How would you recognize a mode of participation if you see one? Owing to the rapid expansion of political activities in the last decades this question has become increasingly difficult to answer. Neither the development of all-embracing nominal definitions, nor deductive analyses of existing modes of participation seem to be helpful. In addition, the spread of expressive modes of participation makes it hard to avoid purely subjective definitions. The aim of this discussion paper is to develop an operational definition of political participation, which allows us to cover distinct conceptualizations systematically, efficiently and consistently. This goal can only be arrived at if the conventional approach of presenting nominal definitions to solve conceptual problems is left behind. Instead, available definitions are included in a set of decision rules to distinguish three main variants of political participation. A fourth variant is distinguished for non-political activities used for political purposes. Together, the four variants of political participation cover the whole range of political participation systematically without excluding any mode of political participation unknown yet. At the same time, the endless expansion of the modes of political participation in modern democracies does not result in an endless conceptual expansion. Implications for research and various examples are discussed.
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Probably the best known proposal to base a definition of political participation on a list of common aspects of available concepts is provided by Conge (1988).
A few authors propose to include attitudes and use the term ‘latent forms of political participation’ for these non-behavioural variants (Ekman and Amnå, 2012). To secure the distinction between effects and potential determinants of participation, the almost unanimous restriction to participation-as-an-activity is followed here.
Fiorina (2002, p. 515) brings these differences to the point with his remark that civic engagement refers to the ‘… voluntary activities of people in their communities, workplaces, churches, and other social contexts. Such activities can be highly political, entirely non-political, and anything in between’.
The confusion is hard to avoid: whereas many authors consider voting as a clear specimen of political participation, Macedo et al (2005, p. 7) state: ‘Civic engagement most obviously includes voting’. Whiteley (2011, p. 2) simply mixes all concepts: ‘Civic engagement is about ordinary citizens trying to influence the policies and the personnel of the state’. Other authors struggling with these distinctions admit: ‘How exactly we resolve these problems is not clear’ (Martin, 2012, p. 90). Berger (2011) strongly argued to distinguish between ‘civic engagement’ and ‘political participation’.
Notice that the term ‘operational definition’ here is not used to refer to the common (behaviouralist) practice to ‘operationalize’ some previously defined theoretical concept. The term ‘intensional definition’ (Sartori, 1984, p. 24; cf. Goertz, 2006, chapter 3) would have been more appropriate, but almost certainly would have led to confusions about ‘intentions’ (see Rule 7).
Definitions are ‘minimal’ if they ‘… deliberatively focus on the smallest possible number of attributes that are still seen as producing a viable standard’ (Collier and Levitsky, 1997, p. 433).
See Sciulli (2010) for a similar approach to the concept ‘democracy’.
In this notation ‘1+’ means that decision 1 is affirmed; ‘1−’ that decision 1 is rejected.
Strictly speaking, this rule also excludes ‘compulsory voting’ from the concept of political participation. Yet this phrase is commonly used as an (incorrect) shorthand for the fact that in some countries citizens are obliged to call at the poll station on election day. Casting a vote, of course, cannot be mandatory in any system guaranteeing secret elections and is therefore not excluded by the requirement of voluntarism.
A popular radical pamphlet recommends a complete rejection of the existing order and denounces ‘purely social protest’ as ‘… a prevalent strategy to criticize this society – in the unavailing hope to rescue this civilization’ (Unsichtbares Komittee, 2010, p. 71; translation JvD). See for similar arguments ‘The Nightmare of Participation’ (Miessen, 2011).
‘Citizens still exercise citizenship as they stand in line at their polling place, but now they exercise citizenship in many other locations. They have political ties not only to elected public officials in legislatures but also to attorneys in courtrooms and organized interest groups that represent them to administrative agencies. Moreover, they are citizens in their homes, schools, and places of employment’ (Schudson, 1998, p. 299).
Some participants even see this as the main aim of their activities: ‘The whole series of nightly attacks, anonymous assaults, destructions without gibberish takes credit to have widened the gap between “politics” and “the political” as far as possible’ (Unsichtbares Komittee, 2010, p. 7; translation JvD; emphasis in original).
Notice that, as the aims and motivations of the participants are crucial here, the question whether the aim of the activity is political can only be answered by the person involved. Rare research on the scope of ‘politics’ indicates wide variations among citizens (Fitzgerald, 2013).
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For helpful comments and stimulating suggestions on earlier versions of this article, I am very grateful to Gema García Albacete, Rüdiger Schmittt-Beck, Kateřina Vráblíková, and especially Yannis Theocharis.
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van Deth, J. A conceptual map of political participation. Acta Polit 49, 349–367 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1057/ap.2014.6
- concept formation