We define civic participation loosely as any type of community engagement such as volunteerism, attendance at community activities and membership in organizations. Every discussion of the topic we’ve seen agrees that there’s an important relationship between this type of community engagement and social capital. Here’s a quick overview of some appearances of civic participation in the academic literature and our own investigations:
- Social Capital: Implications for Development Theory, Research and Policy cites the first historical reference to social capital more than 80 years ago by a school superintendent who emphasized the importance of community participation in the context of improving school performance. “…If [an individual comes] into contact with his neighbor, and they with other neighbors, there will be an accumulation of social capital.”
- Chapter 14 in Social Capital: An International Research Program is solely devoted to the concept that civic participation is a social resource. Some key takeaways from the research include that civic participation is a reasonable predictor of an individual’s social capital, and that there is a “paradox of diversity” in that community diversity increases social capital, but may inhibit civic participation.
- In our interview series, both Arreon Harley and Laurie Anspach mentioned civic involvement as a way to see the impact of increased social capital in the communities they serve. For example, Arreon mentioned that many Choir School alumni volunteer and serve on boards in their communities, and Laurie mentioned her experience with people who receive a social resource wanting to “pay it forward.”
Civic Participation as a Proxy
In our post The Indicators of Social Capital, we laid out the World Bank’s four proposed indicators for structural social capital, all of which relate to characterizing people’s membership in organizations and networks to understand their social capital and that of their community. Self-reported civic participation is the first meaningful angle we’ve explored to measure those indicators in practice. For example, analyzing how many organizations the people in a community say that they engage with gives a clear sense of that community’s membership density. Civic participation isn’t the only angle to evaluate the density indicator, though. Membership density could also be analyzed by looking at the number of organizations legally established in a community or even workplace employment statistics.
Measuring Civic Participation
Let’s get practical on how civic participation can be measured. We think the World Bank’s Social Capital Assessment Tool is a great starting point because its Household Questionnaire includes a set of well-tested questions for understanding individuals’ involvement in community organizations. We’ll lay out an overview of those questions here so you can see how they tie into supporting an analysis of structural social capital.
Questions Relating to Density of Membership
- List of household organization memberships
- Level of activity or leadership in those organizations
Questions Relating to Diversity of Membership
- Overlap in membership across most important organizations
- Level of membership diversity in each organization across the following dimensions: gender, age group, occupation, level of education, religion and political viewpoint
Questions Relating to Participation in Decision Making
- Level of member involvement in group decisions
- Effectiveness of group leadership
Note that the Social Capital Assessment Tool did not include questions targeting inclusiveness in access, which was the last suggested indicator for structural social capital. We think there is opportunity to assess this by working directly with community organizations to understand their outreach methods and membership access policies.
We plan to refine the questionnaire for use in broader contexts and test the quality of information we can gather through an online format. In the meantime, we hope you’ll consider incorporating civic participation as a factor in your thinking about social capital!