Politics and Civic Engagement: Interview with Joseph Kahne, Part III

Friday, February 18, 2011 at 11:17 am

This post is part of a series of interviews highlighting leaders in the field of New Learning (what we call “NLI at Inquiry”). A few weeks ago, 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 III, he discusses the importance of equitable distribution of digital media learning opportunities and the future of civic engagement.

Professor Kahne, discuss the importance of equitable distribution of digital media learning opportunities.

Since more and more civic and political life is carried out online, it is especially important to pay attention to the degree to which the digital media opportunities are equitably or inequitably distributed. There are a couple different dimensions of this that I think are worth attending to. Often we focus on the digital divide, which is generally understood to be assessments of the degree to which access to digital media is equitably distributed. Some people have broadband at home and other people don’t. Some people have computers and other people don’t. We have found that there is some inequity in access that is highly related to socioeconomic status; the more money people have, the more likely they are to have computers — the more likely they are to have broadband access, etc.; but one thing we’re finding that’s interesting is that, when it comes to some forms of access, (for example, smart phones), we may not see as much inequality as we might expect in relation to other dimensions. That’s the access question.
It is also important to attend to the “participation gap.” Some people enter into participatory cultures and online communities while other people don’t? There is some evidence that the online participation gap may be smaller than it is in some other spheres of life. In our study — and we drew on data that Cathy Cohen collected, using a nationally representative dataset — we found that students of color and low-income students were just as likely to participate in participatory cultures and online communities as kids of higher socioeconomic status and as white kids. When it comes to explicit political participation, there’s some inequality, but it is perhaps less than inequality in offline political participation. At least, that’s what the indications are from a new study by Kay Schlozman and colleagues that was done by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
There’s also a third form of potential inequality related to the distribution of digital media learning opportunities. The things that we were just talking about are more about what young people have in their home or in their out-of-school life. But it’s also fundamentally important to see to what extent there is equitable distribution within school in terms of digital media learning opportunities. We know that civic learning opportunities are inequitably distributed. We did a study that found that young people were far more likely to get opportunities to debate with one another or to do service learning, or to engage in simulations, if they were white, if they were of higher socioeconomic status, or if they were higher achieving (in tracked classes with higher-achieving kids). We don’t know, whether digital media learning opportunities in school are equitably distributed. That’s something we really need to study.
How do you envision civic engagement in the future? Political participation? For instance, if online networks become the norm for civic and political engagement, how could this online participation differ from geographic participation?
There’s no doubt that there’s already been a massive move, especially by young people, to engage civically and politically in ways that utilize and draw on digital media. I think we would expect that to continue, and more and more people will be getting their information in those ways, participating in discussions through digital media, etc. It seems likely that geography will still be very important but, it does seem important to imagine that we may need to broaden and redefine what it means to be local — that it’s possible for there to be online forms or visions of localism. This is something that my colleague Ellen Middaugh and I wrote about recently. We discussed ways in which people can be part of online communities that share the features of being in a local community in some important ways, even though they’re not geographic locales.
Special thanks
We’d like to extend a special thanks to Professor Joseph Kahne for taking the time to talk with us.
Additional Resources on Professor Kahne's Work: