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Yadilex Ali
ENC 3331
Professor Stewart
06 September 2015
Defining Civic Engagement
The political sphere has forever been one of the most complex systems when considering
how to keep it at a healthy continuum where decisions are logical and its inhabitants, or citizens,
are content with the outcomes as a democratic nation. Politics has functioned as the hub at both
local and national levels for processing incoming ideas, actions, and opinions from that of
citizens in order to promote the well-being of multiple communities for such a large population.
This hub contains many channels in which citizens are able to express any concerns including
but not limited to social media, telephone, internet, and face-to-face contact. Yet, the input to
maintain a democratic society seems as though it is vanishing because the opportunities these
channels offer are not being exercised to its best ability by its intended audience thus, disturbing
the continuum. Although there has been a spate of interest in the gossip of politics, there has
been a lack of action by people whose thoughts matter but have no effect without participation.
But instead of declaring a lack of participation by citizens in politics, it may just be more
significant to spell out what it is to be a participator or civically engaged before interpreting this
trend as a naïve disappearance in this act of the political participation realm.
Just like giving a copy of identical scripts to multiple actors and actresses, not all of them
will perform the scene in the same manner – it is all about perspective that will shape how you
interpret it and present it. The term “civic engagement” is an example of a tailored perception.
Recent scholars and political scientists have debated on what this term really means. But one
concept has remained true to all of them. It somehow has to do with politics (Boyte; Keith and
Cossart; Ekman and Amna). One definition is not more or less right than the other and needs to
be acknowledged and accepted as a broad term since it’s impact may seem more or less

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influential by different people depending on how a person symbolizes the role of citizenship “in
contrast to practices that are merely ‘talking about’ politics” (Keith and Cossart 46). Boyte would
very much agree with this paradigm when examining citizenship as he also believe that
citizenship is multidimensional not desperate in meaning (92). Rather, civic engagement is a
noun that encompasses many verbs and actions.
This analysis may be quite problematic to some scholars such as Joakim Ekman and Erik
Amna who believe “if civic engagement is used by scholars to mean completely different things,
it is basically a useless concept” but it is likely that this broadness is recognized for a reason
(Ekman and Amna 284). Due to this indefinite connotation, it is best to identify this term as an
inclined polarized spectrum where activities lie based on the relevance of the term being viewed
as either (1) being a good person/citizen in a particular environment to one another or (2) politics
in terms of making change in society through government. There are no activities that are in
between the two that have been recognized, making it polarized. These activities lie on a
spectrum because, while all of them have significance on influencing politics in some way, some
have a more direct effect in policy and decision making which is the ultimate goal when
submitting input into the channels that led to the political hub as shown in figure 1.1 by
participating in political activities as a gateway. This is what mainly differentiates the two types
of activities. Moreover, civic engagement can be defined as a spectrum of activities that are goalorientated toward making a change through government by means of increasing one another’s
welfare and civic health in a community and solidifying personal beliefs in a political system
through communicative practices, actions, and social connectedness with other citizens
(Knuckey and Collie 13; Keith and Cossart 46). And can be accomplished by bringing attention
to issues in the community, through civic activities or political activities, in hopes of it being
addressed by government officials, the result of political activities.

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Figure 1.1: The Spectrum of
Civic Engagement

Civic Activities: registration, buying or
boycotting a product, group participation (that
is not part of a political organization),
volunteering, doing favors for others, working
with others to fix a problem, passing down
knowledge, exchange of ideas, eating dinner
with household, communicating with others,
charity work, fund-raising, donations,
informing one’s self about politics, educating

Political Activities: voting, attending a
public meeting, contacting or visiting a
public official, signing petition, protesting,
riots, strikes, being part of a political
organization, running for public office,
participating in a political forum

Political Hub

Nontraditional Political Participation<---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------->Traditional Political Participation
Less Direct <----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------->More Direct

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The Development in Defining Civic Engagement
The foundation of crafting a meaning into the term “civic engagement” was crediting the
idea of identity. When one is identified as a citizen, there is an assumption that the individual
belongs to a large group that is able to enjoy privileges that is granted to them because of this
new role. Included in this package is the opportunity to participate in a democratic nation in
which uses representatives to stand for a population in a certain context. This idea of belonging
to a specific area with its own standards and regulations shows the importance in the newly
collection of abilities that a rhetorical citizen possesses to use and control. William Keith and
Paula Cossart characterize rhetorical citizenship as a “set of communicative and deliberative
practices that in a particular culture and political system [that] allow citizens to enact and
embody their citizenship” (46). It is similar to fulfilling the expectation of fighting for what you
believe in by being an advocate in your beliefs via interacting with other people and participating
in political events when openly invited such as public meetings or uninvited to like a signing a
petition on your own will. This process of obtaining a new identity reminds me of both of my
parent who are immigrants and obtained their American citizenship. Before their citizenship,
they were not able to immerse their daily lives like those who were American citizens. This
meant that their actions were limited and opinions were unheard – the input and roles was
nonexistent but awaiting to be occupied. It was not until after getting their citizenships that they
were able to receive government benefits and most importantly vote on issues that affected them
reaching the ultimate goal of being represented in a democracy as an influential political
participant in a belonging society by making a difference. This illustrates why political activities
is placed higher than that of civic activities.
In order to sustain what an individual believes in, one must commit credible civic acts to
establish a prestige ideology that others can join too if seen as a moral conduct and potentially

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turn into a political act. So while civic activities can develop into political activities, political
activities cannot become civic activities because political activities are the prime way to connect
with government officials and seen as the most valuable input by those processing in the political
hub. Yet, there is not a sequence on how to reach this optimum level. Alternatively, when one set
of activities is executed the other one is not and vice versa but it is necessary that civic activities
result in political activities for it to matter; making political activities the focus and civic
activities as extracurricular activities when political activities are not being executed.
When comparing political activities to civic activities it must be mentioned that one is
more of a direct, better-recognized way to policy and decision making (the goal) than the other.
Political activities that include: voting, attending a public meeting, contacting or visiting a public
official, signing petition, protesting, riots, strikes, being part of a political organization, running
for public office, and participating in a political forum have a bigger capacity of getting attention
by government officials (Knuckey and Collie 5-15; Keith and Cossart 46; Ekman and Amna 292,
295; Boyte 93). This is the reason they are seen more as a traditional form of political
participation. Civic activities including: registration, buying or boycotting a product, group
participation (that is not part of a political organization), volunteering, passing down knowledge,
exchange of ideas, doing favors for others, working with others to fix a problem, eating dinner
with household, communicating with others, charity work, fundraising, donating, informing
one’s self about politics, and educating others about general politics and current politics tend to
go unnoticed by government officials (Knuckey and Collie 5-15; Keith and Cossart 46; Ekman
and Amna 292, 295; Boyte 93). As a result this is a less direct form of untraditional political
participation that focuses instead on the commonwealth of a community by means of interaction
but still remains important when political activities are not occurring.

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It is important to note that the spectrum of civic engagement does not acknowledge the
lack of participation because it does not get noticed on a bigger level by government officials.
However, the simplest everyday encounters like eating dinner in a household does have a spot of
the on the spectrum because, although it does not get noticed by government officials, it assists
in “the formation of people as rational citizens – a vast enterprise of civic education” that has the
aptitude to educate one another on beliefs and issues through the medium of conversation as an
advocate and can possibly lead up to a political act (Keith and Cossart 49). It is a form of social
connectedness that can affect the way political activities are executed and consequently
providing feedback for those in the political hub (Knuckey and Collie 13). The idea of
integrating a progression of civic activities becoming political activities was from a personal
experience in my Rhetoric and Civic Engagement class. After learning and discussing the decline
of political participation by millennials in Florida in a group setting, I was quite disappointed
(Knuckey and Collie). Feeling like I am quite involved in civic activities, I have a new profound
determination to be more involved in political activities. In other words, group discussion led me
to want to become more involved in political activities. Becoming informed and exchanging
ideas (a civic activity) led to an intention to make a more direct difference by contacting a public
official on issues that concern me (a political activity).
Distinguishing the effects of these two sets of activities was adopted from scholars
Ekman and Amna who label participation as manifest, political participation, or latent,
observable participation that does not include political participation (283). Action is a favorable
term when describing their approach in defining civic engagement as it is for me. But other
problems in their research remain. In their article, “Political Participation and Civic Engagement:
Towards a New Typology”, the authors explain their rules and boundaries when classifying the
different participations into the two groups. Stating, the only latent forms of participation is

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considered civic engagement (Ekman and Amna 283). This can be disputed because the subject,
the citizen, is committing those actions and making decisions. Nonetheless, what is adequately
the most significant about this text is the distinction in emphasizing that latent participation
cannot evolve into manifest participation as to say there is some type of superiority in manifest
participation than latent participation (Ekman and Amna 284-295). Just like the civic
engagement spectrum I created, there is a dominance in which I agree with when comparing
political activities to civic activities which is why the spectrum is best described in an incline.
However, unlike Ekman and Amna, I do believe in an evolution of civic activities eventually
resulting into political activities.
Taking the role as a good citizen embraces the impression of acting legally and
appropriate in an environment through civic activities and only achieves the partial definition of
civic engagement. Meanwhile, participating in political activities in more traditional ways fulfills
the other half of it definition. Which is why activities do not have to be political at all, instead it
is more about creating unity where being a good person or citizen exposes others to views
different from their own when one is not participating in political activities, the goal of being a
citizen in a democratic nation and vice versa. Therefore, civic engagement is only completed if
activities, civic and political, are being done; but it cannot be done simultaneously because the
activities are categorized on different sides of the polarized spectrum.
Civic engagement is a term that everyone can relate to some more than others depending
on how it is interpreted. It is such a debatable term amongst those in the political field because
many have recognized a decline in political participation and attempt to prevent the decline by
increasing it by calling upon citizens to be more civically engaged. But the fact of the matter is,
without a simple definition, there is no way for it to be measured and improvement in political
participation cannot be concluded.

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Unlike, those who defined civic engagement prior to myself, I defined it using visual by
relating it to a polarized spectrum of civic activities on one side and political activities on the
other. I believe my definition of the term is practical because it attributes the role of a citizen in a
democratic nation to carrying out the duties that come with being part of a larger society that is
managed by its people. This includes coexisting in a world with other citizens and influencing
politics to promote a better lifestyle for citizens who will be affected by it. My work offers a
broad, yet meaningful definition, of civic engagement. But there are gaps in my proposition that
was not mention such as activities that lie between civic and political activities, if any, and their
significance in the definition of civic engagement. In addition, there is a need to redefine the
term based on different circumstances that it can be applied to such as politics, beliefs, and
philosophies when considering the improvement of a civilization as a whole.

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Works Cited
Boyte. “Citizen Education as a Craft, Not a Program”. PDF file.
Ekman, Joakim and Erik Amna. “Political Participation and Civic Engagement: Towards a New
Typology”. Institute for Research in Social Communication, Slovak Academy of Sciences.
2002. PDF file.
Keith, William and Paula Cossart. “The Search for ‘Real’ Democracy: Rhetorical Citizenship and
Public Deliberation in France and the United States, 1870-1940.” PDF file.
Knuckey, Johnathan and Tim Collie. “2011 Florida Civic Health Index: The Next Generation”.
PDF file.