Cultural Participation is Civic Participation

Social scientists have long viewed civic participation as an essential component of healthy democracies. While some scholars have documented declines in civic participation (as measured by activities such as voting and membership in community organizations), others find the opposite to be true when a broader definition is adopted. In “Culture on the Rise: How and Why Cultural Membership Promotes Democratic Politics,” authors Filipe Carreira da Silva, Terry Nichols Clark, and Susana Cabaço find that when civic participation is broadened to include artistic and cultural activities, rates of participation increased dramatically between 1981 and 2004.

In contrast to studies that limit discussions of civic participation to behaviors such as voting, Carreira da Silva et al. bring artistic and cultural participation into the conversation. Given their unique ability to express both personal and political meaning, arts and culture emerge as an important space for civic participation. Drawing on a study commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts, the authors suggest that high rates of growth and participation in “nontraditional” artistic and cultural activities (i.e. activities outside “high” art institutions, such as attending outdoor festivals) signals a need to expand what is viewed as civic participation.

Using this expanded definition as a starting point, the authors use data from the United Nations’ World Values Survey and the International Social Survey Program to reach two major conclusions. First, participation in cultural activities has far more impact on an individuals’ political behavior than past research has identified. Membership in groups devoted to cultural activities, for example, rivals obtained level of education as the best predictor of who participates in political protests. Second, participation in artistic and cultural activities has different political implications in different social contexts.  For example, in nations in which the influence of hierarchical civic organizations, such as the Church or unions, is strong, social and political trust is also strong. In these cases, membership in organizations devoted to arts and culture is associated with political behaviors, such as voting, that reinforce the existing system of governance. In contrast, in nations with cultural traditions rooted in Eastern religions, membership in organizations devoted to arts and culture expands conceptions of individuality, which decreases social and political trust and consequently increases participation in political activities such as protesting.

Thus, while some social scientists fear the decline of civic participation, Carreira da Silva et al. suggest that the conversation must be expanded to include activities beyond voting to gain a more thorough understanding of this topic. Membership in organizations devoted to arts and culture, for example, is associated with increased rates of civic participation. Yet, we should also be attentive to how participation impacts political behavior differently across different social contexts.

Carreira da Silva, Filipe, Terry Nichols Clark, and Susana Cabaço. 2013. "Culture on the Rise: How and Why Cultural Membership Promotes Democratic Politics." International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, 27(3): 343-366. 
DOI: 10.1007/s10767-013-9170-7

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