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Background Convening Paper: Creating Citizenship: Youth Development for Free and Democratic Society

Judith Torney-Purta
Professor of Human Development
University of Maryland
College Park, MD 20742
May 14, 1999

This paper was prepared as an initial briefing statement for an invitational conference to be held at Stanford University from June 17-19, 1999. A Convening Group assisted in the formulation of the paper and includes William Damon (Director of Stanford Center on Adolescence): Shannon Casey-Cannon, Joseph Gardner, Rosemary Gonzalez, Melanie Moore, and Carol Wong (pre- and post-doctoral fellows at the Center). During the Spring Quarter 1999, Judith Torney-Purta was a Visiting Scholar at the Stanford Center on Adolescence. The conference and the preparation of the paper were supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.


To interest young people in citizenship is a challenge during all historical periods, but especially as the twentieth century draws to a close. The last hundred years have seen enormous changes in political, economic, and societal institutions, in the expectations which parents, educators, and the general public have for young people, and in the expectations of youth themselves. Even fifty years ago, the alignment of governments around the world looked very different than it does today, as did the number of women holding elective office, the closeness of ties within communities, the extent of educational opportunities, the ways in which racial groups related to each other, and the materials available for citizenship education.

Concern about young people's participation in societal, political, economic, and community institutions is supported by social surveys that have been replicated and are frequently cited (35), as well as by reports in the daily newspaper. Most observers agree that today's young adult generation participates very little in conventional politics (for example voting or joining political party organizations) and has a declining level of trust in public institutions. Some point to other problems spanning adolescence and adulthood, such as a heightened sense of powerlessness in the face of violence, increasing gaps between the future opportunities available to young people from high and low socioeconomic groups, and a decline in sense of civic responsibility. Some blame parents (who may have little time remaining after work to spend with adolescents or to volunteer in their communities). Some blame peer groups (which are so influential in individual identity formation yet often resist adult norms). Some blame television, popular music or the Internet (especially the prevalence of violent themes). Some blame public officials or the news media (for behavior which does not merit trust, or for emphasizing and sensationalizing such behavior). Some blame the schools for failing to have high academic standards, while others blame an overemphasis on preparing students for tests to assess knowledge standards, thus diverting attention from educational goals such as making social studies a participatory and interesting subject.

Trends in Research

Starting in the late 1950's and extending through the 1970's there was considerable research conducted on topics related to these issues, especially under the rubric of political socialization. Researchers investigated political attitudes and behavior in students as young as second graders and extending through high school (25, 28), with some studies following these cohorts into adulthood (29). Much of this research was conducted by political scientists concerned about tracing political partisanship from generation to generation, about assessing the sources of diffuse support for the national political system, or (toward the end of this period) about understanding the roots of student protest. Many of the measures used in adult election studies, such as political efficacy, were administered to young people. A few psychologists and sociologists interviewed or surveyed youth, often focusing on attitudes toward authority, law, the nation, or economics (2,9). Some social studies educators collected information to shed light on the effectiveness of particular curricular models (24). A few scholars pointed to the divergences between the socialization of white and of Hispanic or African American young people (1, 32). Communication researchers investigated topics such as the level of interest in political news (3).

Most (though not all) of this research posited a straightforward model of process. Socialization agents (families, schools, other authority figures) acting to further their own interests and those of society attempted to inculcate certain values, attitudes, knowledge or behaviors. Youth then assimilated or incorporated this knowledge. A consensus about values existed among societal groups, according to this model. If political learning was inadequate, ineffective socialization agents were held responsible. This model led to rather sterile debates about which socialization agent was more influential, the family or the school. Few researchers considered that the messages of these agents might contradict each other. Even fewer investigated how the young person's own cognitive structures or affective predispositions might influence whether an agent's message was internalized. Even rarer was the researcher who argued that the young person might resist the socialization message or have an influence on the agent's point of view.

A single study from the late 1960's which had concluded that taking civics classes did not enhance civic knowledge or engagement was widely cited during the 1970's and 1980's (30). It was seldom criticized as it became increasingly out of date or for failing to distinguish between different modes of instruction. Several studies in the 1970's, including one conducted in nine countries, found that civic education classes characterized by the discussion of controversial issues were more likely to engage students and result in knowledge and interest in politics than was the rote memorization of factual material (41). At the local level educators, however, thought it was risky to encourage the classroom discussion of issues which might divide the community, whatever the research conclusions (17). When there were funds for instructional improvement, other subjects were of much higher priority. Some thought that courses in "civic education" or "education for citizenship" opened the possibility of indoctrination in the school. Although economics education became entrenched in the curriculum guidelines of several states, it was also questioned. While the economic system was undeniably becoming more globally interdependent, terms such as "preparation for global citizenship" were called into question in many school districts citing the fear that students might become less patriotic.

In the 1980's interest in this research area declined substantially. An article in the late 1980's referred to the "bear market" in political socialization research (12). Lack of trust in government (following Watergate) and declining political party influence (accompanied by increasing levels of adult independence from political parties) became the norm. Cynicism and political independence were not the cause for much expressed public concern during this period, however, even when very obvious trends in this direction appeared among young people. Fewer and fewer political scientists saw youth as an interesting population to study, especially as it became clear that party affiliation and other attitudes were in flux during the early twenties and beyond.

During the 1970's and 1980's much of the research in social developmental psychology dealt with somewhat narrow perspective-taking tasks, or with empathy and helping behaviors in the family and peer context. There was a lack of connection between most of this research and concerns about society or the political system. Although research on moral development had obvious relevance, most of the debates during this period centered on theoretical issues or on the particular nature of stage (or non-stage) development, while little dealt with connections between moral reasoning and behavior in the community or in relationships extending beyond the home or friendship group. Social psychologists were studying social identity theory (43). This had obvious relevance, but was never closely connected to concerns about political socialization or youth development.

Since the early 1990's there has been new attention to research relating to the creation of citizenship and youth development. Special issues in series such as New Directions in Child Development (23) and a special issue of Perspectives in Political Science (36) and of the Journal of Social Issues (20) dealt with young people's political understanding and socialization and called for further research (see also a forthcoming issue of Political Psychology). In the 1990's Carnegie sponsored a volume reviewing adolescent research including a chapter on this topic (18), and a Carnegie Task Force and its report included the issue of citizenship and youth. Several books were published reporting research undertaken internationally (21, 26).

In 1998 a book was published by Niemi and Junn entitled Civic Education: What Makes Students Learn (37). Based on the 1988 NAEP data from high school seniors, it challenged the conclusions of the late 1960's study which had argued that civic education classes were ineffective. Delli Carpini and Keeter analyzed adult data to ascertain what the general public knows about politics and the effects of schooling on knowledge (14). Some ethnographies identified the "hidden curriculum" and its political dimensions in formal and informal educational settings (5). Professional organizations, such as the American Political Science Association, established task forces on civic education. Standards for the content of civic education and government classes were published (7).

One of the most telling changes in the last decade, however, has been the increasing attention paid to the concept of "civil society." Where ten years ago "civil" rarely appeared as a modifier except for civil rights, this term has now become enshrined in public and professional discourse. Diamond, a political scientist, stresses that civil society involves citizens acting collectively to exchange ideas and information, bound by a set of shared rules (15). One purpose of action within civil society is to make demands on the state or to hold its officials accountable, but civil society functions more broadly and with autonomy from the state. Organizations encompassed by civil society include those with cultural, informational, educational, and civic purposes, as well as interest and issue-oriented groups. The term "civicness" has been used to denote an orientation which includes reciprocity, cooperation, and trust (38). A renewed concern about these capacities and what some call "civility," or "civil discourse" among young people has been prompted by this interest in civil society.

The Problem to be Addressed at the Conference

The threshold of the new century presents us with a revitalized though still somewhat inchoate domain of interest in the study of adolescents' relations to civil society, their communities, and the political and economic system. There is still a sense of uncertainty about how to "parse" the content or structures of this domain in order to create a more coherent framework for further work. What are the domain's major dimensions or sub-domains? What valid knowledge do we have from research and reflective practice? What is questionable? What topics have yet to receive attention? What conceptual models are likely to be useful in guiding next steps in the study of political awareness or motivation to engage in the political process? Which research findings can be generalized across time periods, nations, or ethnic groups, and which are limited? How can we bring the awareness of social context to bear on the issues?

Assumptions Framing the Task of Parsing the Domain

We begin the consideration of this problem with several assumptions:

The first assumption is that it is helpful to refer to distinct and socially constructed spheres of activity. Janoski in looking at citizenship and civil society differentiates between four which could be useful in our analysis as well: the state sphere (e.g., executive, judicial, and legislative); the public sphere (e.g., voluntary associations, privately owned media); the market sphere (e.g., business firms and unions); and the private sphere (e.g., family and relations of love and affection) (27). Some of the issues of interest lie in intersections between sectors, e.g. political parties between state and public spheres. Janoski has explored the societal level of analysis and interactive components which serve to locate civil society. He argues, for example, that strong civil societies must have active debate and discussion within associations and organizations in the public sphere. In contrast, where there is weak civil society, there is domination by the state or the market sphere. Others have noted that the public sphere has taken on new importance as organizations oriented to issues such as the environment or economic and social justice have increased in number. In early political socialization research the state sphere was almost exclusive in importance. That is no longer true.

The second assumption is that the individual adolescent understands and gives meaning to experiences in this domain through processes similar to those operating in other domains (4). Some experiences are assimilated to the young person's existing modes or structures of thinking and behavior. Some experiences cause changes or accommodations in those modes and structures. Still others may be considered and then resisted. The resistance mode is particularly likely to be important with adolescents and in contexts where there is economic or social injustice. The model used in most of the early political socialization research failed to deal adequately with the individual's construction of social knowledge, with the possibilities of resistance, with the expressive dimensions of youth culture, and with the unintended consequences of certain structures and processes.

The third assumption is that to understand adolescents operating in this domain one must take into account their needs to establish and maintain close relationships to a peer group and to express autonomy from adult norms through this group. Young people's social identity, cooperative or civil behavior, perspective taking or empathy, and capacity for constructive dissent are constructed within friendship and peer groups both in formal settings (classrooms in schools and organized activities groups in and outside school) and informal settings ("hanging out"). The situated cognition approach which emphasizes the supports, expectations, and affordances within the everyday lives of adolescents helps to frame study of these processes (31). The influential role of peer groups was seldom adequately considered in the early research on this domain.

The fourth assumption is that both adolescents' current activities and behaviors which serve as developmental precursors to or incipient forms of adult behavior deserve attention. A number of connections between experiences in adolescence and the attitudes and behaviors of later adulthood have been documented. Continuities are especially likely in orientations toward legitimate authority, civil behavior including tolerance and cooperation, perceptions of the ideal role of government on the right/left continuum (relating to the framing of political issues), and the way individuals view protest or social movement activities and involvement in them. Some recent evidence of these connections has been provided in panel or longitudinal studies of those involved in voluntary service (22), of members of high school student councils (44), of civil rights workers during the "freedom summer" (33) and of participants and involved observers in protest activities during the late 1960's at the University of Michigan (8, 39). The early research was concerned primarily with continuity in partisan affiliation.

Ways of Structuring the Domain from the Point of View of Political Science, Educational Research, and Psychology

Damon suggested, in a commentary in the recent Journal of Social Issues, that there is a need to "parse" the domain of adolescent citizenship in terms of content, boundaries, and processes. (13). Several authors -- from political science, sociology, and psychology -- have suggested categories and frameworks. These are reviewed here as starting points for the conference discussion.

First, from the point of view of political scientists, Conover, Crewe, and Searing make a distinction between liberalism and communitarianism and between views of citizenship as either contractual or communal (11). They examined differences between the American and British notions of citizenship using focus groups of adults in the mid-1980's. Liberal or contractual citizens view political participation as mainly serving private interests rather than the common good. The rights of citizens, and the notion of duty is relegated to the background because duties are perceived as obligations which restrict freedoms. Liberalism has dominated until relatively recently when the ideas of communitarians received attention. Communal citizens are more likely to see themselves sharing traditions and understandings with their neighbors which can foster common pursuit of the public good. The notion of rights is in the background, while duties are in the foreground.

Taking this a step further, we conclude that a weakness in much previous research on this area is its nearly exclusive focus on citizenship in relation to the state sphere (e.g., voting rates and political party membership) and the conceptualization of individual development as dealing predominantly with rights. With new attention to civil society coupled with the prevalence of social movements and issue oriented groups concerned with the environment or civil and human rights, it is critical to bridge our concerns and emphasize the public sphere of activity (and perhaps parts of the private and even the market sphere). It is also the case that action in the public sphere can sometimes motivate a citizen to accept the responsibility to vote or exercise vigilance regarding the actions of elected officials because those acts have become more meaningful.

A second way of parsing the content domain comes from an educational research perspective illustrated by the IEA Civic Education Project (42). Phase 2 of this study will consist of a test and survey of political and civic issues conducted during 1999 with 150,000 students in the modal grade for 14-year-olds in nearly thirty countries. During Phase 1 of this project extensive documentation was collected and interviews with policy makers, educators, and some students were conducted in twenty-four countries. The aim was to build the Phase 2 test and survey around topics which these experts from participating countries believed students were likely to have studied in history and civics classes. After analysis of this documentation, three sub-domains were chosen: 1) Democracy: What does democracy mean to young people and what are its associated institutions and practices (e.g., elections, the constitution, rights and obligations of citizens)? 2) National Identity, Regional and International Relationships: How can the sense of national identity or national loyalty among young people be described and how does it relate to their orientation to other countries and to supra-national organizations? 3) Social Cohesion and Diversity: What do issues of social cohesion and diversity mean to young people? The media, economics, and local problems with national ramifications (including the environment and poverty) were options for a fourth sub-domain. This approach to parsing the content domain is closely related to distinctions made in the school curriculum, though the Phase 2 data collection from students will also assess the influences of various other settings in which political socialization takes place.

The third, fourth and fifth approaches are recent psychological approaches to parsing the domain:

The third approach looks at domain specific and domain general approaches to understanding young people's relationships to societal institutions and was derived from cognitive psychology (40). Distinctions are made between discrete knowledge elements, domain general cognitive processes (with reference to Piaget and Kohlberg), and cognitive processes specific to the political domain (in particular, ways in which young people conceptualize solutions to social problems in terms of the potential actors, actions, and constraints upon action). The review concluded that moral and political thinking are related to each other, and both are connected to attitudes and behavior.

A variant of the cognitive psychology approach has been used by Modigliani & Gamson in a tri-partite distinction among modes of thinking about politics (34). A mode of thinking includes a set of rules for deciding what is relevant, a filing system or basis for classification of experience, and a grammar or structure of beliefs. Those individuals operating in the first mode treat politics in a personal way as an extension of interpersonal face-to-face experience. An event is important to the extent it influences personal life, and beliefs about personal conduct in interpersonal situations are invoked. In the second mode political thinking is organized around a set of salient group identifications and relevant matters are those which affect the groups with which one identifies. A third mode is organized around ideology and looks at events and political objects in terms of more abstract collective goods, for example equality or environmental protection. The authors analyzed interviews about the Vietnam War and presidential candidates to illustrate these modes of thinking among adults.

The fourth approach appears as part of a comprehensive view of socialization and social development during the child and adolescent years in the Handbook of Child Psychology volume on social development. Bugental and Goodnow formulate a series of propositions about interactions within four distinct sub-domains of socialization distinguished from each because they are organized around distinctive tasks, focused on particular social cues, and regulated by different processes (6). The following relationship patterns define the four sub-domains: 1) attachment to individuals, 2) social identity relations based on similarity and loyalty to some and differentiation from other individuals; 3) hierarchical relationships involving the negotiation of competing interests among individuals with unequal power; and 4) reciprocity relations involving implicit social contracts between individuals who are equals. The authors use illustrations from parent-child and friendship relations to demonstrate the usefulness of this parsing of the socialization domain, but these four sub-domains of socialization have potential relevance for relationships to community and society as well.

The fifth approach places emphasis on adolescent identity and has roots in Erikson's theory. Youniss and Yates distinguish between personal identity (involving individuals' internal struggle to determine who they are), social identity (incorporating a sense of solidarity with group ideals and integration into historical movements), and civic identity (concerned with a desire to take an active part in improving society (45, 46). Hart and his collaborators delineate moral identity as a sense of self that is consistent with commitment to actions benefiting others and in relation to pro-social action. This identity development can have positive benefits both internally for the individual adolescent and for the community by building social capital (22). These authors pay special attention to urban and minority youth and consider ways in which anticipation in community service can foster various dimensions of identity and political understanding by providing experience with the struggle and rewards of involvement in socially and politically meaningful activities. Flanagan and her colleagues trace the ways in which commitment to an implicit social contract and such identities are fostered, especially by an ethic of social responsibility in the family (19). Her research was conducted in several countries.

In addition to these ways of parsing the domain, identifying the constitutive elements of adolescents' orientations to this domain (based on many studies of these and related topics) may be helpful to the conference discussion. These elements are:

about political and economic institutions and global issues; also about the community and local institutions.

Social, cognitive, emotional and moral capacities: cooperation, perspective-taking and empathy, interpreting text and media, communication

collective identifications, engagement, support for legitimate authority, tolerance for constructive dissent, attitudes toward ethnic and immigrant groups

at the level of peer groups (face-to-face), in the community, in behavior directed at toward national government policy or global issues (in relation to public, market and private spheres as well as the state sphere)

These (and other) ways of structuring the topic of the conference will be debated during the meeting, as each has implications for understanding the preparation of adolescents for roles in civil society, community participation, political participation, and constructive dissent (the topics of the working groups).

The five approaches from political science, educational research, cognitive psychology, social developmental psychology, and the psychology of identity development (as well as the definition of constituents of adolescents' orientations) present ways of parsing the domain at different levels of analysis and using different units. Many of them cut across each other or have potential overlaps. The convening group hopes that this delineation of these approaches will give the conference a common starting point for discussion.