The term political participation refers to different mechanisms of public to express opinions or to influence political decisions. Typically, political participation is often defined in terms of instrumental acts, such as voting in national elections. Thus, political activities beyond voting are regarded as unconventional. Indeed, through voting, the members of the modern society are able to express their opinion about public policies. However, the democratic process involves various other forms of political participation that are closely related with the development of representative democracy.
One example of a non-institutionalized political action is political discussion with family, friends, or colleagues. Political scientists continue to debate whether political discussion should be regarded as a discrete form of political participation. John Stuart Mill, a British philosopher and political theorist, saw the liberty of political discussion as an indicator of the absence of totalitarian restraints. He indicated that the skills needed to engage in such discussions are valuable elements of democratic citizenship.
Almond and Verba comply with Mill, asserting that political discussion should be grouped with other non-institutionalized activities, such reading the political news, working in communities to solve local problems, and party activities apart from voting. Other political theorists, such as Verba, Nie, and Kim argue that political discussion and interest in politics in general, are forms of political involvement, which differs from political participation, or the direct influence on public politics.
Thus, discussing politics with family, friends, or colleagues constitutes a non-instrumental, expressive action. Yet, political discussion may be either expressive or instrumental. If the aim is just to inform others about one’s position, than the discussion may be regarded as expressive. However, the discussion may aim to persuade other to vote for a certain person or a political party; in this case, the discussion may be regarded as instrumental as the act of voting. Therefore, olitical discussion must be considered a distinct form of political participation. Political theories suggest that demographic variables have a significant effect on political participation. Thus, in order to analyze political discussion, a separate mode of participation, it is essential to identify the influence of certain demographic variables and the dynamics of democratic change. Age, gender, and education are three most important demographic variables correlated with political participation.
Most political scientists highlight a strong correlation between electoral participation and the age of a voter. However, it is interesting to examine whether age has an equally important impact on political discussion. Since the older age cohort is more likely to vote than the younger one, it might be tempting to claim that the older people get, the more likely they are to engage in political discussion. Or alternatively, one might think that the younger people are, the more likely they are to be active and interested in politics.
However, none of these hypotheses proves to be true; as Richard Topf, Professor of political science in London Guildhall University explains, age is not an important variable to explain the frequency with which people engage in political discussion. Another potentially misleading variable is gender. In contrast with institutionalized forms of participation, political discussion with family, friends, or colleagues generally takes place in informal environment. As a result, one might expect the frequency of such discussions to be affected by gender differences.
One tentative hypothesis is that woman are less active politically than men; or it might be assumed that even though women tend to express lower interest in conventional politics, or in other words, they might be less involved in elections, they will be more active in non-institutionalized modes of political participation. In order to test these two hypotheses, it is necessary to examine statistical data. The male-female mean difference, constructed by subtracting the mean level of frequency of political discussion among women from that among men, could be a useful measure.
A negative number would indicate that women are less likely to discuss politics than men. As statistical data suggest, negative mean difference prevails among the European countries. Hence, more men than women indicate that they frequently discuss politics. However, statistics also suggest that gender differences are diminishing; the male-female gap in terms of political discussion is narrowing overtime. Another important variable is education. Most political scientists agree that education makes people more tolerant and less extreme; education also enables people to abandon prejudice and make rational choices.
Thus, one possible hypothesis states that citizens with greater level of education are more likely to participate in the political process, including the discussions about politics. The alternative hypothesis implies that highly educated people tend to restrain from active political participation; indeed, there is no significant correlation between the level of education and electoral turnout, one of the conventional forms of political participation.
In order to test these two hypotheses, it is necessary to examine statistical data. For example, if people with less than nine years of education are regarded as minimally educated and people with over twelve years of education are regarded as highly educated, the statistical measure to examine would be the difference between the mean levels of political discussion among these two groups.
Analyzing this measure leads to a conclusion that the frequency with which people discuss politics and their level of education are closely related. In other words, the people with higher level of education are more likely to discuss politics frequently than those with minimal level of education. However, the importance of the education variable, similarly with the gender variable, tends to reduce. Thus, the general trend is towards the increasing convergence between genders and education levels.