Reading: Citizenship, participation, AND ENGAGEMENT?

Citizenship, participation, AND CIVIC ENGAGEMENT?

Yes. We love to use many different terms to explain the same concepts. And that is not just us, academics worldwide just keep adding synonyms. So let’s have a look at some definitions.

UNICEF defines civic engagement as: “individual or collective actions in which people participate to improve the well-being of communities or society in general”. Again, it is about participation, but UNICEF also added HOW (individual and collective actions) and FOR WHOM (society or communities). 

Civic action has traditionally been carried out through a number of diverse activities. These actions can include voting in elections, attendance at community meetings and protests, contact and dialogue with public officials, endorsement of public petitions, and contribution to written articles about the community [1]. 

Critique is that this definition may be too narrow for the digital era and from a youth perspective. 

CIRCLE, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement at Tufts College has another interesting typology – in which they divided civic engagement into three categories: civic, electoral, and political voice:

Source: Wikipedia, Civic Engagement.

Adapted from Keeler et al. (2002) [1]

Finally, CitizenLab, a non-profit from Brussels that works with governments to facilitate greater engagement of citizens in decision making, differentiated between citizen engagement and citizen participation in this way. (Please, take into account, that they have defined "engagement" and "participation" in their own way, but this is an academic's definition of these concepts):

citizen engagement

Source: Citizen Lab.

The novelty of their definition is the differentiation of top-down and bottom-up approaches, and the informal nature of the relationship between governments and citizens.

Throughout the MOOC we will be looking at both types of initiatives bottom-up and top-down, as very often an initiative can start from citizens, but then be overtaken by governments.  

So how do young people approach democratic citizenship and how do they actively engage?

Mostly digitally, but not only.  

The concept of ‘democratic citizenship’ is interpreted and actioned in a vastly different way by younger generations than previous generations, mostly visible with respect to young citizen’s relationship to politics. Young people are approaching politics from a more personal perspective which facilitates greater participation in defining relevant issues and subsequently producing and sharing information resulting in political action [2]. 

Growing evidence suggests that young citizens are less committed to more ‘dutiful’ acts of citizenship such as voting instead seeking out opportunities for “personalized politics of expressive engagement” which include digital networking, acts of self-expression and contribution to participatory media [2]. Even participation in protests and volunteerism relies heavily on the use of digital tools and social media, for event organization, communication and opinion deliberation. These acts of ‘participatory politics’ such as youth creating and circulating photos, memes and videos to their networks, all these can be considered as examples of digitally-mediated forms of civic engagement, or digital civic engagement

The fundamental question facing the EU and all governments and communities is what these groundbreaking technological leaps mean for systems of governance that were created long before such radical digital disruption. The potential danger of permitting democracy’s digitalisation to continue without being questioned and debated is that the very basis of democracy itself is at risk of erosion and its principles depleted [3].


[1] Keeter et al. (2002). The civic and political health of the nation: A generational portrait.

[2] Cho, A. (2020). Digital civic engagement by young people. 

[3] Sgueo, G. (2020). Briefing Re-thinking democracy: Digital Democracy. Is the future of civic engagement online? European Union. 

Last modified: Tuesday, 14 June 2022, 12:43 PM