The questions that follow are who are the activists? and “why are some individuals high on some, or even all, of the ladders of participation whilst others seem anchored firmly at the bottom?” When looking at factors that constrain or promote participation we must look at the function of ‘resources’. Having resources can mean that an individual has martial wealth, good education and skill and/or membership to organised groups that in-turn put them in a better position to participate in the political process.14 Research evidence has suggested that more education tends to mean more participation however different educational terms has made it hard for this evidence to be carried out cross-culturally.
This issue of resources is backed by the sociological approach that suggests that certain people develop ‘civic attitudes’-though their family background and personal environment, which predispose them to participate politically. “Civic attitudes include an interest in, and knowledge of, politics, a sense of political effectiveness an also a feeling that there is an obligation to participate”.15 These civic attitudes are more likely to emerge among the upper class who are generally better educated and financially secure enough to invest time, energy and money into such organisations. However although this approach dose explain why some take part in the political process whilst others do not, it dose not account for individual influences.
As peoples wants and needs are varied, the economic theory of participation suggests that “people act in very strict instrumental terms and assess the value of public involvement in terms of the likelihood of achieving their objective”.16 Thus, the civic orientation seems far less important compared to ones direct interest and particular ‘issues’ and needs. In-turn this implies that the poorer of society lack resources and power to achieve their objective making them feel participating is a waste of time!
However it could be the case that those who are of lower status should be more active as they would surly have more ‘issues’, making their needs greater and participation stronger? However this pattern has been argued too simple as the cost of time would be overridden by the outcome. In recent years a debate has emerged that suggests that there has been a decline in civic activity. Consequently Robert Putnam (2001) argues that this decline of civic activity has resulted in a decline in the rate and quality of political participation18 with the main consequence being the decline of trust-an important ingredient of political stability.19 These damaging effects are said to have lead to lower electoral turnouts, political activism and civic engagement in the United States.
Putnam also argues that the influence of television ha also accounting for a change in the levels of participation. Unfortunately there have been many criticisms to his work however in response it has left the study of political participation something to think about- “is the United States-or anywhere else becoming a ‘nation of spectators’?”20 Or is civic life-participation ok? “One of the main determinates of political participation is the legal framework in any given state”.21 Voting in elections provides a good example, as they are heavily regulated and all countries place restrictions as to who can and can’t vote. In-turn electoral law, as we have seen in the past (for example, with women not having the vote) places constraints that can influence political participation.
Some writers have suggested a greater consequence has emerged from electoral law. Raising “deeper structural questions about the reasons for participation and non-participation.22 Which include social constraints such class, religion, gender or ethnicity and dominate cultural norms such as, white middle class male! For example “feminists would argue that patriarchal belief systems devalue the public role of women who are treated predominantly as chid-rearers”.
“By examining electoral data, we can construct a picture of mass political participation and change in a country”.24 However we must be careful when looking at one-party states as the figures are more then likely to be misleading and tell us nothing about its political stability. Electoral data has revealed evidence of a decline in turnouts in some nations however it has been difficult to determine the meaning of these declines resulting in the crisis of participation thus, remaining unproven.
In the book, Party and Participation in Britain’s Elections (1986) Mugham has constructed a model that consists of three factors that account for differing levels of participation. These factors are headed by terms; long term, middle term and short term. This model is useful as it covers institutional factors, the economic situation and any immediate stimuli that could motivate one into participation. Suggesting that political “participation takes on a multi-dimensional appearance”.
This essay has only given a summary of just a few of the factors that could account for the differing levels of political participation. It has concentrated on social factors including the power of resources and has recognized the importance of institutional constraints and economic influences. The importance in the study of political participation is understanding what motivates people to participate in the political process. In doing this political scientists can then raise valuable questions, if or when we are faced with a crisis in participation or perhaps a crisis of democracy.
Axford al el. (2002), An Introduction to Politics, 2nd ed. London: Routledge.
Parry at el. (1992), Political participation and democracy in Britain, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Fisher, Justin, (oct.02), Political Science Methods; Rational Choice, lecture note 6
1 Justin Fisher, Political Science Methods; Rational Choice, (Lecture note 6 October 02)