Information and Political Engagement in America: The Search for Effects of Information Technology at the Individual Level

By Bimber, Bruce | Political Research Quarterly, March 2001 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Information and Political Engagement in America: The Search for Effects of Information Technology at the Individual Level


Bimber, Bruce, Political Research Quarterly


Some aspects of democracy appear more sensitive than others to the availability throughout society of political information. Individual-level political engagement poses a puzzle in this regard. An instrumental-- quantitative conception of information that is central to rational theories and is also found in some behavioral theories of participation appears contradicted by historical trends. I treat the contemporary expansion in political information made possible by new information technology as a form of natural experiment. I test for a relationship between information availability and political engagement using survey data about Internet use in the period 1996-99. This test is relevant to the applied debate over whether the information revolution will prove salutary for participation, and at the same time sheds light on contending theories of information. I find little relationship exists; the only form of participation which is demonstrably connected to Internet use is donating money This finding fails to support instrumental conceptions of information and instead endorses cognitive conceptions employed in psychological and certain behavioral theories of political engagement.

The information revolution that is bringing so many changes to commerce and the structure of economies is also beginning to affect political systems. This revolution is creating an environment for politics that is increasingly information-rich and communication-intensive, and these developments have precipitated much discussion about the implications of technology for politics. Some of the applied questions about technology raised in this discussion in turn illuminate important theoretical problems involving fundamental political processes.

One of the most interesting of these questions is whether the Internet will "cause" an increase in the political engagement of ordinary citizens (Norris 1999; Johnson and Kaye 1998). Proponents of this claim range from technologists (Dertouzos 1997; Negroponte 1995) to media professionals and highly placed political consultants (Morris 2000; Bennett and Fielding 1999; Browning 1996; Grossman 1995). Many political scientists and other scholars, on the other hand, are quite doubtful. Although little systematic evidence about contemporary technology has been reported in the academic literature, historical patterns and research on participation in the U.S. fail to support the thesis of a positive correlation between the evolution of informational and communicational resources and levels of citizen engagement. If any correlation exists, it may actually be negative (Schudsen 1998; Flanagin and Zingale 1994; Converse 1972).

This applied question about the Internet in politics resonates with a fundamental theoretical problem in the study of participation. Internet advocates' claim amounts to an assertion that the cost and accessibility of political information are related to citizens' level of engagement with political affairs: the lower the cost and higher the accessibility of political information, the higher the aggregate level of citizen engagement. This assertion is broadly consistent with rational theories of behavior in which the cost of information is an important factor shaping actors' political strategies. It is also resonant with certain behavioral political science in which access or facility with information is understood to affect participation. Efforts to account for the empirical association between education and participation, for instance, sometimes invoke information, pointing to the efforts and skills needed to acquire it as a modulator of participation levels (Verba, Schlozman, and Brady 1995; Luskin 1993; Wolfinger and Rosenstone 1980).

Evidence about the current situation and how it might shed light on these models of behavior is so far unclear. Much of what is known about contemporary technology and democracy is focused at the level of political elites and organizations.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Information and Political Engagement in America: The Search for Effects of Information Technology at the Individual Level
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?