There are many different factors that account for political participation, some are institutional such as a countries political framework (say the electoral system) and some are social such as ones involvement in civil society for example, voluntary organizations.Theoretical approaches also differ in their accounts as to what makes one participate in the political process. Where as the instrumental approach sees political participation as a means to an end, such as the defence or advancement of an individual or group (or the fight against tyranny) the developmental approach suggests that people feel a social responsibility or duty to do so.1 Although these approaches tell us why some do participate in the political process they do not fully explain why others do not.
Axford, (2002) defines political participation as, “the examination of both activity and non-activity and the reasons underlying both”. Therefore, it could be that the sociological approach is more useful as it sees the function of resources as a crucial influence. These resources may be ones background including education or class that in-turn gives an individual the means to participate. The rational or economic approach which suggests that self interest motivates people to be politically active is also “useful in the explanation of the engagement and non-engagement of people in the political process…[even if] it offers a very stark, some would say bleak, view of human motivation”.
There is no exclusive definition to this study and “our understanding of political participation is set deliberately broad to try to capture a fair representation of the numerous ways in which ordinary citizens seek to influence the policy-making process”.4 Therefore this essay will not just spin out institutional factors or conventional approaches to this study but will also look into individual attributes and social factors such as the importance of civic engagement (that is increasingly being studied) as an explanation into the differing levels of political participation. Overlapping both the formal and informal factors.
The authors of Political Participation and Democracy in Britain, (1992) suggest that the study of political participation consists of, “taking part in the processes of information, passage and implementation of public polices. It is concerned with action by citizens which is aimed at influencing decisions taken by public representatives and officials. This may be action that tries to shape the attitudes of decision-makers…or action in protest at the outcomes of a decision.”
However this only “pushes students of politics to examine those activities designed to influence governmental policy”6 and not actions aimed at influencing civil society as “traditionally, studies of political participation understood strictly as action were mainly concerned with electoral activities, particularly voting”.7 However for some people the “the decision not to take any action could be a matter of rational calculation”
Therefore, the classification of different types of political activity such as the distinction between conventional and unconventional, is problematic9 and can only be attempted if we have some insight into the question of where politics and in-turn political participation-begins and ends. For example, is talking in the pub about taxes being too high some kind of political activity? In a dictatorship it certainly would be!
It is understood that individual activism varies considerably. “In his book The Conceptions and Theories of Modern Democracy (1993), Anthony Birch lists what he understands is the main conventional types of political participation”.10 These included, voting behavior, active memberships of a political party, taking part in demonstrations or strikes, various forms of community action and so on.11 However there are more sophisticated classifications in the book, Political participation and democracy in Britain (1992) that discuss the path-braking work of studies that identify ‘modes’ of political participation and a super-scale that draws distinction “between electoral and non-electoral and conventional and non-conventional” participation.