Civic Participation

Civic participation is a broad term that encompasses a range of activities by which people work to benefit others. These activities may be collective, such as working with others in a group or project setting, or individual, such as writing a check to a charitable organization. Civic participation is an inherent part of all democracies and a key indicator of the overall civic health of a civil society. In the United States, governance is a shared responsibility. The people not only govern through their elected representatives, they also govern through their participation in civic and political life.

Nearly all Americans participate in civic life in varying degrees ( Skocpol and Fiorina 1999 ). Participation levels, however, vary in intensity, type, and duration. Many people become members of civic organizations (e.g., Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, 4-H, Elks Club, the Shriners, parent-teacher organizations), participate in a civic activity (e.g., help set up community festivals, volunteer in a neighborhood cleanup campaign or a food collection drive, or act in the community theater), or contribute to civic causes (e.g., disaster relief, Habitat for Humanity, visiting the elderly or infirm). Civic participation is often local but can also occur at the state, national, and international levels. Civic participation is secular but may originate in nonsecular sources (e.g., Catholic Charities, Jewish Relief Agency).

Scholars disagree about the current levels of civic participation, which types of civic participation are most beneficial to the individual or to society, and the extent to which technical tools will advance or detract from civic participation ( Skocpol and Fiorina 1999 ). Although Robert Putnam ( 2000 ) documented a sharp decline in traditional forms of civic participation (the paradigmatic example being membership in bowling leagues) and other cultural markers (e.g., building backyard decks with privacy fences instead of front porches that would encourage community), other scholars such as Russell Dalton ( 2008 ) have noted increases in other forms of participation (e.g., boycotting products for social reasons). Moreover, though the general impact of new technical tools on civic participation remains somewhat ambiguous ( Nie and Ebring 2000 ), some observers have found that new technologies have the power to inform, motivate, and encourage the sharing of civic activities ( Ostertag and Ortiz 2015 ).

Like other key elements of American governance, civic participation evolves. Changing circumstances alter motivations, behaviors, and even the forms of civic participation. People may be motivated to civic participation by a sense of duty, belief in a particular cause, religious faith, or the expectation that such activities will be rewarding and meaningful. During World War II people planted victory gardens, purchased war bonds, and participated in recycling to help the war effort. In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and other disasters, hundreds of thousands of Americans freely gave their time, talent, or money to help alleviate short- and long-term problems. Some civic organizations, such as the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, and causes, such as fighting against religious discrimination, have been a part of American civic life since the founding of the republic.

Technology has increased the ability of Americans to connect civically and to participate with each other in new ways. At least some forms of connectivity, such as social networking and blogging, when applied to a specific cause represent powerful new tools in civic participation ( Ostertag and Ortiz 2015

Civic participation provides benefits to individuals and society. Individually, people derive benefits from connecting with other like-minded people or being able to enjoy the products of their participation, such as improvements to the neighborhood park. They also develop social and participatory skills. Collectively, civic participation adds to the store of social capital that exists within and among members of a community ( Putnam 2000 ). Civic participation helps to continually restore social capital—the web of reciprocal relationships that bind people together, foster trust, and support public problem solving. Social capital provides both the glue (i.e., provides social structures, bonds, and networks) and grease (i.e., facilitates the smooth operation of those networks) for self-governing networks.

Civic and political participation are analytically distinct. Political participation is a particular kind of civic participation that directly involves formal political action aimed at electing representatives to public office or influencing the decisions of those representatives in office. Voting is the most obvious form of political participation, but it may also take the form of meeting with public officials; civil disobedience; writing letters to candidates or newspapers advocating a public policy; political marches, rallies, and protests; political email and fax campaigns; or participating in initiative, referendum, and recall campaigns. The lines between civic and political participation are not sharp or bright. Civic organizations may at times take up political causes, and the government may seek to stimulate certain kinds of civic participation through grants or tax relief. Increasingly, governments and civic organizations collaborate in the delivery of public programs. Democratic governance, however, relies on active civic and political participation.

Civic participation helps the government pursue and achieve its purposes. Active civic participation promotes the common good, protects individual rights, and creates social capital. Civic participation also fosters the knowledge skills and dispositions of democratic citizenship. Americans share a rich tradition of civic participation from the founding of the republic to the present that has been documented by a variety of scholars, such as Alexis de Tocqueville ( [1835, 1840] 2000 ); Sidney Verba, Kay Lehman Schlozman, and Henry Brady ( 1995 ); Theda Skocpol ( 2004 ); and Russell Dalton and Christian Welzel ( 2014 ). Although the forms, causes, and motivations of associational life in the United States will continue to change and evolve, the importance of civic participation in self-governing societies such as the United States will remain.

SEE ALSO Bowling Alone ; Civic Associations ; Civic Engagement ; Civic Health Index ; Civil Community ; Civil Society ; Nonprofit Organizations ; Political Participation ; Social Entrepreneurship ; Tocqueville, Alexis de ; Voluntarism .


Dalton, Russell J. The Good Citizen: How a Younger Generation Is Reshaping American Politics. Washington, DC: CQ, 2008.

Dalton, Russell J., and Christian Welzel, eds. The Civic Culture Transformed: From Allegiant to Assertive Citizens. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Lichterman, Paul, and Daniel Cefaï. “The Idea of Political Culture.” In Oxford Handbook of Contextual Political Analysis, edited by Robert Goodin and Charles Tilly, 392–414. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Lichterman, Paul, and Nina Eliasoph. “Civic Action.” American Journal of Sociology 120, no. 3 (2014): 798–863.

Nie, Norman H., and Lutz Erbring. “Internet and Society: A Preliminary Report.” Stanford Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society. 2000. .

Ostertag, Stephen F., and David G. Ortiz. “'Katrina Bloggers Activate!’: The Long-Term Effects of Digital Media on Civic Participation.” Sociological Inquiry 85, no. 1 (2015): 28–54.

Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.

Skocpol, Theda. “How Americans Became Civic.” In Civic Engagement in American Democracy, edited by Theda Skocpol and Morris Fiorina. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1999.

Skocpol, Theda, and Morris P. Fiorina, eds. Civic Engagement In American Democracy. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1999.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. (1835, 1840.) Translated and edited by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Verba, Sidney, Kay Lehman Schlozman, and Henry E. Brady. Voice and Equality: Civic Voluntarism in American Politics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Thomas S. Vontz
Kansas State University