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November 14, 2003

measuring civic engagement

My organization, CIRCLE, promotes a set of 19 "core indicators of civic engagement" as a way of measuring the level of engagement of any youthful group or community, and also as a way of assessing the civic impact of a program, class, or project. These 19 indicators were chosen after an elaborate national research project managed by Scott Keeter, Cliff Zukin, Molly Andolina, and Krista Jenkins, who talked to practitioners and young people in focus groups and then conducted a national survey. Despite its empirical rigor, their list of indicators provokes an interesting and important controversy. I have heard the following views expressed:

    1. This is (roughly) the right list, because it emerged from a study of real young people and captures the forms of engagement that are reasonably common among youth today. Most of these behaviors are becoming less common over time, but that is a reality that we should face squarely and not sidestep.
    2. These indicators measure an average group of Americans, but they mask our great diversity. For example, on an Indian reservation, the important forms of engagement would include participation with the tribal council, which is not measured on the survey. For Native Americans and many other subcultures, the list of indicators is inappropriate.
    3. This is the right list for assessing the civic engagement of all Americans over time, but it's the wrong list to use in program evaluation, because it is unrealistic to expect a class or other project to change these variables.
    4. This is generally the wrong list, because it weighs old-fashioned forms of civic engagement (like wearing political buttons) too heavily, and omits the novel forms that young people are developing today: transnational protests, blogs and email lists, low-budget documentaries and public-service announcements, boycotts, poetry slams. The obvious response is that such forms of participation are not common enough to show up on surveys. But perhaps they are the most historically important developments of the present era, and they should be measured in program evaluations. Perhaps failing to measure them "sends a message" that what we want is a return to old-fashioned, adult-dominated politics.

    Posted by peterlevine at November 14, 2003 01:17 PM

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