Definition of Civic Engagement

Topics: Volunteering

Civic engagement consists of different dimensions and aspects that are emphasized by different individuals and groups (Adler). It strives to connect people with their government, institutions and community (100). It is a political process, but it is also encompasses how individuals partake in a community and how the community comes together for a purpose (100). Due to the recent movement to promote civic engagement, there is no agreed upon term as the word ambiguity makes it difficult to identify the specific actions and ideas that encompass it (Adler).

Some common defining characteristics of civic engagement include efforts to directly address an issue, collectively act to solve a problem and interact with institutions (100).

Common forms of civic engagement can include volunteering, charitable giving, voting, using social media and organizational involvement (100). Alder’s proposed definition describes it as the way in which citizens participate in a community to improve conditions for others and help shape the community’s future (Adler). However, there is no consensus on the official term for civic engagement, as it depends mostly on the perspective and interest of the definer (Adler).

According to Ronan, there is a plateau in civic engagement that reflects something missing from the current idea of it (Ronan). In the 2014 midterm elections, youth voters ages 18-29 turnout rate was 19.9%, a decrease from 29.5% in 1974 (Circle). In the 2016 general election, only 46.1% of eligible youth voters, or about 24 million, voted (Circle). This trend of disengagement is noted across the world (Youniss). In Russia, 15% of youth report that they are interested in political issues, and 50% see no opportunity to make an impact on their communities through the political process (Youniss).

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In Japan, 60% of youth express little or no interest in Japanese politics and less than half want to do anything for Japan (Youniss).

Time and energy has been spent by government officials, grass root organizations and non-profit agencies to encourage young adults to civically engage (Andolina). When examining the reasons for lack of youth voter turnout, many conclude that youth are “too busy. They aren’t excited about either candidate, their vote doesn’t really matter, and nothing ever gets done anyway.” The United States government is viewed as irrelevant, ineffective and corrupt (Carpini). Youth and undergraduates in America view anything “political” with lethargy, pessimism and skepticism (Kappor). This is causing alarm as democracy is shifting from being full of participants to being full of spectators (Kappor).

Torney-Purta and colleagues argue that trust in government is necessary to foster youth engagement within their community and politics (Adolesc). Lack of trust correlates with youth’s lack of civic engagement, as they believe conventional politics makes no impact, is slow and is not connected to their deeper ideals (Balsano). Trust can be formed through the unity of deliberation and dialogue (Scully). Deliberation involves using reasoning and critical thinking as a way for decisions to be made (Scully). Dialogue allows for constructive communication, dispelling of stereotypes, honesty, understanding others and listening (Scully). In the public sector, deliberation and dialogue are used to solve problems, address policy issues and build relationships (Scully). They allow for communication sparking connections and trust between citizens and political systems (Scully).

In the case of civic engagement, trust is characterized by a cause, bringing people together, and an outcome, engaging people to resolve issues (Balsano). It accounts for individuals’ sense of responsibility and their readiness to connect (Balsano). If individuals identify with a group, they are more willing to work towards a collective good rather than for their individual gain (Watts). United States individualistic society does not support the interdependence in collective and trusting societies that is necessary for democracy (Balsano). According to Uslaner, in the United States, trust in other people has gone from 58% in 1960 to 37% in 2002 (Uslaner). In addition, a thirty-year study by Adolesc between 1974 and 2004 by Adolesc surveying high school seniors asked youth if they had trust in the government and public hope (Adolesc). Trust in the government peaked at 61% in 1986, but by 2004 dropped to about 41% (Adolesc).

Trust is built through positive perceptions of each other between adults, or those in authority, and youth, resulting in partnerships and changes that are meaningful (Balsano, Carpini). Negative perceptions can result in a lack of trust. This is shown through youth’s negative perceptions of government that can be traced back to the 1970s Watergate scandal and to the impeachment of President Clinton (Carpini). These instances show that the government has failed to prevent corruption (Carpini). This, in part, contributes to adults under thirty years old being more likely than adults over thirty to believe that most people cannot be trusted (Carpini). Lack of trust leads to the decline of civic engagement, as little faith in governments efficacy leads to little motivation (Carpini). Younger American’s only know their current environment (Carpini). If they grow up in an environment where their engagement does not create a meaningful change, then they are less likely to participate in public life (Carpini).

Successful civic engagement can bring together youth and adults around the same interest, benefitting them both and the institution within the context that they are supported (Balsano). When young people are viewed as immature or psychologically disordered, they can be problematized and marginalized, preventing authentic discourse and relationships between youth and adults (Watts). Adults need to be in the background of the partnership; they should monitor, mentor and facilitate, not lead (Watts). This will help them view young people in a more positive light and may even view aspects of youth’s risk-taking as beneficial (Watts).

When creating a successful youth and adult relationship involving positive perceptions, meaningful youth involvement is necessary as youth should be viewed as assets (Watts). Measuring youth’s involvement is more than just counting the frequency of their involvement (Watts). Rather, putting in hours is limited unless the changes within the individual or group that lead to a continued commitment and participation are understood (Youniss). The role that young people have in a project influences its impact on their lives (Watts). Research done by Morgan and Streb show that a student’s voice in a project is essential (Watts). They assessed students’ voice and found that a sense of agency has to be considered a precursor and outcome for societal involvement (Watts). It is vital to forming young adults’ interest and continuing their commitment (Watts).

An example of a successful youth-adult partnership for an activist movement involving social justice and creating change occurred at the Oakland based nonprofit Kids First! (Watts). Student leaders led a year-long coalition to convince the regional transportation district to provide free bus passes for students who qualify for subsidized lunch programs (Watts). The students were paying $27 a month for bus passes. The students planned press conferences, petitions and mobilizations to public meetings that forced transit officials to take action (Watts). The students received a $2 million annual outlay for the program, allowing up to 100,000 students to be eligible for free or reduced passes (Watts). As a result, school attendance has improved, making the school district eligible to receive thousands of dollars in reimbursements from the state (Watts).

In this example, the students learned the power in numbers through collective power and expression (Watts). The founder of Kids First! Stated that in this example, adults were in charge of consulting and facilitating (Watts). Adults were to provide technical assistance on topics requiring specialized expertise related to the objectives of the campaign (Watts). Adults were to encourage youth development by offering exercises to address the “politics of internal transformation” and to advance critical consciousness (Watts).

Political identities that are formed in early childhood, in part through meaningful adult-youth partnerships, are highly accurate indicator of what political stance they will hold in their later adult years (Flanagan). For youth, their lives are in flux, moving to different schools and places of work (Flanagan). During this time, young adults look for their social and personal identity by searching for similarities between their views and others (Watts). By doing this, adolescence people become aware of political and social issues and begin to practice active citizenship (Flanagan). As a result, opportunities to explore different perspectives helps them realize their values and stances (Flanagan). They assess what is vital to them and what kind of world they choose to be a part of (Flanagan).

Political identities in youth today are different from those in the past. A contributing factor are the characteristics of citizenship that practice in youth. Currently, young adults are less likely than their counterparts in the 1970s to participate in characteristics of citizenship that include attending religious services at least monthly, belonging to a union, reading newspapers at least once a week, voting, being contacted by a political party, working on a community project, attending club meetings, and believing that people are trustworthy (Flanagan). Between 1972 and 1996 voter turnout rates among Americans 65 and older grew, while voting among younger adults has decreased (Alder). Currently, younger Americans who are used to a fast-paced environment have difficulty engaging in traditional civic organizations (Carpini).

According to a study done in 2004 by Day and Holder, 43% of 18-24-year-old adults are registered to vote, while only 19% voted in the 2002 elections (Alder). 78% of 65 and older Americans are registered to vote, while 63% voted in the 2002 elections (Alder). This shows that older Americans are voting more than younger Americans. As a result, candidates rarely reach our or listen to younger voters (Carpini). The differing attitudes between adults over 65 and adults between ages 18-24 was commented on by an anonymous person at a civic engagement seminar, stating, “The older generation views voting as a sacrament, but to young people, it’s tangential” (Alder).

The one characteristic of citizenship that young adults are more likely than their 1970s counterparts to participate in is volunteering, or service (Flanagan). Younger people are starting to take more interest in community service rather than conventional politics (Flanagan). They believe that they can make more of an impact through volunteer work (Adolsec). Service is done through organizations that provide resources that would not normally be offered and arranges the delivery of help (Youniss). When youth participate in service activities they become a member of a collective movement that is shared with members of the past, immediate present and future (Youniss). Service is an opportunity for youth to develop their identity within a community context rather than as an individual achievement in a self-enclosed environment (Youniss). Service activities and local political movements can provide a forum for many youth to become civically engaged (Youniss).

About 21% of high school senior’s participated in community service in 1976 while about 26% were supportive of conventional politics (Adolsec). By 2005 34% participated in community service while only 20% were supportive of conventional politics (Adolsec). These statistics call into question the notion that service fosters aspects of civic engagement like voting (Metz). However, a study by the Catholic University of America in 2003 concluded that required service for students who were less-inclined to serve has increased their intentions to vote and volunteer after high school graduation (Metz). The study affirmed that volunteer service is a more effective approach in increasing intentions to vote as it derives from free choice (Metz). This study goes against a 1999 report by Stukas, Clary and Snyder that concluded that the student required to perform service felt like they were being controlled by the requirements and had lower intentions to continue service in the future compared to students who were more positively inclined (Metz).

The rise of service activity in young adults can be attributed encouraging efforts of schools and a variety of newly established organizations promoting civic engagement. 80% of college-bound high school students are participating in volunteer activity, in part due to colleges taking community service activities into account (Adler). Over 50% of all high school students say they are involved in volunteering while 47.5% of those older than 55 say they volunteer (Adler).

Sociopolitical development and socioeconomic status impact political identities, which in turn impact engagement and voting. For one to choose to be engaged in public life, they have to have motivation, opportunity and ability. Motivation is rooted in a sense of responsibility, satisfaction of participating with others for a common purpose and the belief that one is able to make a difference (Caprini). Opportunity is determined by the civic infrastructure (Caprini). Ability to engage is dependent on time, money, information and certain skills (Carpini). Compared to youth who grew up in the suburbs, most urban youth has parents who did not complete high school and are not active civically (Balsano). Inequalities in political participation among young Americans are rooted in their parent education and political involvement (Flanagan).

Keniston’s 1968 report found that U.S. college students who were engaged in the 1960-70’s antiwar movement against U.S. Military involvement in Vietnam came from families whose parents were political activists (Youniss). In addition, parents of higher socioeconomic status give their child an opportunity to gain an education, political awareness and a community with resources (Flanagan). Education helps young adults vote by learning about the parties, registration and process (Flanagan). There are more opportunities to engage in community organizations or after school activities in privileged communities (Watts). Differences in participation in extracurricular activities in as early as eighth grade can be traced to differences in young adults voting (Watts). The more well educated, the better paid, the better connected and the more likely to participate due to their school and work settings that encourage civic activities (Watts). The inequality is caused by a cumulative disadvantage over the course of adolescence (Flanagan).

Youth’s sociopolitical development is an important element in youth organizing for social change that involves worldview and social analysis (Watts). A micro world view attributes social conditions to the individuals’ talents or shortcomings (Watts). A macro world view highlights the influence of institutions on social conditions, whether they be ineffective or oppressive (Watts). In a study 1999 study by Flanagan and Tucker, they found that youth from more privileged communities were more likely to believe that the system was flawed (Watts). “Disadvantaged” or poor and working-class youth believe that getting ahead required a dint of their own hard work (Watts).

When examining high school senior’s current and anticipated civic participation, those with a plan to graduate from a 4-year college were two to three more times more likely to plan on engaging or engage in civic activities than those with a plan to have non-college degree (Adolesc). They were also four times more likely to intend to vote and had a greater odd of holding hope for the world (Adolesc). The student’s intentions of this study appear to align with CIRCLE’s voting statistics. According to CIRLCE those in college or with a college degree were more likely to vote than those with a non-college degree (Circle). The largest disparity was in 1992, with a 30.8% difference, while the smallest disparity was in 2000 with only a 25.1% difference (Circle). When asked why they chose to not vote, those without college experience and with college experience had differing responses. Those without college experience were more likely than those with college experience to state they did not vote due to lack of transportation to the polling place, the lines at the polling place were too long and the polling place had inconvenient hours or locations (Circle).

High socioeconomic inequality results in the poor civically engaging less (Uslaner). Opportunities for civic engagement are not distributed evenly among social class, race or ethnicity (Flanagan). Compared to other nations, the United States has a greater level of economic inequality and a greater link between income and participation than in comparable democracies (Uslaner). When there are high levels of inequality, the poor may feel powerless as their views are not represented in the political system (Uslaner). They may also believe their future doesn’t look as bright, giving them fewer reasons to believe they control their own fate (Uslaner). These beliefs cause what lower income people lack trust and civically engage less compared to higher income people (Uslaner).

Racism and socioeconomic inequality are both intertwined, negatively impacting minority’s and people of color’s civic engagement and voting. Oppression based on racism can be the earliest personal experience children face with political power (Watts). In African American families, parents have to prepare their children to deal with prejudice, meaning they have to understand how the political order works for African Americans. They have a higher imperative of self-reliance in comparison to white families, meaning they believe that one has to rely on themselves before society is going to take care of them (Watts).

There have been claims that states and localities are making it more difficult for those in minority communities to engage civically and vote (Leadership Conf Ed fund). When comparing the reasons for lack of voter turnout in the 2016 elections between white youth and youth of color, youth of color were more likely to respond stating they had no transportation to polling place, lines at the polling place are too long and trouble locating the polling place (Circle). An additional category that youth of color had more responses to than white youth was problems with voter ID (Circle).

The Leadership Conference Education Fund in part blames youth of color’s voting difficulties and lack of voter turn-out on the ruling in Shelby County v Holder which made section five in the Voting Rights Act unusable (Leadership Conf Ed fund). Section five required jurisdictions with a history of voting, racial discrimination to submit all their voting changes to the Department of Justice before implementing them (Leadership Conf Ed fund). Since the Shelby County ruling, hundreds of countries that were covered by section five of the Voting Rights Act have closed at least 868 voting polls (Leadership Conf Ed fund). Arizona has closed 212 polls, the largest amount in any state (Leadership Conf Ed fund). In Arizona, Cochise County has the nation’s highest percentage of polling place reductions, from 49 in 2012 to 1 in 2016 (Leadership Conf Ed fund). In 2014 Cochise was under a consent decree with the Department of Justice for violating the Voting Rights Act (Leadership Conf Ed fund). They failed to have Spanish speaking poll workers and failed to provide election materials in Spanish (Leadership Conf Ed fund).

Organizations like the Leadership Conference Education Fund claim this is a blatant attempt to disenfranchise colored voters (Leadership Conf Ed fund). In the same year Cochise county was under a consent decree, voter turnout rates for Latinos and Asians reached a record low during the midterm elections, while African American and white voters remained relatively consistent (Krogstad). In 1986, voter turnout for Hispanics was 38% and 40.2% for Asians (Krogstad). In 2014, the voter turnout rate was 27% for Hispanics and 26.9% for Asians (Krogstad).

Minority’s and people of color’s civic engagement and voting are impacted by a recent surge of immigration has made civic engagement more of a necessity as it has caused a political shift, leaving youth at the forefront of these changes and conflicts. The United States has had massive waves of immigration caused by the need for employment, security, religion and to escape war, leading to a more diverse population (Youniss). Youth are vital to achieving political stability, balancing cultural traditions and preserving the future (Balsano). Youth immigrants are unique in that they offer insight into the rights and responsibilities that make an American (Flanagan). Choosing to become a citizen and accepting these rights and responsibilities is a unique form of civic engagement that only immigrants get to experience (Flanagan).

Inclusion of immigrants is important for civic engagement (Balsano). Civic engagement is necessary for immigrants’ success, as it advances the acculturation process (Portillo). For undocumented immigrants, engaging in any realm of society is merely impossible (Flanagan). Institutions that most Americans engage with are not open to undocumented immigrants (Flanagan). Jobs and college are constrained, and undocumented immigrants do not qualify for college financial aid (Flanagan). The public-school system is open to them, but because they are not able to engage in any further education or work it is difficult if not impossible for them to create a future (Flanagan). These barriers are what unite immigrants and what inspire them to civically engage (Flanagan).

During spring of 2006 when many protests were occurring against strict immigration regulations, 23% of immigrant youth and 18% of children of immigrant parents reported that they had protested within the past 12 months (Flanagan). Young people born to parents from the United States reported only 10%. Representative studies show that immigrant youth engage in convectional forms of civic participation as frequently, or more frequently, as their native-born peers. New immigrants are just as likely to embrace core American political values and engage in volunteerism as foreign-born, second-generation and native born seventh through twelfth graders.

With the new wave of immigration comes a reevaluation of citizenship, younger adults are significantly less likely than older adults to think that citizenship is an important part of being an American (Carpini). When facing conflict in which the government and the economy are instable, citizenship cannot be taken for granted as something older generations pass to younger generations (Youniss). New generations are required to face new demographic, cultural and economic challenges (Youniss). By 2030-2040 the youth population in the United States will be equally composed of the majority, European Americans, and minorities (Youniss).

As youth are at the forefront of a changing society, social media and the internet allow people to communicate horizontally, giving minorities a larger voice by flattening hierarchies (X, Youniss). Recently, civic engagement and voting has been impacted by social media and the internet. 47% of youth heard of the elections from Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and/or Twitter (CIRCLE). Only 13% of youth heard about the midterms through the traditional approach of candidate and campaign outreach (CIRCLE). 70% of youth ages 18-25 believe the Internet is a useful source of issue and political information compared to only 48% of adults over 25 (Carpini) The internet is vastly different from older media (Carpini). The internet is specifically designed by the U.S. Department of Defense to be dispersed so that it could not be controlled by a single adversary, fostering free exchange and the ability for people to create and sustain social movements (Youniss). The internet permits people to communicate horizontally by flattening hierarchies (Youniss). It increases the speed and volume of information, mixes interactivity and provides more opportunities, changes communities from being geographically based to interest based and challenges traditional definitions of information gatekeepers, authorities’ voices, and consumers and producers of information (Carpini).

The internet better allows the government to provide important sources of information (Youniss). Political elites or organized groups are able to more effectively reach young adults (Carpini). For young adults already engaged, the internet and other new technologies allows them to expand and sustain their engagement (Carpini). For young adults who are interested but inactive, the internet provides a way to tap existing interest and facilitate action (Carpini). An example is Web TV which allows people who view a specific program to connect to sites that provide additional information and ways to act (Carpini). The ability for new technologies to increase motivation and engagement in young adults who are neither motivated or engaged is the least understood aspect (Carpini).

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Definition of Civic Engagement. (2022, Apr 21). Retrieved from

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