Civic Engagement in a Time of Social Distancing

For Mark S. Pancer, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology, Wilfrid Laurier University, civic participation produces a positive sense of connection; but, in a time of crisis, its essential to building community and trust. 

Civic engagement can take many forms – volunteering, social and environmental activism, participation in ethnic and cultural organizations, supporting a political party, voting, and many other things. In my 2015 book, The Psychology of Citizenship and Civic Engagement, I talk about what research tells us concerning the impact that being civically engaged has on the health and well-being of individuals. The evidence indicates that, regardless of what form it takes, participating in civic life has a profound positive effect on people’s lives.

Among other things, civically engaged individuals have higher self-esteem and feelings of self-worth, more friends and social contacts, lower levels of depression, fewer serious illnesses, and even live longer than those who are not civically engaged. Even children and youth who participate in civic life, doing things such as volunteering, participating in a youth organization such as Girl Guides or 4-H, or belonging to an environmental action group, experience significant benefits. They are less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol, drop out of school, or suffer from depression or other emotional problems. At the same time, they are more likely to have high self-esteem, relate well to their peers and parents, demonstrate caring and empathy for others, and do better at school. Scores of studies that have been published in the years since I wrote my book have added to the evidence concerning the positive impacts that civic engagement has on individuals.

Civic participation builds social capital

What is it about civic participation that produces such a positive effect on people’s lives? The key impact of civic engagement is that it provides a sense of connection with one’s community. This, in turn, enhances people’s social connections and social support, and gives a sense of identity and purpose to their lives. On a community level, it builds “social capital” – networks of community members in which individuals trust and rely upon one another and have a shared sense of belonging and common fate. This kind of capital is just as important as other kinds of capital, such as financial or human capital, in ensuring the well-being of communities, states and even nations. Social capital is crucially important during times of social upheaval like the one we are experiencing right now during the Covid-19 pandemic.

When we think of the ways in which people participate in civic life, we almost always envision them getting together physically – taking part in face-to-face meetings, attending demonstrations, helping people who are ill or disadvantaged, knocking on doors to solicit donations or support for a political candidate, and the like. The Covid-19 pandemic, unlike other natural disasters, prevents us from engaging in any activity that requires us to come close to others. In fighting the virus at the heart of the pandemic, we are advised – in many places, required – to stay at least 2 metres away from anyone else, and not congregate even in small groups of people. How are individuals to engage with and support others within their community without close physical contact?

It turns out that there are many ways. Every evening at 7:30 in the city in which I live – Waterloo, Ontario, Canada – people lean out of their windows, stand on their front porches, or on their apartment balconies, banging pots, cheering, applauding, and making noise in whatever way they can. They are joined by the sound of sirens from ambulances and firetrucks, as a sign of support for front-line health care workers. This practice started in Wuhan, China, where the Covid-19 virus began, but has spread to cities and towns all over the world. My friend, Alan, an accomplished “sewist” (someone who creates sewn works of art), has turned his hand to making masks for friends and neighbours, to help keep them from spreading the virus to others. He is joined by hundreds of people with a talent for sewing in making personal protective equipment for hospital workers. Others are engaged in a wide variety of civic activities, from volunteering at food banks, to working in homeless shelters, to delivering food and medication to seniors, to reaching out to those who are alone and lonely – all the while attempting to maintain an appropriate social distance.

Adapting online: a social capital perspective

The most common way in which people interact with one another during this time of social distancing is online. Online platforms such as Zoom allow people to meet in virtual groups where they can see and hear all of the people with whom they are meeting, and share documents with one another. Social networking sites also allow people to communicate with multiple others, though without seeing those with whom they are interacting. A recent review of the relationship between the use of social networking sites and social capital in the Review of General Psychology indicated that communication via these sites contributes significantly to the sense of connection and trust people have with one another.[1]

Natural and other kinds of disasters strongly heighten our need for belonging to community and to engage in activities that support one another. In 2004, when a tsunami wreaked destruction on large parts of Southeast Asia, more than $13 billion dollars was pledged to help those affected. When hurricane Katrina pummelled the Gulf Coast of the United States in 2005, thousands of people from other parts of the country flocked to the flooded areas to help people rebuild their homes and communities. Lisa Wood, Brian Boruff and Helen Smith, from the University of Western Australia, in a chapter they wrote entitled “When disaster strikes … How communities cope and adapt: A social capital perspective”[2] provide numerous examples showing that communities with high levels of social capital are not only more effective at managing and recovering from disasters, but in preventing disasters from occurring in the first place.

Keeping two metres apart need not keep us from getting involved in our communities. Indeed, in this time of fear and uncertainty, it is even more important that we get involved, in order to build the sense of community and trust that will get us through this time in the best way possible.

[1] Liu D., Ainsworth S. E. & Baumeister R. F. (2016). A meta-analysis of social networking online and social capital. Review of General Psychology, (4), 369–391. doi: 10.1037/gpr0000091.

[2] Wood, L., Boruff, B., & Smith, H. (2013). “When disaster strikes … how communities cope and adapt: A social capital perspective.” In C. D. Johnson (Ed.), Social Capital: Theory, Measurement and Outcomes (pp. 141). United States: Nova Science Publishers.

Dr Mark Pancer is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University. His research on civic engagement is published widely, both within and outside his home discipline of psychology, and his book, The Psychology of Citizenship and Civic Engagement, was published by Oxford University Press in 2015. Dr Pancer was elected Fellow of the Canadian Psychological Association in 1993, in recognition of his contributions to the science and profession of psychology in Canada.

Image by Fernando Cobelo

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