Politics and Civic Engagement: Interview with Joseph Kahne, Part I.

Friday, February 04, 2011 at 8:37 am

This post is part of a series of interviews highlighting leaders in the field of New Learning (what we call “NLI at Inquiry”). Last week, we interviewed Mills College Professor Joseph Kahne about his research, trends in political engagement and civic participation, equitable digital media learning opportunities, and his thoughts on the future of civic engagement in education. In Part I, he discusses his current research.

Joseph Kahne is Chair of the Youth & Participatory Politics Research Network (YPP) and is the John and Martha Davidson Professor of Education at Mills College, where he was previously Dean of the School of Education. His research focuses on ways that school practices and new media influence the civic and political development of youth. He also studies urban school reform. Together with Ellen Middaugh and Chris Evans at Mills and Amanda Lenhart, Alexandra Rankin Macgill, and Jessica Vitak at the Pew Internet & American Life Project, Professor Kahne recently completed the first nationally representative survey of youth that examined the civic potential of video games. He also recently completed a longitudinal study with Sue Sporte of how opportunities in schools, homes, and communities influenced the civic outcomes of 4,000 students in Chicago’s public schools.

Currently, he is writing up findings from a panel study of the impact of new media participation and civic education on students from 19 districts across California. His work has been published in leading education journals including the American Educational Research Journal, Phi Delta Kappan, and the Harvard Educational Review. Professor Kahne sits on the steering committee of the National Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools and on the Advisory Board of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). With Cathy Cohen, he is Co-Principal Investigator on YPP's quantitative research component — Mapping Youth Participatory Politics.

Professor Kahne, can you tell us about your current research?

We know that new media are increasingly central to many aspects of political participation. New media are used to get information, to discuss issues with others, to share one's perspective (with individuals, with elected officials, with groups), to recruit others for activities, and to raise funds.

The impact of participation is uncertain. For example, new media may expand access to both information and misinformation. In addition, individuals will have access to an unprecedented array of views — but individuals can choose to only seek out those who share their perspectives. There will be many more ways to participate, but this may also widen the gap between those who do participate and those who do not.

I'm particularly interested in studying how youth participation with new media will impact the quality, quantity, and equality of participation and in ways to intervene (through education, mentoring, software design, etc.) to better tap the potential of new media while minimizing the risks.

How do you define and discuss political engagement and civic participation? What are the variables you use to measure them, and why do you choose these variables?

In our work, we tend to look at a range of different variables because all people, and young people in particular, participate in a wide variety of ways — both traditional and nontraditional.
We look at traditional political participation — such as voting, working on campaigns, fundraising, mobilizing and issue-oriented participation. We also look at traditional civic participation: volunteering, giving money for charities, raising money for charities, working with others on community problem-solving, or being on a PTA or a board for a group.

Then we also look (and this is increasingly important with the digital media) at expressions of public voice and efforts to influence the opinions of others. That can take the form of protests or petitions, but it can also show up in newer forms such as blogs or in poetry slams or remixes. There are a lot of ways to have public voice, depending on the context, that can be understood as civic and political forms of life.

Another relatively newer and growing form of civic and political participation is what we might call “expressions of consumer or lifestyle politics.” For young people especially, there’s a somewhat diminished focus on the state as the primary institution one needs to change. In other words, often there is a focus on trying to elicit change through consumer preferences or either buy-cotting or boycotting; people sometimes understand their lifestyle — what clothes they wear or what foods they eat — to be a political statement. Those are important.

There are also cognitive forms of engagement — for example, having conversations with people about civic or political life and analysis of issues that you do through interactions with family and friends.

To be continued...

How can educators teach civics through the use of digital media? Does the content matter, or is it more about how students interact with each other?

Next week we will publish Part II of our interview with Professor Kahne, focusing on his thoughts about teaching civics through digital media.

Additional Resources on Professor Kahne’s work: