Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Talk Leads to Recruitment: How Discussions about Politics and Current Events Increase Civic Participation

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Talk Leads to Recruitment: How Discussions about Politics and Current Events Increase Civic Participation

Article excerpt

There is a positive relationship between how much we talk about politics and current events and how much we participate in civic activities. However, analytical biases make it difficult to accurately estimate the causal influence of talk on individual behavior. Moreover, existing data sources do not include information on the mechanisms that might explain how individuals translate talk into action. These problems are addressed with new data that were collected through a natural experiment. The results show that civic discussions promote civic participation largely because during such discussions we are recruited to become involved.

Keywords: social network; peer; civic participation; recruitment

Recent scholarship has focused on the influence that the people around us have on how we participate in the processes of democratic governance. Specifically, this literature shows that those of us who discuss politics and current events with our peersthe people in our immediate social environment-are also active in civic activities. However, while the correlation between discussions with peers and civic participation has been well established, we have not yet explained how this relationship works.

What happens when we discuss politics and current events that leads us to participate in civic activities? This question has not been answered for two reasons. First, we have been unable to accurately estimate the causal influence of peers on individual behavior. Reciprocal causation, endogeneity, and selection bias make it difficult to determine if our peers influence us or if our own patterns of behavior influence how we choose and act with our peers. Second, data sources with information on how much individuals talk with their peers about politics and current events do not include information on the mechanisms that might explain how individuals translate talk into action.

These problems are addressed in this article with new data that were collected through a natural experiment conducted on students at a large public university in the Midwestern United States. The design of this study allows us to more accurately estimate the causal influence of peers because information was collected on how individuals responded to the influence of a randomly assigned peer group. In addition, this study collected information on the mechanisms that could be causing the relationship between civic discussion and civic participation. This was done by asking study participants specific questions about what occurred during conversations that they had with their peers about politics and current events.

The results of this study suggest that civically relevant discussions with peers promote civic activity by subsidizing the costs and increasing the benefits associated with participating. Peers go about this in three ways: by providing individuals with information on how to become active in civic activities, by increasing individuals' engagement with politics and current events, and by explicitly asking individuals to participate in civic activities. When compared to one another, being asked by someone to participate-recruitment-appears to be the most influential mechanism behind peer influence. Further analysis suggests that peer-to-peer recruitment is more effective when the target of the mobilization effort has prior experience participating in civic activities.

Existing Research on Peer Influence and the Inability to Show Causation

A number of lines of research in the social sciences have examined the influence that social context has on political behavior.1 With specific regard to peers, the literature suggests that informal conversations about politics encourage individuals to participate in civic activities (Campbell and Wolbrecht 2006; Huckfeldt and Sprague 1991, 1995; Huckfeldt et al. 1995; Kenny 1992, 1994; Lake and Huckfeldt 1998; McClurg 2003, 2004; Mutz 2002).2 For example, using a national social survey, Lake and Huckfeldt (1998) showed that the amount of political discussion occurring in an individual's peer network correlated with his or her level of participation in campaignrelated political activities during the 1992 presidential election. …

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