#5PAPERS – Week 2 Day 2

by Nivek K Thompson

1.Reference to the Article 

Leighley JE. (1995) Attitudes, Opportunities and Incentives – A Field Essay on Political Participation. Political Research Quarterly. 48(1):181-209.

  1. What attracted me to this Article?

Leighley’s paper claims to ‘provide nonspecialists [with] a substantive overview of the major theoretical models and empiricial findings of this literature.’ p.18, which is something I would like to read, despite it being 20 years old.

  1. What is it about? (Problem / Purpose / Research Questions)

Review of the literature and empirical findings in the field of political participation, focusing on assumptions and future direction for research.

  1. Where does this come from? (Literature / Theoretical Framework)

Review of the literature and data.

  1. What did they do? (Methodology & Method)

L. reviewed the literature for key models and identified relevant criticisms/limitations.

  1. socio-economic status (SES) model: holds that ‘participation is primarily driven by individuals’ resources’ p.183, which are determined primarily by their socio-economic status, with people with higher SES being more likely to participate; evidence supports this with education having stronger impact than income as well as demonstrating that participation increases with age. Leighley notes that the impact of gender, race and ethnicity is less consistent. Criticisms of this model include the issue of whether attitudes (skills & resources) precede participation or are influenced by it or both; the question of whether everyone has similar access to opportunities to participate; failure to value evidence of differences across participation types, in particular electoral vs non-electoral participation.
  2. Mobilization model: holds that ‘participation is a response to contextual cues and political opportunities structured by an individual’s environment.’ p.188 this model includes SES as factors but with different impacts and recognises the impact of formal institutional and informal social mobilization on decisions to use these resources. This model also recognises the interaction between participation and mobilisation and attitudes. In addition group mobilisations processes can have a significant impact via building individuals’ skills and hence ongoing participation.
  3. Rational choice model: assumes political participation is a rational choice made when the benefits of participation outweigh the costs. The collective action problem i.e. that everyone benefits but individuals bear the cost, is most acute for voting. However despite this there is a ‘paradox of participation’ because people do in fact vote, which numerous scholars seek to resolve through various creative mechanisms (e.g the ‘D’ term ie maintenance of democracy; the ‘minimax regret’ decision rule – voting to stop least favourite candidate being elected). Leighley identifies a range of practice problems designing rational choice studies in particular operationalising concepts, self reporting of motivations and obtaining data from participants rather than non-participants.

Consequences of participation (such as the impact of participation on elected officials) is less well studied, partly because so much focus has been on voting, where the impact is fairly straightforward. Although the impact of participation on individuals has been studied more, showing that participation increases political sophistication and efficacy and these impacts continue over the long term.

  1. What did they learn? (Results / Discussion)

L. challenges assumptions in the field –

  • the ‘standard socio-economic model’ is insufficient to explain political participation, mobilising factors need to be considered;
  • participation does not equal voting, alternate forms of participation need to be considered; and
  • the application rational choice models are lacking, there needs to bemore work to operationalise critical concepts.

L. suggests that by addressing these assumptions three assumptions and proposes a research agenda:

  • what is the relative importance of SES, civic orientations and mobilization on individuals’ political participation
  • how do ‘soft incentives’ operate in the rational choice model
  • conceptualise decisions to participate not as yes/no but as choice between different type of political activity and attempt to account for these choices.

Despite the impressive amount of empirical work Leighley cites, s/he suggests that what is needed is ‘a fundamentally different type of data, for the different questions which must not be addressed.’ p.198

  1. What did I learn?

Motivation studies such that the answer to why people participate is often ‘because they were asked’ – this is precisely the same reason people participate in democratic innovations, even if they haven’t participated in other political activities.

The research agenda identified in this paper from 1975, if followed up by scholars since that time, is likely to provide some useful material to support my thinking about political participation and so I’m going to look at who has cited this paper.

Also, L’s literature review is very extensive and so this will be a useful paper to return to if I am seeking references on any of these topics.