strength to carry out the kind of reforms that would alter their position in society’ (Holman, 1978, p259).A view supported by Tocqueville’s analysis of the power of individual citizens ‘they can achieve nothing by themselves…they all sink into a state of impotence, if they do not learn to help each other voluntarily.’ (Tocqueville, 1940, version 2003, p 597)  Holman is clear on the need for structural changes in order to tackle poverty and the need for political will supporting this change. He argues that ‘it involves the socially deprived themselves – local-residents, welfare recipients, the low-paid defining their own needs, problems and solutions’ contrasting ‘with the usual practice of their wants being defined by those above them in the social structure.’ (Holman, 1978, p262)His argument could be seen as idealistic, especially when considering the barriers suggested by Lister, However, the political will he refers to is as much that of people working together from across the class spectrum, expressed as collective action, as it is that of decision makers.

Uncritically accepting that increased political participation would be of universal benefit and would resolve issues of poverty would be to ignore the risk associated with greater involvement. As Dalton (2017) indicated recent increases in participation have mainly effected those with existing resources and advantage. Verba (2003) examined other counterarguments, including concern around overloading the system with political demand, but most significantly over the quality of political participation. He cites evidence that:

‘The educated are better social scientists and more democratic moral reasoners. They are not only more active; they are better citizens…They are more informed, have more consistent political values, and can make better connections between means and ends. In general, they are more supportive of the rules of democracy, more tolerant of unpopular voices, more committed to communal rather than individualistic goals.’ (Verba, 2003, p669)

Verba is playing devil’s advocate, but his concerns are worth discussion. He is linking quality education with lower levels of deprivation, which is a stronger argument for improving the quality of education than it is for limited participation. However, his core concern is the potential rise of populism, which at the time of writing is a far greater reality (REF). Populism is a rejection of pluralism where ‘there is one people and one answer. As such, populism sees “the people” as a largely undifferentiated whole, as it has to if it is claimed that the “leader” can represent the people, in opposition to the existing elite. This inevitably means that populism has no time for recognition of difference’ (Bang & Marsh, 2018, 358) this undermines democratic principles, the irony being that mass involvement could create a more oppressive society. Converse to Verba’s concern that this might happen through efforts to increase participation, Bang and Marsh (2018) argue that populism is on the rise due to the ‘uncoupling’ of politicians and citizens due in part to shifts towards neoliberal government and the rise in identity politics, which have in turn diluted collectivist action. In the context of growing inequalities, neoliberalism divides society into winners and losers, with far more losers than winners, creating the ideal recipe for populists to appeal to those who feel disenfranchised ‘ignored, colonised and devalued.’ (Bang & Marsh, 2018, p359)Ratherthan engaging more people in politics through education and processes that include them in decision making, a situation is created where simple answers are given to complex questions allowing populist takeover. Verba’s ‘educated…social scientists’ are Bang’s ‘elites’. Dalton (2017) cites how facing this problem some argue for reducing participation and a form of ‘”epistocracy” – government by the knowledgeable’ (Dalton, 2017, p214) aimed at preventing tendencies for poor decision making in democracy. Although this may reduce the risk of populism, it does little to address concerns of those living with poverty, who would likely continue to be under-represented in a system that favours those who are already advantaged. Rather than rejecting democracy in favour of an unpredictably benevolent elite, it seems more desirable to look for ‘methods to increase citizen knowledge and involvement…especially among those who are most needing of the government’s assistance’ (Dalton, 2017, p223).

Participation, Citizenship and Political Education

This section will explore some of the measures that have been taken to improve participation and political education, particularly in the UK in recent years. It will also explore some of the thinking around the effectiveness of educational measures that have attempted to impact on young people’s civic and political participation.

Develop with more on participation –


Article 12 of the UNCRC (1989) outlined key responsibilities around involving children and young people in decision making:

‘1. States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.

2. For this purpose, the child shall in particular be provided the opportunity to be heard in any judicial and administrative proceedings affecting the child, either directly, or through a representative or an appropriate body, in a manner consistent with the procedural rules of national law.’ (United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989)

Although article 12 could be mainly seen as concerning legal decision making around children, it has been credited as a ‘motor’ for change leading to a greater consensus that ‘young people should be allowed greater involvement in decision making about public services.’ (Fitzsimons et al., 2011, p45) This change in emphasis is clear in policy that followed, much of which is outlined in (Burke, 2010, p53-57). Here we see attempts to involve young people in non-electoral decision making, a partial acknowledgement of them as a functioning part of rather than passive subject to democratic systems. However, as Fitzsimon (2011) points out, participation has often been seen as ‘an effective management tool for dealing with a perceived social problem’ (Fitzsimons et al., 2011, p45) suggesting participation legislation in the late 1990s was heavily influenced by social unrest in the 1980s. The move towards inviting young people to participate in decision making was accompanied by policy development around citizenship education in schools (Crick, 1998) which was equally concerned with deficit models, implemented in part due to concerns over declining youth participation and in ‘voting and volunteering’ (Keating & Janmaat, 2016, p409) but also by similar concerns that when countries fail to develop a ‘tradition of active citizenship…the risk is lawlessness within society; perhaps not general but at the least the risk that sections of young people may feel alienated, disaffected, driven to or open to strong degrees of anti-social behaviour.’ (Crick B., 1999, p338) This deficit model of citizenship continued to inform policy into the 2000s as citizenship policy attempted to tackle concerns over home grown terrorism with efforts to embed a sense of ‘Britishness’ (Tonge, Mycock, & Jeffery, 2012) How might this deficit approach to citizenship have impacted on young people’s conception and attitude to citizenship and as a consequence participation? It raises questions over how this may have influenced changes in how young people interact and engage in civic and political spheres? Especially disadvantaged groups who might be seen problematic in the eyes of legislators, and who their policy was at least in part intended to influence.

Changes in the how citizenship has been understood illuminate very different approaches and ideas about what it is to be a citizen. From seeing it as how the citizen relates to the state, in terms of what they can expect and a rights-based approach to what the state expects from its citizens and a greater responsibility focus. Crick (1998) described citizenship education for young people as developing ‘morally responsible behaviour’, ‘learning through community involvement and service to the community’ and only thirdly ‘about and how to make themselves effective in public life through knowledge, skills and values’ (Crick, 1998, p11-13). His approach to citizenship focussed on responsibility and the qualities and behaviours of individuals, contrasting with more rights based understandings of citizenship, such as Marshall (1950) whose earlier analysis was based on ‘civil, political and social’ rights (Marshall & Bottomore, 1987, p8 original text 1950), civil rights dealing with various personal and public freedoms, political rights relating to how people exercise and influence political decision making and social rights concerned with key protections and standards mainly associated with well-being. Faulks (1998) argued that this shift from rights to responsibility was due to neo-liberal critique of rights based citizenship, where the emphasis on rights risked greater state intervention and ‘citizens become increasingly reliant on the state for their well-being’ and ‘therefore individual innovation, invention, and personal responsibility (are) undermined’ (Faulks, 1998, p67). The shift is seen clearly in Crick’s work on citizenship and New Labour’s subsequent implementation of citizenship education policy. It seems ironic that neoliberal citizenship focusses on responsibility instead of rights, as by encouraging specific values or behaviours in its citizens, the state potentially intrudes further on individual freedoms, more directly than through the application of a rights-based approach. What can be learnt from these different approaches to citizenship and how to they relate to participation and engagement? A rights focus, where people are made aware of how the system works and how they can influence it, might do more to engender engagement than one that solely acts to influence how people behave. However, this perhaps oversimplifies the approach implemented in the UK, as although it may have been inspired by concerns about young people and society and adopted a primarily responsibilities-based focus, its still dealt with both ‘community involvement’ and preparing young people to be able to influence the system (Crick, 1998).

One challenge when assessing the effectiveness of educational inputs aimed at improving civic and political participation is determining how this improvement might be measured or understood. This review will not be exploring these measures in detail, but it is worth considering that whilst for some the end measure of whether political participation has been effective is formal political participation by voting, others are interested in broader interpretations of political participation (Manning & Edwards, 2014b).

One of the main assumptions at the heart of political education is that increasing political efficacy, or a person’s belief in their ability to influence political change, has a direct impact on their engagement with political processes.

‘Attitudes about one’s competence in political and community arenas are important predictors of civic and political participation. Moreover, individuals’ experiences with various elements of public engagement, including the most communicative aspects of public life, exert tangible force on the same attitudes that are also believed to predict their participation in the first place.’ (Gastil & Xenos, 2010, p332)

Do I need to talk about Bandura and efficacy more generally?

Hope (2016) found that when political efficacy is combined with a sense of ‘youth social responsibility’ where young people ‘hold themselves accountable for positively contributing to society, prizing others and the whole society over their own individual needs’ (Hope, 2016, p613) this sense of responsibility increases the impact of political efficacy. However, Kahne and Westheimer (2006) warned that the gap between a person’s internal and external sense of efficacy can have a negative effect on their internal efficacy and likelihood of participating. For example, where someone may have a belief in their personal ability, but recognise that their social situation or identity is likely to prevent them from having a meaningful impact. This can create dilemmas for political educators who could be setting young people up to fail, raising awareness of a social issues there is little prospect of changing and potentially damaging political efficacy (Kahne & Westheimer, 2006). Despite these concerns, raising political efficacy offers an alternative goal to some of the stated aims of Crick’s (1998) citizenship education or indeed the rights-based education of Marshall (1950). Here the aim is more about personal power to influence change through the systems available to them.

The evidence on the impact of political education is mixed, often depending on the scope of the study. Manning and Edwards (2014) examined nine studies, mainly from the US, finding no significant evidence for any relationship between civic education and voting (Manning & Edwards, 2014a) but followed this up, indicating that ‘this education should not be taken as a formula for increasing participation in electoral politics’ (Manning & Edwards, 2014b, p7) but noting that it does have an impact on ‘political expression’ and that the changing nature of ‘emerging participatory behaviours’ amongst young people, require changes to ‘both elements of political practice and the education that support it.’ (Manning & Edwards, 2014b, p7) Keating’s (2010) analysis of the CELS Longitudinal Study, looked at the impact of citizenship education in the UK, finding ‘school based political activities can indeed have a positive and independent effect on electoral and expressive political engagement among young people in England.’ Manning and Edwards (2014a) did not include an earlier study from Keating (NEED A REF), as it had ‘did not include a comparison group or baseline measure to evaluate the effect of civic education relative to no civic education or a different form of civic education.’ (Manning & Edwards, 2014a) Other studies have supported the general benefits of UK citizenship education, despite many criticisms, Tongue et al (2012) demonstrated ‘young people who have received Citizenship classes are more likely to engage in civic activism, contributing to a healthier polity.’ (Tonge et al., 2012) Differences could be explained by different education systems and cultural circumstance between the UK and US. Keating’s emphasis on ‘activities’ rather than teaching, represents a wider conception of what is considered citizenship education. Manning and Edwards (2014a) argued that rather than focussing on political knowledge, US civic education needed to shift towards ‘fostering habits of political expression’ (Manning & Edwards, 2014a, p42) these types of learning were better represented in Keating’s data. Through participating in learning through action, including taking part in campaigns and youth councils, Keating and Janmaat argued ‘young people acquire civic attitudes and behaviours not just from being educated about citizenship through the formal curriculum, but also by putting citizenship into practice’ (Keating & Janmaat, 2016). Learning about politics through action is supported by Ikeda et al (2008) who highlighted the impact of political participation on building political efficacy, accounting for this through cognitive benefits, whereby participation creates virtuous circle, increasing the likelihood of further participation (Ikeda, Kobayashi, & Hoshimoto, 2008). This would support non-formal approaches to civic and political education that enable learning through involving young people in decision making.

Despite criticisms of the knowledge-based learning normally associated with the classroom, teaching style and how the classroom is used can impact on learning that increases civic and political engagement. There is evidence for increased political efficacy gained through the use of ‘open classroom’ techniques, where young people have a say, ‘classroom environments where students are exposed to political discourse and debate by being encouraged to share their views’ (Martens & Gainous, 2012, p959) (Could link in with Freire / problematise / discuss). Condon (2015) suggests looking beyond direct citizenship education to understand links between education and political participation, finding that verbal and written skills are a bigger predictors of adult participation than political education ‘when young people learn to use their voices in school, they are more likely to speak up as participatory adults.’ (Condon, 2015) She notes similar divides around education and voter turnout, but interestingly is able to evidence that this is not attributable to ‘selection effects and the sorting of individuals into social positions’ (Condon, 2015, 837) This is a more general argument for improving education and in particular written and verbal communication skills.

Learning linked to involvement in less formal school-based activities, such as school councils, has other limits. Rainsford (2017) argues that such forums are usually dominated by the ‘usual suspects’ (Rainsford, 2017, p798) mainly lower middle class and of similar socio-economic backgrounds. This tendency would seem to exclude many of the young people who Lister (2011) saw as most effected by poverty and social inequality and could prevent education from these forums from overly benefiting young people living with poverty. (Would be good to get something contrary to or commenting on this…what are the experiences of young people living with poverty of youth councils?) However, other factors related to school-based activities might have a wider impact. Out of school activities, clubs and societies and membership of voluntary organisations has been demonstrated to impact on political engagement (Quintelier, 2008), finding this was particularly true of organisations that aimed to help other people or the community and that membership of a variety of organisations increased the effect, whilst increased participation with only one organisation did not. Quintelier (2008) attributes the benefits to the political socialisation that happens through group membership, she later found that ‘people who have bridging (e.g. diverse) networks are more likely to participate in politics’ (Quintelier, 2009) supporting some of Putnam’s (2000) views on social networks and social capital (Conscious I have not really spoken about social capital). However, Quintelier (2008) also found that multiple group membership was more likely in young people from higher socio-economic groups, mirroring the bias in youth forums. This would perhaps indicate a need to reduce barriers to group and multiple group membership, as a way to increasing socialisation and could be an argument for supporting low or no cost out of school groups such as youth clubs that might be more likely to be accessed by young people living in lower socio-economic areas.

Need to wrap this bit up, perhaps leading into discussion of the below…

Highlight the Partispace findings around not only inviting young people into formal space for participation, butt instead engaging with the full diversity of practices and learning that they engage with (Mainfray, n.d.).

‘we need to pay more attention to opportunities for children and young people to participate more fully in everyday community settings – home, school, neighbourhood – through the actions, choices, relationships and contributions they make, rather than being preoccupied with participation in political and public decision making processes in organisations and systems which are removed from young people’s everyday lives.’ (Percy-Smith, 2010, p109)


Family and community

Regardless of attempts at political education or developing citizens, most research agrees that the family is the most significant single influence on young people’s political and civic attitudes and behaviours. This link is demonstrated in a range of studies (McAdam, 1990; Spellings, Barber, & Olsen, 2012; Thomas, 1971; Veugelers, 2013) with influence manifesting in a variety of ways. Even where there is disagreement, Quintelier (2015) argues that peers groups have greater influence than parents, families are still seen as more important that formal education. Rather than rebelling against parental values, evidence suggests that young people are more likely to seek parental approval thorough their behaviour (McAdam, 1990; Taft, 2017). McAdam interviewed students who had been involved in voter registration activism in 1960s America, finding that parental support  and approval had a significant influence on those who took part. Parental values influenced activists in different ways, whether liberal parents promoting greater enfranchisement and civil rights or more conservative parents whose approval was framed in terms of commitment to religious aims. McAdam also examined applications from students who applied to take part, but decided against it, finding parental disapproval or concern was the most significant factor here too. Taft (2017) explored young women’s journeys into activism and found ‘the idea of rebelling against one’s parents was simply not part of young women’s narratives about their own routes into activism.’ (Taft, 2017, p33) also finding activists whose families had a tradition of left-wing activism, had followed, but also developed from their parents’ values. Despite the link ‘being an activist is more than just being a mirror image of their parents. Their relationships to their activism changed over time and they made political decisions that built upon what they had learned from their families, but also moved in some different directions.’ (Taft, 2017, p33). This supports Flanagan’s (2013) view that young people’s political identities develop through their engagement with many ‘mini-polities’ (REF) from the family, through to school and other social groups they encounter. Questions could be raised over how accuracy of these accounts. To what degree might people seek to reconcile the choices they have made to fit in with narratives that demonstrate harmony or minimise conflict with their parents? Regardless of interpretation there is clearly as strong relationship between parent and child political development.

If we accept that the family is a strong influence on young people’s political development, it may be worth asking how this might manifest. There is some evidence to support that this may work differently dependent on left / right political leanings. Thomas (1971) looked at both liberal and conservative families in the US, again finding strong correlations between parent and child political preferences. Thomas found a greater level of activism amongst the children of liberal parents and noted a small increase in the amount left leaning activism in children from conservative families who experiences low levels of parental warmth. Specific parental behaviours can be linked to the transmission of these values. Thomas found  parental commitment to causes, tutoring and permissive behaviours (the amount of freedom allowed to children) indicated a higher likelihood of activist behaviours and values being inherited. On top of this he found that young people whose parents disagreed about politics were more likely to be politically active. Parental political disagreement may offer greater opportunities for children to witness and potentially take part in political conversations than in homes where there is general agreement.

This positive effect of parental conflict on young people political development is supported by Veugelers (2013) who examined the relationship between voting patterns of activists and their parents between the 1960s and 1980s, with attention to those involved in communist and neo-fascist movements. Veugeler found that correlations between parent and child were persistent and held greater continuity where the parents held strongly partisan views, demonstrating the prevalence of the social logic approach where ‘voting reflects identities formed through interaction with intimates, acquaintances and opinion leaders’ over the economic approach where ‘voters are assumed to be rational, self-interested actors who revise their preferences according to relevant information’ (Veugelers, 2013, p 432), again linking with Flanagan (2013). Veugeler argued that political choices were associated (and to a degree constrained) by social networks, with children moving in the same or similar social networks as their parents and therefore experiencing the similar influences and supporting continuity. In this sense it is interesting to ask whether the behaviours in the family or the similarity of social circumstance bare greater responsibility for the outcome? The two factors may be impossible to untangle. Veugeler identified four processes responsible for the transmission of parental politics ‘(1) witnessing political activity; (2) hearing political discourse; (3) reading political discourse; (4) enacting political support.’ (Veugelers, 2013, p440) which may indicate that the connection between parent and child politics arrives through the interaction between people, situation and politics rather than any one factor. If this is the case then any research in this area should pay attention to each of the four area if it is to develop a useful understanding of the processes at work.

The role of parental interaction is supported by Pancer et al (2007) who identified four categories of adolescent political behaviour: activists, helpers, responders and the uninvolved. Activists were identified with political activity. Helpers with volunteering and civic involvement. Responders were not directly involved, but demonstrated passive support, such as signing petitions and the uninvolved had no involvement whatsoever. Pancer et al examined the impact of parental interaction with their children, finding that ‘Activists and Helpers reported more frequent interaction and involvement with their parents than did the Responders and Uninvolved on the parent interaction index.’ (Pancer, Pratt, Hunsberger, & Alisat, 2007, p752) perhaps demonstrating the importance of parental interaction in transmitting both political views and behaviours. Research and work with families might consider the nature of parental interaction and if seeking to increase political engagement, what might be done to support family interaction around civic and political ideas.

Pancer also identified that activists, helpers and responders reported generally healthier family functioning than adolescents from the uninvolved group with a ‘combination of warmth and strictness, the defining characteristics of authoritative parents’ (Pancer et al., 2007, p755). The nature and style of parenting has some interesting effects on young people’s political development. Whilst Pancer and Thomas both observed positive associations between parental warmth and engagement, Pavlova et al (2016) studied families in Finland, finding that parental warmth could have a detrimental effect on young people’s activism. She linked this to familial warmth creating a greater sense of conformity, which in turn made young people less likely to challenge the status quo. Wider civic engagement, such as volunteering was less effected ‘support experienced in the family may detain individuals from less socially desirable or more confrontational activities, such as AIDS-related volunteering or political activism, while fostering purely pro-social, conflict-free types of engagement, such as nonpolitical volunteering.’ (Pavlova, Silbereisen, Ranta, & Salmela-Aro, 2016, p2199). This indicates that the style of parenting may be as important as the level of involvement and that it may be necessary to consider how this links with the nature of young people’s engagement activities, raising questions over what other parenting choices or styles might impact on young people’s engagement? What other parenting qualities might influence young people’s development?

Serek et al (2012) looked at the impact of parental conflict on young people’s political efficacy, finding that exposure increased depressive moods in the late teens and reduced political efficacy, however, observing that ‘young people who perceive themselves as able to achieve something positive with arguing parents perceive that they have more influence in their communities’ (Šerek, Lacinová, & Macek, 2012, p582) linking efficacy within family conflict with increased political efficacy. This may provide some support for Thomas’s (1971) views about parental disagreement over politics increasing young people’s interest in politics.

Serek suggested that similarities between the family dynamic and the local political dynamic (in the sense of hierarchy and authority) might enable generalisation from one system to the other in terms of efficacy. If this is the case, what might young people generalise the other way around? How could the nature of a family be influenced by their relationship with politics or family member’s political efficacy? It might be worth asking how families are influenced by political conflict and whether improvements in political efficacy or skills could have a positive impact on families? This idea links with Tocqueville’s observation that democracy fostered ‘kinder’ family relationships than more despotic systems (REF).

It is easy when considering the influence of family on young people to assume this means the influence of the parents on children. This assumption is limiting and misses the dynamic complexity of families. Spellings et al (2012) suggested that more research is needed to examine how older siblings might impact on their younger brothers and sisters, but considering wider family members might be just as important, aunts and uncles, grandparents might all play very different roles, the wider family providing a political environment, with its own rules, values, customs and behaviours that help shape a child’s world view through a series of complex interactions between family members. Beyond this, it is necessary to consider the multitude of different family configurations that young people might experience, such as step families, single parent families, same sex families. How might different understandings of family influence young people’s political development? And what is the experience of young people who are brought up in foster families or other forms of care?
Outside of the family, it is important to consider the other adults that young people might encounter on a day to day basis and the potential influence of these relationships. Teachers, youth workers, neighbours and family friends could all be contributing to the political socialisation of young people, directly and indirectly. School curriculum or youth activities may play their role, however the relationships, attitudes, values and behaviours of those involved in the educational process could be as, if not more important than lessons taught, or projects worked on. Fullam (2017) takes an in depth look at an activist development, showing how the activist’s teacher not only mentored him, but also physically brought him into community meetings and introduced him to a wider a network, supporting growth in his activism. Coe (2015) also found ‘adult allies were also part of movement infrastructures, and by having “one leg in both,” able to play a vital role in facilitating young activists’ access to resources while lending them support.’ (Coe, Goicolea, Hurtig, & Sebastian, 2015, p21) What dilemmas might be faced by adults engaging with young people around activism? By its nature, activism puts the activist at odds with an existing authority, which could put them at some level of risk to young people engaged. What organisational and ethical considerations might teachers or youth workers need to make when working with young people around activism?

Theoretical underpinnings

This section will consider three main theories, exploring how they might be used to explain or describe learning and development of the knowledge, attitudes, behaviours and skills relevant to engagement.

Ecological development theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1979) provides a compelling model for understanding how people learn and develop that puts the learner at the centre of a series of environments that influence their understanding of the world around them. Closest are the microsystems, where they interact with their immediate family and friends; further out are meso systems representing the interaction between two or more environments, such as home and school; ecosystems are environments that may influence a young person, but where they never go, such as a parent’s work place and finally macrosystems represent the larger organisational and political systems that may influence their lives. The theory suggests that the nature of these environments, the interaction between them and a learner’s experience of these interactions help shape learning and development. Bronfenbrenner is critical of psychological responses that focus purely on the learner, ignoring the impact of environmental factors, stressing the importance of a person’s connection with their environment ‘The aspects of environment that are most powerful in shaping the course of psychological growth are overwhelmingly those that have meaning to a person in a given situation.’ (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, p22). If meaning grows out of interaction and experience, this would suggest that factors such as the how often an experience is repeated, or the intensity of an experience will increase impact of an environmental factor. The theory recognises that this is a two-way interaction with the learner both being shaped and shaping their environment. This is important for understanding engagement, as it creates opportunities to explore how people’s experiences in their microsystems might shape their views of the macrosystem and vice versa. A learner’s interactions with people in the microsystem, for example their parents involving them in discussions about politics, may inform their views of the macrosystem, this may in turn be informed by second-hand experiences from their parent’s workplaces in the ecosystem and by comparing their microsystem environments with others such as school or friend’s microsystems in the mesosystem. This complexity offers some explanation for why children do not turn out as carbon copies of their parents and why the same educational inputs produce a wide variety of outputs from the same school system. It also helps us better understand the diversity of experiences people might have within a community. ‘The system’s blueprints differ for various socioeconomic, ethnic, religious and other sub cultural groups, reflecting contrasting belief systems and lifestyles, which in turn help to perpetuate the ecological systems of each group’ (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, p26). However, this complexity is also part of the problem with ecological theory. The variety and number of factors influencing development are hard to track or predict. This raises questions about which environmental interactions and factors have most influence on young people’s civic and political engagement and how does this work? If trying to increase engagement, Ecological theory shows environments and interactions matter and that learner’s movement between and comparisons of environments impact on their learning. By combining ecological theory with other theory and research, it has potential to act as a framework for understanding the range of influences on learning and development.

Ecological theory can help explain both change and continuity in communities and perhaps give some insight into how to develop work that increases engagement by reflecting on the environments and interactions that learners experience. Recognising that engagement may be affected by a range of factors in the micro, meso and ecosystems, would suggest that work in such a community should pay attention to these levels and plan research activities accordingly. A project that aims to engage families might want to think about the variety of environments and systems those families are engaged with. Time could be spent reflecting on the various environments and systems people experience and attempting to understand what meaning is drawn from these environments and how this might influence engagement, and how young people learn about it. It might also be possible to reflect on how participating in civic and / or political engagement that relates to place, might in turn create new meanings for participants, altering both a community environment and how it is experienced. In this instance the researcher needs to recognise that the research process is a meeting in the mesosystem between the microsystems of the researcher and the participant and that this is a two-way process, where the researcher and participant may both learn and change as a result of their interactions. This raises important questions about ethics and consent, as this learning or change may or may not be welcome.

Socio-political Development (Watts, Williams, & Jagers, 2003) explores the process of becoming politically aware with reference to black communities living with poverty in America. SPD suggests a five-step process for young people becoming politically engaged, starting with the acritical stage, where there is a lack of awareness of inequality. This is followed by the adaptive stage, where there is awareness, but the status quo is generally accepted as unchangeable. Here people might develop adaptive behaviours to cope with this reality and hold on to a positive sense of self. At the pre-critical stage, people start to ask questions about the inequality and become critical of strategies developed in the adaptive stage. The critical stage develops this further with people looking deeper into the challenges and inequalities they experience. In the liberation stage, adaptive behaviours are abandoned in favour to involvement in social and community action. In this journey towards a state of liberation, Watt’s employs Freire’s concept of Critical Consciousness (Freire, 2013) where through the process of a dialogue conducted with empathy and between equals, a person might ‘discover that culture is just as much a clay doll made by artists who are his peers as it is the work of a great sculpture’ (Freire, 2013, p44). Watts suggests three components for developing critical consciousness, including critical reflection, political efficacy and critical action (Watts, Diemer, & Voight, 2011). That is awareness of oppression or inequality through experiencing the differences in how people are treated, the development of belief in one’s ability to act and the participation in action to create change. The process of becoming aware through critical reflection compliments Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological theory, suggesting that significant learning can occur when there is interplay between people as they move between different mesosystems. Here the young person may become aware of their relative disadvantage or difference, potentially supporting movement through Watts’ stages of socio-political development. When developing work with people living with disadvantage Watt asks:

‘Do our interventions create a firewall between the political, the cultural, and the psychosocial? Do our interventions support resistance and build skills for collective action on common concerns? The fundamental question is, do we acknowledge oppression in the lives of those we work with, and do we play a constructive, collaborative role in a liberation process?’ (Watts et al., 2011, p193)

Watts holds educators to a standard, moving away from a passive form, where education simply imparts facts or information towards a more dynamic role in supporting people’s journey towards liberation. Both Watts and Freire are discussing very different situations: Watts’ young African-Americans, and Freire the illiterate poor in Brazil; both different, but subject to structural oppressions and inequalities that stack further disadvantages against them. It is necessary to ask how well these concepts might be applied to families living in deprived areas of the UK. Their situations and experiences may differ, but arguably the process of becoming aware through critical reflection and movement towards action to achieve social change remains relevant.

Research that aims to create the conditions for Watts’ SPD model, intentionally provokes reflection that highlights inequalities and injustice. This action is not an a neutral or entirely benevolent act. Watts’ theory recognises that awareness of inequality can provoke problematic emotions or behaviours that may be detrimental to participants. This raises questions about the right of the researcher to create situations that – by increasing the awareness of inequality – might increase the experience of inequality. The counter to this is of course whether it is ethical to stand by and observe inequality or exploitation without intervening. Recognising a social problem and deciding that the people it affects cannot cope with reflecting upon it seems to be as arrogant a position as believing that by engaging with people to tackle it might achieve change. However, ignoring the situation seems the less honest approach of the two. Alongside upsetting a participant, there is also a risk that if people become locked in conflict with social problems that are too big or impossible for them to feel they can make a change, they may become disillusioned and experience a reduction in political efficacy, which could increase apathy and reduce civic and or political engagement. Kahne and Westheimer (2006) discuss this issue and suggest that the framing of activism is important to reduce the risk of disillusionment. They argue that if people are engaged with problems that are beyond their ability to solve, they should work in ways that recognise the difficulty of the problem, where there are opportunities for some sense of useful contribution. They might not ‘provide them with a sense of complete success but rather a vision of an ideal for which they and others could collectively strive.’ (Kahne & Westheimer, 2006).

In ‘Communities of Practice’ Wenger (2000) puts forward a social learning theory that may help describe and understand some of the processes that families experience when learning about civic and political engagement. Although Wenger’s theory primarily discusses workplaces, there are many elements of crossover that could be applied to families. Wenger describes knowledge and meaning as emerging from the interaction between people participating together towards shared goals (Wenger, 2000). This is perhaps the biggest difference in that families do not have as clear a set of shared goals as colleagues in a workplace. However, the various enterprises with which a family might engage provide some analogue for this, whether celebrating a birthday, eating dinner or going on holiday together. This research will explore the practice of democracy in and by families and the various communities with which those families interact. Wenger links learning to the development of identity, seeing participants as ‘being active participants in the practices of social communities and constructing identities in relation to these communities.’ (Wenger, 2000, p4) Here learning impacts on the construction of identity within communities of practice, potentially changing the way learning is understood. Instead of merely the acquiring new knowledge or skills, the learner is changed through their experience and the interaction between what they do and who they do it with. Not only this, but the community itself is also changed through the process, as is understanding and perhaps the nature of the practice. For example, parents in a family might make the decision to vote in a particular way in a general election. Where they get their information from, how they discuss and interact over this decision, what they say about this, how they go about casting their vote and how they experience the results all come together to form their practice of voting in an election. Elements of this practice may be experienced by children and other members of the family, with all involved learning about the practice. A sense of identity is formed through this shared experience, as a group of people who do something in a particular way. Although a practice might be established, the elements of this practice are unlikely to remain static over time. The results of an election and what these mean for a family, interaction with aging children, changing social circumstances, developments in the wider and national community may all influence and evolve that practice and therefore the identities of the family (or community) who are engaging in that practice. The attitude of a community towards a practice, in this case participation in democracy, is pertinent to any learning that takes place. For example, members of a family that strongly believe all politicians are corrupt and therefore voting is pointless will likely have a different identity in relation to the practice of voting to a family that put trust in a political party and feel that voting is an important democratic right / responsibility. Working with both families together, may lead to challenge and changes in both points of view. Some things will change, and others stay the same, but if there is learning there is unlikely to be no change, even if it is an increased commitment to the original viewpoint. These interaction and changes are hard to predict. What qualities might make a family committed to their viewpoint or open to change? Wenger suggests ‘learning involves a close interaction between order and chaos. The continuity of an emergent structure derives not from its stability, but from adaptability.’ (Wenger, 2000, p97) This would suggest that if a community (or family) wishes to continue to function effectively, in the long term, it should be open to changes in attitudes towards and understandings of the practices it undertakes. It might be worth exploring what values or practices promote this openness to change and how these function within a family setting. The link between identity and learning further problematizes the interventions of researchers or others who might seek to work with families around political and civic engagement, as the impact of research or interventions can go well beyond a family’s understanding of these subjects. Instead these interactions also relate to identity and values, especially in an area such as politics. The challenge for researchers is ensuring that participants retain control and consent at all stages of the project and are supported to understand the implication of this type of work.

Wenger describes a process of negotiating meaning, happening through the interplay between both participation and reification (Wenger, 2000), with participation creating meaning through interactions between people involved in practice and reification where abstract ideas, such as democracy are made concrete through a material or physical object, such as a ballot box. It may be interesting to explore how families both participate and reify political and civic engagement. How to they behave and interact when discussing or taking part in democratic action? What concrete symbols do they associate with this practice and how are they understood? Wenger also outlined three dimensions of practice: mutual engagement, joint enterprise and shared repertoire. The first two relate to how people come together and how they work together to achieve their goals. The shared repertoire is perhaps the most interesting and the place where reification has the most significance. This relates to the things that happen alongside practice, anything from common sayings or ways of speaking to the way people communicate and things that might seem less relevant to practice, but which may colour people’s experience of both community and practice. In a family this could include turns of phrase, the stories a family tells about itself, what they eat, where they get their clothes or other aspects of their day-to-day life. Exploration of these elements might give insight into how shared repertoire relates to practices related to democracy, civic and political participation. Understanding shared repertoire could produce its own challenges, as a researcher’s own understanding will have been developed through very different experiences and within different communities of practice. This could lead to misinterpretation and misunderstanding of meaning. A better option might be for researchers to work with participants to ascribe meaning to practices and shared repertoire, rather than trying to interpret separately. Even working with the participants may obscure or alter meaning, as collaborations between participant and researcher represent a new community of practice with its own characteristics and repertoire that may be different to that which is experienced in the family environment. Here, a synthesis of meaning is created, between researcher and participant that is unique to the research scenario. Perhaps this is impossible to avoid, but should be recognised when constructing meaning from research interactions.


These three theories can be used to describe different elements of the process happening when people learn about political and civic engagement within families. Ecological theory explains the complexity of the relationship between the learner and the various environments they encounter. Changes in attitudes and values can be understood though the interaction between the different environments people inhabit. This complements socio-political development theory, by giving a context for its process of political awakening through observing and exploring difference and inequality. Communities of practice adds a further dimension, exploring the two-way relationship between learning in groups and group identity and by illuminating the practices that happen in different ecological systems that create meaning. Together the theories can be used to understand how change happens on both individual and group levels and how these changes are linked. A person might become aware of an inequality through experiencing differences between their microsystems and those of others, this awareness might be developed through a process of critical consciousness to a point where they may actively campaign for change. Changes in their awareness and value system will either be accepted or rejected within their microsystem, but will inevitably impact on their interactions within their microsystem / communities of practice. These interactions will in turn impact on group identity and any meaning that is created by that group. Changes in group identity are also likely to be reflected in changes to individual identity, as a result of experiencing the group identity.

Note: John grows up in a family where his Mum and Dad regularly use racist language to describe people who are different to them. When he is young John’s family has an identity that includes the use of racist language in its shared repertoire. When John goes to school he mixes with other young people from different backgrounds and races. The school’s community of practice does not tolerate the use of racist language. Also, John makes friends with other young people and finds that racist language is not used in other family homes. This causes John to question his use of racist language and that of his parents. This questioning could be because the use of racist language is less useful in his other social environments (because it gets him in trouble) or because he becomes aware of its impact on other people with whom he has started to build relationships. Either way the use of racist language puts him in conflict with his school and social environment. John might begin to question and challenge his parents use of racist language, causing conflict with his parents and changing the family identity from one that uses racist language, to one where there is conflict over the use of racist language (whether expressed by John or experienced internally). John may decide it is more important to be like his parents, or at least too costly to change. He might decide to continue to use racist language at school and face the consequence or to manage his behaviour in school, but continue to use racist language at home, thus maintaining his family identity.

In this situation John had the choice between two conflicts. Whether to accept his parents’ behaviours or to adopt new behaviours that are more acceptable at school. Either way he will be making a choice that will reflect upon his personal identity and those of the group environments where he belongs. It is possible that he might also influence others in either group. Perhaps finding friends at school who are willing to accept his use of racist language and who may adopt it as part of their behaviours and practices or by influencing one or both of his parents to stop using racist language. Either option involves a potential for conflict and changes in individual and or group identity and would have potential costs to John.

Need to conclude this, perhaps reflecting on the theories and connections that make with open styles of education that enable discussion, ability to learn through experience and family learning – ie com of prac and environmental big time as well as SPD and improving pol eff.


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