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Civic engagement is whereby people work to make a difference in the local life of their communities and society, and developing combination of skills, knowledge, motivation and values in order to make that difference. Civic engagement can also mean “promoting the life value of the people in a community through both nonpolitical and political processes.”
There are different forms of engagement. First is political engagement. Here, the community is engaged in political activities, like voting, which involves partisan advocacy. The second form is civic engagement. This is whereby the community takes place in organizing and development activities which involves social justice.
The community also engages in civic reflection that is, they are able to get into debates and discussion in the public sphere. In this case, it involves journalism and environmentalism. The third form is religious engagement. Religious engagement is faith-based, where initiatives are acted upon based on faith and religion of the community or society. In this case, there’s involvement of inter-faith dialogues and action.
Factors Influencing Civic Engagement
There are several factors that affect and / or influence civic engagement within the communities in the United States of America. These may influence civic engagement positively or negatively. First are strong traditions and beliefs, attaching them with philanthropy or humanity towards the community or “individuals (public and private).” Second, strong and robust civil society organizations and nonprofit organizations in the country influence civic engagement.
Third, different viewpoints of communities in the public sphere may influence civil engagement. Consecutively, government also influences civic engagement by having its policies and support of service. For instance, there are Peace Corps and AmeriCorps in America. Lastly, there exists many pressing social concerns and needs in the society which influence civil engagement in America.
History of Civic Engagement
Civic engagement originated between 1880 and 1900. This was due to the emergence of social work in response to the needs of immigrants in urban centers, in America. Civic engagement was also developed in civic engagement centers in university campuses due to settlement house movement.
Jane Addams was the first woman in history to receive a Nobel Peace Prize in the year 1931, after coming up with the Jane Addams Hull House foundation, which seeks to improve communities’ social conditions in Chicago and Illinois area. The Civil Rights Movement (CRM) was between 1950s and 1960s whereby there was the Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus boycott. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Everybody can be distinguished… because anybody can serve, one does not need a college degree to serve. 
American Democratic Protest (ADP) was introduced for civic engagement of the public. Most people may think that the American Democratic Protests only works with democratic causes, like voter registration. ADP promotes voter registration also encourages other activities.
The ADP’s goals were aimed at getting students in campuses involved in advocacy activities like protests and community meetings, with the hopes of causing positive change in the social environment. The ADP also created opportunities, for example, Fishing Has No Boundaries, whereby students run the group which allows disabled people to have fun relaxing. This has facilitated students to volunteer their time on such activities.
Effects of Civic Engagement
Civic engagement earns the community social capital: this is the cover title of all positive effects of interactions in the community. The benefits that come with social capital are education for the community dwellers, increased safety in the community, decreased crime, illiteracy, and health and socioeconomic disparity. Depending on engagement in civic activities, social capital can either be gained or lost according to the behavior.
Civic engagement service as a strategy aimed to meet the challenges in the community and the nation at large, for instance, strengthening the schools in the community and addressing the dropout crises in the community. This improves the education in the community and the country in extension.
Civic engagement also helps in improving energy efficiency also safeguarding available energy in the community. This facilitates safeguarding the environment and its resources. This in turn also helps in improving health care; it also expands the economic opportunities in communities which have low income.
Civic engagement helps in preparing for and responding to disasters and emergencies in the community and the country. All these contemporary examples of civic engagement practice and policies came into shape after the recent passing of the Edward M. Kennedy: Serve America Act.
The supporters of direct democracy, since the Progressive Era, claim that the use of a ballot initiative results in strengthening democracy in the country by encouraging a more active and engaged citizenry. Advocates argued that the ballot initiative process would help in the reformation of voters by encouraging them in participative public policy making. Allowing citizens to act as lawmakers increases their interest in politics.
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Currently, civil engagement is an overriding theme in civil dialogues as social commentators and policy-makers search for more democratic and collective ways to send messages to the government.
While the Progressive reformers in the 20th century aimed in the creation of bureaucratic, hierarchical, rule-based organizations in the administrative state to prevent corruption in politics, the current reformers, support less hierarchical governmental organizations in order to increase civil participation in enhancing government responsiveness to citizen demands and policy making.
This model of participation suggests that there’s improved and strengthened relation between policy-makers and citizens that will improve policy-making. This is a core element of moral governance. Digital democracy, e-government, deliberative democracy and strong democracy are participatory mechanisms, which are designed in expanding the circle of people involved in policy-making, thus allowing civic officials to get new sources of information and ideas when making decisions.
Proponents of these mechanisms of civic engagement also suggest that they will help in building public trust in the country’s government, also strengthen civic capacity of the community. As per Progressive reformers and contemporary normative theorists, in order to make the government to function well, one needs to foster collective and individual participation in decision-making processes.
While civic engagement is public-based, with the public deciding on public issues by a direct vote, political scientists have begun to explore empirically whether giving the public a direct voice in the legislature procedure, in fact, improves the public’s participation and interest in politics.
Recent studies conclude that civic engagement or direct democracy have a positive effect on voter turnout. The state-level data was the basis of this conclusion. The ballot data from 1972 to 1996 indicates that, the presence of outstanding initiatives and popular referenda increases the turnout in interim elections by around 3% above the states without civic engagement, but not present in the presidential election years.
It is evident that the states with more public initiatives on the ballot have higher voter turnout in both presidential election and interim elections, around 4% and around 8% respectively, than states without ballot initiative.
These studies suggest that there is more pronounced turnout in interim elections, which have low information, low turnout affairs and fewer mobilization sources, because of the initiative. In such elections, the marginal voters may be sensitive to the mobilization sources that exist, such as ballot propositions.
Ballot initiatives may generate interest and bring information in an election, which may further lead to higher voter turnout. On the other hand, presidential elections have high information, high motivation, which may weaken the mobilization influence on ballot measures.
Using more recent data and sophisticated methods for research challenge previous studies that did not find a positive impact of ballot measures on voter turnout. There is lower turnout in the American electorate compared to other western countries, especially among the less affluent, younger, non-white, and less partisan citizens.
If citizen political participation is preferred in a country and ballot measures increases voter turnout, then the initiatives are a reasonable thing despite their content, policy or outcome. Scholars of electoral studies should be interested in the impacts of initiatives on voter turnout, as there are more initiatives on local and state ballots presently more than ever before.
Another civic engagement or political participation, in addition to voting, is the contribution of money to political causes. The exposure to initiative campaigns enables citizens to donate money to political parties, candidates, and interest groups. The enhanced image and visibility of worth that groups receive from this activity may stimulate more individuals to make donations. Such process would be necessary for implications for democratic theory.
Pluralist scholars have been arguing that wide civic engagement ensures that the diverse interests will add into the political process. Recent research suggest that the states with civic engagement have more diverse, and larger interest group systems compared to states without civic engagement.
Other scholars suggest that citizen groups are the main beneficiaries in direct democracy elections, rather than economic groups. A mechanism through which the initiative process may increase the diversity and size of interest group representation is through citizen contributions to them. It has been proven that citizens living in states with civic engagement are more likely to give money to interest groups, than those living in states which do not have this institutional mechanism.
Civic engagement or direct legislation would make the voter recognize that he/she is independent, since decision making on ballot actions bring voters into a nearer touch with vast affairs, and allows voters to start taking shape and becoming a sovereign in both fact and fancy.
If ballot initiatives help in producing a more engaged and politically self-confident electorate, they also create a more informed electorate. The exposure effects on civic engagement at political knowledge may be similar to the effect of media exposure. Watching the news on TV has been positively associated with knowledge on politics.
While an extensive prose, documents how citizens can make voting decisions on the initiative with clear directives from the elected officials, media, interest groups and political party endorsements, scholars have not systematically explored how civic engagement campaigns may advance political knowledge among citizens.
Scholars have found, from pioneers of political surveys and contemporary researchers, that Americans have little interest in political knowledge. However, it is evident that political learning is profoundly influenced by the political environment. Sophistication politically is endogenous to three broad factors: the ability to organize and assimilate political information; the desire or motive to follow political affairs; and exposure to information on politics.
Exposure to information on politics may be a function of the quantity of times with which such information is availed, media use, and communications technology. Civic engagement campaigns may create marginal opportunities for political learning, thus increasing political sophistication and political knowledge.
In relation to civic engagement, there are nonprofit organizations, which are involved in civic engagement campaigns and initiatives. “Citizen Schools” is a nationally recognized organization that is dedicated to educating using service learning outside of the classroom.
They provide programs for middle-school-aged youths, connecting them with businesses, adult volunteers and nonprofit organizations, in order for them to learn about their roles as citizens and learn more about their communities. “Do something” is an initiative aimed at making the service more appealing to the youth.
The program includes ideas floated monthly to “challenge the youth to engage in the community and presents awards to service role-models.” They have come up with a magazine titled BUILD. “Hands on a Network” is an organization that seeks to solve the hardships in a society through service.
This network realizes the dimensionality of civic engagement and service by emphasizing the work done by volunteers and the meaning of experience to them. “Sustainable Seattle” is an organization which utilizes the social capital building and civic engagement in its economic, ecological and community sustainability programs. This organization is an example of a metropolitan level model of civic engagement, focusing on education, local business and neighborhood development.
There are also websites that are related to civic engagement. “American Psychological Association’s Civic Engagement and Service-Learning” is a site which emphasizes on the psychological connection between service-learning and civic engagement. “Journal of Civic Commitment” is an online academic journal that provides research and ideas on how to slot in commitment to the community with learning.
“Community College National Center for Community Engagement”, is a site that provides information on current and past issues. “Learn and Serve America” is part of Corporation for National & Community Service, which includes Senior Corps and AmeriCorps. “Social Capital Gateway” is a domain of sites, events, and research that are related to social capital and its relationship to other phenomenon.
In conclusion, civic engagement is normally influenced by several factors, including traditions and beliefs, civil society organizations and nonprofit organizations different perspectives of communities, the government and pressing social concerns. Civic engagement earns the community social capital.
The benefits that come with social capital are education for the community dwellers, increased safety in the community, decreased crime, illiteracy, and health and socioeconomic disparity. Civic engagement service as a strategy meets the challenges in the community and the nation at large, for instance, strengthening the schools in the community.
This improves the education in the community and the country in extension. Civic engagement also helps in improving energy efficiency also safeguarding available energy in the community. Civic engagement or direct legislation would make the voter recognize that he/she is independent, since decision making on ballot actions bring voters into a nearer touch with vast affairs, and allows voters to start taking shape and becoming a sovereign in both fact and interpretation.
Brehm, John. Individual Level Evidence for the Causes and Consequences of Social Capital. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997
Jarvik, Erik. Inequality, Trust, and Civic Engagement. Boston: Academic Press, 1980.
Robbins, Sarah and Mimi Dyer. Writing America. New York: Teachers College Press, 2005.
Sen, Vicheth. Higher Education and Civic Engagement in Cambodia A Case Study at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. München: GRIN Verlag GmbH, 2010.
Yang, Kaifeng and Erik Bergrud. Civic Engagement in a Network Society. Greenwich: Information Age Publishing, 2008.
- Vicheth Sen, Higher Education and Civic Engagement in Cambodia : A Case Study at the Royal University of Phnom Penh (München: GRIN Verlag GmbH, 2010), 19
- Kaifeng Yang and Bergrud Erik, Civic Engagement in a Network Society (Greenwich: Information Age Publishing, 2008), 108
- Sarah Robbins and Dyer Mimi, Writing America (New York: Teachers College Press, 2005), 68
- Erik Jarvik, Inequality, Trust, and Civic Engagement (Boston: Academic Press, 1980), 234-238
- John, Brehm, Individual Level Evidence for the Causes and Consequences of Social Capital(New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 92