The psychology of citizenship and civic engagement
This publication explores the development of civic engagement, the factors that influence its development, and the impacts of civic involvement on the individual, community, and society. The Psychology of Citizenship and Civic Engagement is about people’s connections with their communities, and the profound impact these connections can have on their health and well-being. Being active in a neighbourhood association, volunteering with a charitable organization, working for a political party, fighting for social justice on behalf of a marginalized group, or singing in a community choir all have positive outcomes.
Unfortunately, however, there are many, particularly among those who are poor, powerless or marginalized, who are not involved in their communities, and who don’t get a chance to realize these benefits. The Psychology of Citizenship and Civic Engagement brings together a large body of research from psychology and other social sciences to tell the story about why some individuals are engaged in their communities while others are not, and how their involvements affect not only their own well-being but the welfare of their communities and even their country.
The various environments where individuals live, learn, play, pray and work also affect their community involvements. Family environments, as one might expect, have a profound influence on the civic engagement of children. Parents influence their children’s civic activities by encouraging their children’s involvement, by serving as role models of engagement, by transmitting their values through discussion with their children, and by linking them to community organizations. Studies show, for example, that children whose families discuss politics in the home are two or three times as likely to follow politics, sign petitions, and volunteer when they became adults, compared to children whose parents didn’t discuss politics.
School and neighbourhood environments have a similarly profound influence on young people’s civic participation. Children who attend schools that provide opportunities for students to do community service, encourage respect among students and teachers, and offer a wide range of extracurricular activities, are much more likely to become active citizens when they reach adulthood. Young people who live in neighborhoods with youth organizations such as a YM-YWCA, or a Boys and Girls Club, are also more likely to become civically engaged adults.
Larger social environments, such as the state, province or country in which individuals reside also influence the extent to which they participate in civic activities. Countries that have high levels of materialism, economic inequality, and political systems in which individuals do not wield equal power in influencing government decisions, tend to have citizens that spurn government and participate less in civic life.
The book then questions the impact of civic engagement on individuals by looking at how civic participation affects the well-being of young people, adults, and society in general. Young people that participate in civic life by joining clubs and teams, volunteering, or participating in their church, mosque or synagogue, benefit in many ways. They are less likely to smoke, abuse drugs and alcohol, engage in delinquent acts, become pregnant, or drop out of school. They are more likely to have high self-esteem, a greater sense of social responsibility, and healthier social relationships.
Civically involved adults also have greater self-esteem and better personal relationships. Additionally, they have fewer illnesses, lower levels of depression, and they even live longer! Studies have shown, for example, that older individuals who volunteer in their community, compared to those who do not, experience a 40% to 50% reduction in mortality during their senior years.
Civic participation affects not just individuals, but entire societies. Neighborhoods with higher levels of civic participation have a greater sense of community, lower levels of crime, and citizens who are healthier and happier. States and countries with greater proportions of civically engaged citizens have lower rates of disease, mental illness, and suicide. They, too, have lower crime rates, as well as having greater economic prosperity, better-educated children, and more effective governments.
The last section of the book examines the “why’s and wherefores” of civic engagement – why it has such a significant impact on well-being, and what kinds of involvements are most conducive to enhancing well-being. They also discuss the ways in which scientifically generated knowledge can be used to enhance civic engagement so that individuals and society can reap the benefits of greater involvement.
The scientific evidence that civic engagement is good for individuals and society is substantial and it is compelling. The task now at hand is how to use this evidence to achieve more engagement and all the benefits that follow from it.
S. Mark Pancer is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. His research on civic participation has appeared in a wide range of journals both within and outside his home discipline of psychology. He has contributed chapters to several books and is co-author of “Partnerships for Prevention: The Story of the Highfield Community Enrichment Project”.