Political Engagement of Individuals in the Digital Age
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The use of digital media is becoming a prominent feature for individuals engaged as citizen in e-participation processes.
However, while research into e-participation at large has attracted much scholarly attention from various disciplines over the years, the fundamental question of why individuals engage in e-participation and how digital media triggers their engagement in processes of political engagement in the public realm is largely unaddressed.
This chapter reviews two conceptual frameworks for explaining individual engagement in politics: Firstly, the sociological theory of political engagement as promulgated by Laurent Thévenot’s work which explores why human agency, rather than social structures, determines the engagement of individuals in the political process and, secondly, the “mediatization” concept as discussed in media and communication studies whereby digital media “mediatize” engagement by shaping and framing the processes of interaction of political communication among citizens and between citizens and government.
KeywordsAgency Civic engagement Individual interest Mediatization Pragmatic sociology Social movement Sociology of engagement
Engaged individuals become citizens by using digital media and ICTs that enable their participation in the political communication and interaction process. These digital media help integrating bottom-up decision-making processes, allowing for better informed decisions by all stakeholders in the political communication process. Technically, they support the further development of e-participation in modern democracies.
However, while research into e-participation has attracted much scholarly attention from various disciplines over the years, the fundamental question of why individuals engage in e-participation and how digital media triggers their engagement in processes of political engagement in the public realm is largely unaddressed.
Inconsistent definitions as to the subject and scope of the concept of “civic engagement” (e.g., what factors influence the “engagement” of individuals, particularly in new modes of e-participation; what degree of knowledge is required to be competent and effectively engaged, and is there any evidence that this would lead to wider and more sustainable political engagement; Ekman and Amnå 2012, Freeman and Quirke 2013, Macintosh 2004, Mossberger et al. 2008)
Different units and levels of analysis in identifying the factors predicting civic engagement (e.g., do they predominantly reside in the interests, motives, and preferences of the individuals themselves, that is, in “human agency” understood as the capability of individuals or groups to make free decisions or act, as against the “structure” defined as a patterned influence or limitation derived from rules and resources available to individuals or group actions; Giddens 1984)
Disagreement on the role of communication processes between individual citizens; governmental (politicians, political parties, ministers, parliamentarians, etc.) and non-governmental stakeholders (NGOs, political lobbies, local communities, etc.) (Dahlgren 2005; Kreiss 2015); political institutions establishing, legitimizing, routinizing, or regularizing certain e-participation practices (Teorell et al. 2007); and citizens’ perceived control over the engagement process and outcome (Zimmerman and Rappaport 1998)
A lack of appreciation of the role of “mediatization” and its role in transforming individual civic engagement into collective action (Collins et al. 2014; Couldry 2014; Dahlgren 2009), given that the change of media communication has fundamental impacts on sociocultural change as part of our everyday communication practices and our communicative construction of reality (Hepp et al. 2015; Hjarvard 2013; Kramp et al. 2016; Hjarvard 2013)
A largely incoherent base of theory for examining relations between the parameters mentioned above, particularly with regard to civic engagement and e-participation from the point of view of individual engagement and the links that work between different levels of engagement, that is, the “macro-level” of the political and situational environment, the “meso-level” of organizations facilitating political participation, and the “microlevel” of individual citizens who wish to become more or less actively engaged, and their values, motives, attitudes, preferences, and behaviors, respectively (Quintelier and Hooghe 2012)
Hence, the problems are manifold, but the most pressing seems to be the nature of the concept of “civic engagement” and its relationship to “e-participation” in the digital age which has remained complex, multidisciplinary, and difficult to operationalize.
Following this introduction, Section “Civic Engagement in the Digital Age” will explore some more fundamental issues of civic engagement in the digital age, including the presentation of research claims. Section “The Sociology of Engagement” will then provide two conceptual frameworks for explaining individual engagement in the e-participation domain. Firstly, some key ideas of Laurent Thévenot’s pragmatic sociology of political engagement are described. In doing so, the epistemological value of this part of Thévenot’s œuvre is queried to gain new insights into how his thinking could act as a new framework for explaining the dynamic change that is currently blurring boundaries between the individual, the media, culture, and society at large. While Habermas’ concept of a “deliberative democracy” emphasizes that public will formation is enabled through intersubjective communications in the public sphere so that public interests are commonly created through deliberation rather than aggregated and voted upon, Thévenot’s work is an ambitious conceptual attempt to a pragmatic theory of plural “worlds” and “polities” where individuals’ interest in the common good plays a constitutional role in how social life is organized and conflicts are resolved. Seen this way, individuals create public spaces for and by themselves, to help their self-development and sensitivity for involvement in political (and sociocultural) issues of the public sphere and to support their political ambitions, learning, knowledge creation, and sharing as well as improving their own decision-making competencies. Section “Mediatized Engagement” then reviews “mediatization” as a theoretical concept from the point of view of media and communication studies and discusses some selected ideas on the issue of “mediatized engagement.” Mediatization seems to be constitutional in ways in which (digital and other) media are embedded in processes of civic engagement and e-participation whereby digital media shape and frame the processes and conversation of political communication among citizens and between citizens and government. Section “Future Directions” sums up key insights gained from research into mediatized engagement and further investigates how a political sociology of engagement, as provided by Thévenot’s “grammar of the individual in a liberal public,” can deliver a solid theoretical base for analyzing mediatized engagement more profoundly. This means that these insights shall open the way to new departures for debates on how individuals’ civic engagement may eventually fertilize into social structures of common political interest. Eventually, this happens when private cognitive models of perception and thinking about various issues of political concern are transformed into specific forms of political action, transformation processes which may well be mediated by digital media, ICTs, and other interactive technologies.
Civic Engagement in the Digital Age
Certainly, the deficiencies mentioned above have mobilized research into several analytical frameworks, which themselves have drawn on different disciplinary roots, such as economics, politics, history, and sociology. This cross-fertilization of ideas has further provided a diversity of intellectual activity and research, with a vigorous program of detailed empirical studies.
However, while research into e-participation has attracted remarkable scholarly attention from these various disciplinary perspectives in recent years, the fundamental question of why individuals engage in e-participation processes as a typical form of civic engagement in political communication and how digital media triggers (or hinders) their engagement in processes of political engagement in the public realm is largely unaddressed.
To answer these questions, the following three research claims are raised: Firstly, it is noteworthy to stress the importance of intensifying research into individuals as political agents with a view to understanding its implications for political argumentation. This is inevitable if we want to understand the emergent digital culture of e-participation in contemporary politics in all its forms, ranging from e-voting to several forms of ICT-supported and ICT-enabled interaction between governments and citizens, including not only direct ones such as consultations, lobbying, and polling but also ones pursued outside of government itself, including campaigning, signing a petition, writing a letter to a public official, blogging about a political issue, donating money to a cause, volunteering for a campaign, joining an activist or interest group, holding a public official position, occupying a building in an act of protest, or committing an illegal or even terrorist act.
Secondly, research needs to draw from disparate academic fields such as media and communication studies and political sociology and thereby systematize, link, and extend familiar definitions, characteristics, types, and dimensions of engagement from extant literature in these fields.
And, thirdly, civic engagement in the digital age is further challenged by the assumption that both the technical effectiveness and moral virtue of conventional forms of civic engagement are called into question by institutional and intellectual transformations that push inexorably toward social fragmentation, political disintegration, and ethical relativism, leaving us behind with many-layered crises that are rendering citizenship and civic engagement ever more difficult (Putnam 2000). Notably, research needs to focus on these developments that seem to threaten the promise of traditional concepts of e-participation: that using online, social, and mobile media would bring a new “political culture” of engagement to the fore, regardless of social backgrounds, material resources, and cultural practices or “repertoires” or “tool kit” of habits, skills, and styles from which “actors select differing pieces for constructing lines of action” (Swidler 1986, p. 277).
Hence, by putting emphasis on e-participation at the micro/individual rather than the meso/organizational and macro/societal level, individuals can be addressed as key actors and central drivers for political action and campaigning in the digital realm. These individuals and their ambitions, motives, and practices create new civic e-participation spaces, new social “spaces for change” (Cornwall and Coelho 2007), that is, publics that establish next to the state and the market and allow for unconventional forms of participation in that they create new and enrich existing digital public spheres. These new spaces enable dialogue via digital communication platforms with a strong “bottom-up” and “do-it-ourselves” ethos that defy “top-down” control by authorities. Being invented by their own agents, these spaces thus develop independently and parallel to invited e-participation spaces, such as government, NGOs, and political parties (Kersting 2013; Bennett and Segerberg 2013). But while standard e-participation practices of invited participation are considered as “top-down” in nature and come as formal government-to-citizen invitation to enter a controlled public sphere, new spaces are “invented” spaces of participation, such as referendums, round tables, or online forums call for the creation of new “mini publics” in the digital realm which are initiated by groups of individuals (Cruickshank et al. 2014) or, as Thimm (2015) defined them: “a group of online users referring to a shared topic in a publicly visible and publicly accessible online space over a period of time, by means of individual activities such as textual or visual contributions” (p. 173).
The Sociology of Engagement
The French sociologists Laurent Thévenot and Luc Boltanski are key proponents of the French school of pragmatic sociology and developed the political and moral “grammar of engagement” approach (Blokker and Brighenti 2011; Boltanski and Thévenot 2006; Thévenot 2013, 2015). Boltanski and Thévenot have been associated with the “pragmatic” school of French sociology, which developed from the 1980s onward, and have also featured leading scholars such as Bruno Latour, Michel Callon, and Michèle Lamont. Pragmatic sociology stands in stark contrast to the critical sociology of Pierre Bourdieu, under whose tutelage Boltanski had initially worked in the early 1970s (Blokker and Brighenti 2011, p. 252, Boltanski 2011). Boltanski came to criticize Bourdieu’s critical sociology for presenting social agents as uncritical “cultural dopes,” as dominated without knowing it, and for assuming that only sociologists are able to see how people are subjugated by social structures and processes (Boltanski 2011, p. 20). In marked contrast, Boltanski advocates a “pragmatic sociology of critique” which “fully acknowledges actors’ critical capacities and the creativity with which they engage in interpretation and action” (Boltanski 2011, p. 43, see Bénatouïl 1999). Thus, the sociologist cannot, and should not, hark back to a priori definitions of power and interest that govern social actions. Instead, the sociologist must reintegrate the capability of critique into the social world and show how actors draw upon different logics in different situations to direct their actions, arguments, and agreements within and through particular disputes. Thévenot, in particular, explored the dimensions of social life “under the public” as a condition to enlarge the scope of public critique to oppressions and to understand the required transformations and obstacles to their exposition in common, to the discord of the political community.
Taking Thévenot’s most significant publication On Justification: Economies of Worth (2006) as entry point to the present debate (the book was coauthored with Luc Boltanski, a French sociologist and professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris), this chapter focuses on those “critical moments” when public issues arise and are disputed by different social actors (p. 359–360). At the heart of their analysis are six specific types or “worlds” of justification that social actors draw upon during disputes. The interplay of these worlds produces diverse matrices of conflict, compromise, or collaboration in different situations. Thévenot also suggests that social order arises from the sharing of so-called pragmatic regimes, that is, modes of mutual exchange between actor and the world with a conception of the common good and universal principles that govern human activity.
Consequently, Thévenot theorizes on three pragmatic regimes governing engagement with the world: (1) “publicly justifiable engagement,” (2) “familiar engagement,” and (3) “engagement in an individual plan.” He later transferred these into three implicit social norms – so-called grammars – defining meaningful behavior in a certain situation and enabling agents to evaluate judgments and claims (based on Boltanski’s and Thévenot’s work On Justification of 2006, originally published in 1991): (1) the “grammar of publicly justifiable engagement,” (2) the “grammar of personal affinities to a plurality of common places” or “the grammar of close affinities,” and (3) the “grammar of individual choices in a liberal public” (Thévenot 2001, 2007, 2013, 2014, 2015).
Firstly, at the level of publicly justifiable engagement, a public discussion would be a typical example and aims at resolving situational conflicts by referring to general-level issues available in the political debate at large. Then, conflict resolution happens by referring to the common good, that is, general principles of what is shared and beneficial for all or most members of a given community or, alternatively, what is achieved by citizenship, collective action, and active participation in the realm of politics and public service. Secondly, the grammar of personal affinities describes familiar attachment and the emotional connections one makes to either close humans (friends, family, etc.) or what Thévenot calls “common-places” that should be understood in its broadest meaning, as referring as much to physical places (e.g., parks, monuments, etc.) as to more “intangible” things (songs, legends, literary characters), whereby agents share experiences and emotions that bring them together on these topics in the public realm (Thévenot 2014).
As these two concepts are all complex and raise difficult questions, not all of which, of course, one can reasonably expect to be addressed fully here, special focus shall be on the third grammar: the grammar of individual choices in a liberal public. This specific grammar refers to legitimacy of individual political claims and rests on the recognition of the rights of individuals and their choice in constructing representative groups: even if actors act as individuals, they rhetorically construct a wider group of people and, in so doing, share their opinion and back their claims. The basic premise of this particular view of Thévenot’s approach describes a way of engaging politically in what derives from private interests of individuals as such interests which are, consequently, aggrandized into representative collective preferences and hence structures in democratic politics.
In general, however, there seems to be a conflation of the social or collective choice process in these democratic decision-making processes with, say, a public voting mechanism whose domain is properly restricted to a “public” subset of alternatives. Liberal democratic theory then presupposes that the set of agents’ desires is the basic input which is transformed by the rule into a social choice or output. A typical case of the legitimate interests of subjects is the idea of the referendum: without taking any regard as to the reason or justification behind individual votes, each citizen chooses an idea as a right-carrying subject, and the idea with the most votes (or more usually, the one with over 50% of votes) gets chosen. This means that aggregate social behavior results from the behavior of individual actors, each of whom is making their own individual decisions.
Following Thévenot’s grammar of individual choices, the common good is seen to rise out of the private interests of relevant actors – not by finding a single good, but through articulation (and contestation) of preferences by these actors. Even though the general model of the grammar of individual interests is the referendum, negotiations and discussions are also part of the repertoire. These discussions are not deliberations on the relative merits of common goods, but rather trading, haggling, and presentation of individual situations and subjectivities. Such a grammar emphasizes and selects as relevant the differences between individual choices, being granted that they are made public under the form of opinions or interests. In my view, if we wish to better understand people who are engaged with political issues – through electoral processes, city planning, or social media rambling – people who are usually not identified as politicians or activists, nor see projects channeled in their favor through established political communities or organizations, then Thévenot’s grammars of engagement and, notably, the “grammar of individual choices in a liberal public” open the way to new theoretical departures in understanding how individuals do politics and create public spheres today.
The next section wishes to mobilize some reasoning about selected ideas on the issue of “mediatized engagement” against the background of communication processes among “digital citizens” and between these citizens and their representatives.
Now, there is at least one more striking research desiderate in the present context: to explore the motivational factors of individuals in “mediated civic engagement” and how this advocates new knowledge and practices that further promote civic engagement, social change, and democratic well-being in the context of e-participation.
Digital media infrastructures create new opportunities for the dissemination of public knowledge. Although the decline in civic participation in established democratic societies has been widely lamented (Putnam 2000), other observers (Dahlgren 2009) have pointed to the growth of new communities online and the growth in quantity and diversity in communication platforms outside of the traditional e-participation platforms, where citizens can exchange information and participate in political debate without any “outside” government influence and control. In fact, “individualization” of civic cultures has emerged in tandem with the growth of mediatized communication processes where individuals use new technologies, with a tendency toward personalization in the public domain (Alvarez and Dahlgren 2016; Bennett and Segerberg 2013). As it looks, social media and networking sites, podcasts, blogs, open-source software, and wikis, have paved the way for an “increasingly individualized civic environment” (Gerodimos 2012, p. 188), with engagement in the public domain being “subjectively experienced more as a personal rather than a collective question” (Dahlgren 2013, p. 52). Here, mediatization research comes as another reminder that political communication and, in its entourage, civic engagement are currently changing.
When seen as a meta-process (Krotz 2011), mediatization, alongside various other “mega-trends” of change in political communication such as digitization of communication technologies, hybridization of communication forms, globalization of communication spaces, or individualization of communication repertoires, comes as another important driver of change to affect individuals in their motivation to engage politically (Vowe and Henn 2016). In theory, mediatization investigates the interrelation between change in media repertoires and usage as drivers for communicative and sociocultural change, understood as a long-term process of change. Naturally, however, (digital) media do not necessarily cause these transformations, but they have become co-constitutive for the articulation of politics, economics, education, religion, etc. (Hepp et al. 2015; Hjarvard 2013; Couldry and Hepp 2016).
Now, these transformations arising from mediatization in its full dimensionality evoke a nexus of research dimensions on the level of the individual citizen. However, if we emphasize that individuals interact with their environments in ways that their interests are voiced through political cultures and commonalities by means of their own individual wills (rather than as a contest of higher principles related to the common good), then models that used to support traditional governmental technologies of e-participation appear not to work any longer. Addressing this void raises the fundamental question of how individuals are doing politics today and how they see new mediated forms of e-participation as a valuable alternative to traditional participation platforms and means of creating political public spheres (Allen et al. 2014).
Essentially, however, understanding of individuals engaging in politics and their ways to using digital media technologies within settings of e-participation remains elusive. Nonetheless, in view of the observations above, it is about individuals’ solicitations and comments about public policies that inspire our understanding of how civic engagement emerges from individual engagement and may eventually fertilize into collective structures of commonality, whereby rather private cognitive models of perception and thinking are transformed into communal and political ways of evaluating (political) arguments. And further, we are well advised to leave behind various traditional perspectives and rhetorics on civic engagement and instead widen its canvas toward a sociological theory of engagement and political action in the digital age as it is promulgated by the works of Laurent Thévenot and his “liberal” notion of “individuals doing politics” (Thévenot 2007, 2014), or what Thévenot himself called “the grammar of the individual in a liberal public,” as explained above. And further, if one looks at individuals and their ambitions to engage politically, then research on mediatization advances our thinking about their opportunities for action in new civic e-participation spaces, new social “spaces for change” (Cornwall and Coelho 2007), that is, publics that establish next to the state and the market and allow for unconventional forms of participation in that they create new and enrich existing digital public spheres. Predictors of civic engagement on individual level are reciprocity of participants (Gouldner 1960; Wasko and Faraj 2000), exchange of (symbolic) messages (Rafaeli and Sudweeks 1997), active user control (Rice and Williams 1984), immediacy of feedback (Dennis and Kinney 1998), and trust (van der Meer 2017). Computer-mediated communication (CMC) theory, in particular, stresses the way by which the communicators process social identity and relational cues (i.e., the capability to convey meanings through cues like body language, voice, tones, i.e., basically social information) using different media (Fulk et al. 1990; Walther 1992).
And mediatized engagement is viewed to have more anthropomorphic properties (Quiring 2009). Here, interactivity refers back to the concept of action in the social sciences, whereby action is presupposed to depend on an active human subject intentionally acting upon an object or another subject. Interaction with objects and the creators of these objects modifies their actions and reactions due to the actions by their interaction partner(s). Seen this way, mediated engagement is understood as a subjective mode of perception and cognition and, as interpreted from a communication theory perspective, focuses on how a receiver actively interprets and uses mass and new media messages. In the CMC literature, two more key themes have emerged under this rubric: individual experiential processes of interactivity and perceptions of individual control over both presentation and content. Self-awareness (i.e., the psychological factor that impacts on social interaction as mediated by CMC; Matheson and Zanna 1998), responsiveness (i.e., the degree to which a user perceives a system as reacting quickly and iteratively to user input; Rafaeli and Sudweeks 1997), a sense of presence (discoursed as virtual experience made by humans when they interact with media; Lee 2004), involvement (defined as perceived sensory and cognitive affiliation with media; Franz and Robey 1986), and perceived user control are further constituent psychological activities on this level of discussion (Zimmerman and Rappaport 1998). Furthermore, human agents are not only calculative and rational, nor are they only bound by structures; they are also guided by nonbinding habits that leave room for new engagements and new ways of actions.
Hence, this study should also start an interdisciplinary dialogue and articulate a set of key transformations brought about by ICTs, the media, and individuals as social and political activists (Bakardjieva et al. 2012). These include the realities of “hyper-connectivity” and “mediatization” as facilitated by ICTs and online, social, and mobile media and how research on these facilitating technologies provides insights into barriers and perceived affordances for e-participation as well as the necessary conditions for increased adoption for citizen-led participation.
Theorizing on the political sociology of engagement in politics is a legitimate way of presenting a critique against “top-down” policies of e-participation. It goes beyond these traditional approaches by focusing on “bottom-up” aspects of enriching democratic processes, political discourse, and social change. This opens research to alternative approaches in e-participation that recognize the importance of social movements and other “communities of practice” as these represent a vital and new component of doing politics today “from below” (Della Porta et al. 2017). Hence, fundamentally, this chapter started from the notion that individuals demanding that their idiosyncratic preferences and political interests be recognized and addressed are a key focal point for analyses into civic engagement. Such an individualist “grammar of engagement” emphasizes and selects as relevant the differences between the choices of individuals, being granted that they are made public under the form of opinions or interests. Group building takes place by negotiation among individuals opting for interests that must be publicly recognizable. In this study, consequently, the notion of “methodological individualism” has been supported, an epistemic “individual-first” approach of citizens to politics whereby “structure exists, and has determinant force, but a conscious heuristic decision that what individuals choose to do, or perceive themselves as choosing, is interesting as an object of study – not the individual as a ‘case study’ of a larger whole, but the individual as exceptional or particular” (Burke 1969, online). Hence, in the present context, it is essential to understand how individuals perceive opportunities of political engagement in order to also grasp how they are influenced by new media and e-participation technologies.
Secondly, political agents of this kind create their own strategies for action by utilizing resources of their own choice. This strategizing is not (only) calculative and maximizing one’s own interest but also affected by attitudes, emotions, habits, and social relations. Therefore, when political acts are undertaken, individual actors (residents, techno-politicians, Facebook users, etc.) engage with, utilize, cultivate, and inhabit their cultural repertoires, pooling from their own media resources and using these by turning political strategies into arguments, justifications, memes, protest letters, and other political objects. Moreover, in the present context, we are focusing on a new type of individual, the activist or political campaigner, a human being that is deemed to be free and social at the same time (Dahlgren 2013), whereby “free” is frequently understood as being autonomous, disembodied, rational, well informed, and disconnected: an individual and atomistic self, while that freedom does not occur in a vacuum, but in a space of affordances and constraints (Floridi 2015). In practice, today a political campaigner uses Facebook and other similar tools to create ad hoc campaign groups, utilizes the cultural repertoire of the Internet, and participates in politics when (and only when) he or she sees fit.
And thirdly, the deployment of these strategies and the use of these media tools occur on macro/societal, meso/organizational, micro/individual, and nano/supra-individual levels of social interaction (Bimber 2017; Vowe and Henn 2016). In this context, mediatization comes as a meta-process that blurs the distinction between these levels in many ways, and, as is proposed, it is simultaneously an interactional arena with some of the dynamics from face-to-face encounters, a place for connecting, organizing, and strategizing and a news distribution system or media (Zimmermann 2015).
As for future research, starting from the notion that civic engagement and the challenges arising through e-participation in favor of democratic decision-making of individuals is a contingent, dynamic, and complex social process, some of the paradigms that seem to dominate more traditional research perspectives on e-participation need to be refreshed.
However, while theorizing on civic engagement in the digital age itself is subtle and sophisticated, skepticism as to its value for analyzing changes in e-participation within the digital marketplace prevails. Ultimately, research into digital civic engagement needs to confront this challenge because, as it appears, individuals in the resulting digital ecology have to be seen as integral to redefining political participation in ways that may or may not be beneficial to society and democracy at large.
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