Popular themes in recent self-examinations of sociology are concerns about the ‘decline’ of sociology and its contemporary relevance. These discussions segue with others about the declining relevance and role of ‘public intellectuals’. They also intersect with Burawoy’s ideas about the potential of ‘public sociology’ to provide a nexus between the academy and the public. We need go no further than the previous issue of Sociological Research Online to find powerful, and poignant, discussions about the role of sociology in interpreting, understanding and providing alternative discourses of contemporary events, in this case the London Riots. Rogers (2013) considers the role of sociology in intersecting with the community and McGeeney (2013) reminds us of the need to consider ways of taking sociology beyond the academy in ways that ‘disrupt’ the increasing dominance of neoliberal ideas. McGeeney also reminds us that (despite neoliberal incursions into the academy affecting us as intellectuals and as workers), the spaces we do have to pursue our intellectual lives are privileged ones. For those of us engaged in youth sociology, this often means providing voice for young people who are, with increasing frequency, the subject of neoliberal discourses and policies that seek to blame, coerce or ‘label’ young people.The London Riots provoked (yet another) moral panic about ‘modern youth’ and their declining citizenship and community connections. Young people’s apparent disregard for ‘citizenship’ has long been of concern to governments and policy-makers, and has been a feature of sociological inquiry as well. We’ve both worked on such inquiries, specifically addressing young people’s involvement with politics. Individually, we’ve contributed to research arguing that young people are often excluded from, and marginalised by, politics. We’ve also both had a stake in arguments about the ways in which young people might be doing politics differently. Whilst working in this field we’ve both felt frustrated by the recalcitrance of the dominant discourse which constructs young people as non-participative and apathetic and proposes civic and citizenship education as a remedy for these perceived deficits. This view tends to impose a narrow definition of politics whilst ignoring the valid reasons why young people might be turning away from electoral politics, as well as questions about whether they are ‘turning away’. Moreover, the focus on ‘youth apathy’ and young people’s apparent lack of knowledge about politics has meant little play is given to the numerous ways in which young people are excluded from and marginalised by electoral politics.
To this end, a couple of years ago, Nathan thought it would be a good idea to see if there was any evidence to show that civic education could increase young people’s electoral participation (voting, signing petitions etc). Not frequently used in sociological research, systematic reviews are widely used in disciplines like healthcare to bring together all the existing evidence on the effectiveness of a particular intervention. They use explicit criteria to search for, identify and evaluate existing research on a specific question. In healthcare this is typically along the lines of, ‘is treatment A better than treatment B or placebo?’ In evaluating the effectiveness of an intervention these methods are far superior to a traditional literature review because they should involve extensive searching of the literature and each step in the process (how the searching was done, how studies were selected etc.) should be made explicit and transparent. While the method’s origins are with healthcare, it has increasingly been picked up within the social sciences and used to evaluate public policy (see Sundberg’s piece in the special section of this edition of SRO). Kathy Edwards readily agreed to help apply these methods to examine the evidence for civic education increasing young people’s political participation.
To find evidence on the effectiveness of civic education for increasing political participation we searched numerous electronic databases, which yielded over 7,000 potentially relevant sources. Independently, we sifted through these titles and abstracts to identify those studies which actually measured the effect of civic education upon young people’s electoral behaviour. In the end we agreed that 9 studies met our inclusion criteria. Given the small number of studies we found, it is clear the evaluation of civic education has not kept pace with the implementation of civic education policies. Despite some studies using large nationally representative data sets, the review found little evidence for civic education having a positive effect on voting/registering to vote, but did identify modest positive effects on forms of political expression (e.g. signing petitions). While the evidence base is slim, it would seem civic education has not been able to increase young people’s electoral participation.The evidence confirmed our hunch that young people’s (alleged) lack of participation in electoral politics seems to have little to do with a lack of education, but we still had a job to do in explaining why civic education seems to have failed in key areas like voting. Here, we return to our opening theme: the contemporary relevance of sociology. To address our question, we considered some of the research drawing upon a more sociological approach to young people and politics. Looking at this body of work we highlighted the range of barriers and obstacles which confront young people wanting to participate in politics. At the same time, young people have been involved in various activities which are reshaping the meaning and practice of politics, making electoral participation just one way (an increasingly unattractive way in the eyes of many young people) of doing politics.
Assuming that policy makers desire to promote genuinely meaningful political participation amongst young people, rather than use citizenship education as a tool of governance, to impose a narrow definition of politics and blame young people for voting with their feet, there is much they could learn from the sociological literature, or, put differently, much that sociology could teach. While the neo-liberal order lurches from one crisis to the next and new political forms and ideas continue to percolate, it is our view that sociologists must maintain their stake in public debates and policy – not for the sake of social ‘impact’, but for the sake of ensuring politics in its broadest sense.
This is based on the article by Nathan Manning and Kathy Edwards published in Sociological Research Online in February 2014. Read the full version here.