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The Multifaceted Nature of Civic Participation: A Literature Review

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Our aim in this article is to demonstrate the complexity, scope and diversity of civic participation. The quality of life in a society depends, to a certain degree, on the government’s ability to offer security, order, and services. Equally important, if not more important, are the many activities that residents voluntarily, or not so voluntarily, do for the benefit of others outside their household and immediate family, and often for the collective welfare or public good/benefit/interest. Numerous studies since the early 1990s focus on social capital and the decline in civic participation. In this review article, we claim that most studies of civic participation focus on small and narrow definitions of civic participation. Furthermore, scholars from one discipline rarely measure aspects of civic participation from the perspective of other disciplines. After discussing the problem of disciplinary perspectives in civic participation and the lack of a comprehensive measure of civic participation, we show how the various definitions and attempts at measuring social participation are inadequate. We contrast civic participation with the popular concept of social capital. The former focuses on both individual and organizational activities while the latter focuses on group activities only. To overcome the narrow approach of studying civic participation, we demonstrate that many activities are omitted from most studies. We list a long and varied set of activities that individuals can do on their own or in groups that enhance the quality of life of others. We organize these activities into six key sub-groups: (1) association participation, (2) giving, (3) volunteering, (4) environment-friendly behaviors, (5) political and social behaviors, and (6) supporting-helping individuals. The six categories are not offered as a typology of civic behaviors, but, rather, as a preliminary way to organize our enlarged list of pro-social behaviors. In each of these six sub-groups, we attempt to list as many activities as possible that exemplify different modes of civic participation. We start by naming the behavior or activity, and then give examples of its various forms. Where data are available, we provide data that relate to the specific behavior, how it was measured, and what existing findings tell us about the behavior’s frequency. We attempted, where possible, to use U.S.-based data. In our discussion, limitations, and conclusions, we acknowledge that more conceptual work is to be done. Yet we call for the first comprehensive and inter-disciplinary study of civic participation. We envision this topic being taken up by a large number of scholars as well as future initiatives to compare communities and countries based on a comprehensive set of civic participation activities.

Affiliations: 1: University of Pennsylvania USA ; 2: Yonsei University South Korea


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