Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Participation and Political Knowledge

Political participation and political knowledge are closely linked. Taking part in the process makes you more attentive. It lowers the costs (cognitive, not financial) and increases the perceived benefits of participating. The more you know, the more you realize how you're affected by government decisions, so the more likely you are to participate. And the more you participate, the more you learn. A splendid little circle forms, what the social science guys call reciprocal effects.

Okay, but what about new forms of participation?

Younger voters especially see participation in a different way. While a political scientist will often examine how often one attends rallies, votes, gives money, that sort of thing, I know of damn few standard surveys that include as participation such activities as visiting a candidate's Facebook page or "friending" that candidate, of subscribing to tweets, of posting on your own page something good about a candidate, or a bit of embedded viral video, or anything else.

Is that participation? Oh yeah, but we don't really measure it all that well. Not yet at least.

Does that kind of participation result in the splendid little reciprocal circle I mentioned above?

No one knows.

I'm thinking yes. I'm thinking it's gotta make a difference. Any form of participation raises the stakes a little, makes you recognize how a campaign or issue affects you, makes you attend just a little more to the subject -- thus raising your political knowledge. Nudging the needle, I'd call it, perhaps in a statitically significant way.

At least that's my hypothesis. Someone out there needs to test it, so get to it budding PhDweeb types. There's a thesis or dissertation or journal article there just waiting to be exploited.


Concerned Citizen said...

While there will be 'reciprocal knowledge' gained through on-line participation, I think there will be significant differences from a more invested participant. I believe (no hard evidence) that were you to compare the direct participation crowd (rallies) to the passive participation crowd (twitter), there will be a greater percentage of learning in the direct. I would equate it to walking a petition around for signatures as compared to simply signing the petition. Both may support the cause, but the direct supporter is more likely to learn more and be more informed. When you are committed enough to give of yourself or your wealth, you tend to me more interested in being informed.

Hollander said...

I'd like to agree that direct or active participation will lead to greater learning as compared to passive participation, but I'm just not sure for younger voters it will work that way.

I suppose certain behaviors will be more motivational (getting out and going somewhere versus clicking a mouse or iPhone), and that motivation would be more likely to turn into learning, at least that's a working hypothesis worth testing.

Voting is the ultimate participatory act in a democracy, and yet I'm not sure for a lot of first time voters in 2008 it translated into keeping up with the news -- or actual political knowledge.

Someone, at some time, will actually test this. It'll be interesting to see the results.