Perspectives on Politics

Book Reviews: American Politics

Civic Talk: Peers, Politics, and the Future of Democracy. By Casey A. Klofstad . Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010. 200p. $26.95.

William A. Gamson

Boston College

Those who frequently talk about politics and current events in their social conversations are more likely to be engaged in various forms of civic and political life than those who rarely have private conversations about politics. This book explores the tricky question of whether it is, in some sense, because of this private peer talk that their civic engagement is stimulated. After all, it is plausible to argue that whatever personal and group factors ultimately determine civic engagement influence both public action and personal reading and social conversations. The existence of a correlation is far from establishing a causal link.

Civic Talk presents some suggestive data that peer conversations interact with personal inclinations and situational factors in ways that contribute to increased civic engagement for some people, sometimes. The author readily acknowledges that the book leaves many unanswered questions, but it does provide a thoughtful review of the complex processes and mechanisms involved in increasing civic engagement.

The discussion is grounded in a data set about private conversations and different forms of civic engagement. The sample is that portion of the entering class at the University of Wisconsin in the academic year 2003–4 who were living in university housing. The appeal of this sample is the random assignment of roommates, allowing a comparison of those who reportedly engage in political conversations with their freshmen roommates and those who do not. About a quarter of the students participated in filling out questionnaires at the beginning and end of their first year and again in the second half of their (presumptive) senior year in 2007–8. Those who talked politics with their freshman roommates are compared on their subsequent actions of participating in service groups and/or in more overtly political groups. To get a bit more direct data on the mechanisms involved, the author also ran four focus groups in April 2008, with eight participants in each.

I can readily understand the author's desire to run the focus groups because there is a thinness in the questionnaire data that gives one the feeling of seeing things from a distance and at second hand. Rather than actual conversations, we have reports about conversations and we really have little idea of the substance of such conversations. Those who did not talk politics with their randomly assigned roommate may well have found other peers with whom they did talk.

Within the acknowledged limits, however, it does appear that for some people who are predisposed and presented with opportunities for extending their civic engagement, having a roommate with whom one talks politics does contribute to and facilitate the process. But it seems to do this to a greater degree for participation in nonprofit service activities than for more overtly political engagement. To quote Casey Klofstad (p. 45), “While civic talk has a significant effect on participation in voluntary civic organizations, the results … show that such conversations have a less reliable influence over whether a person participates in political activities.”

It is fortuitous that the final wave of data collection took place in the spring of 2008. When one thinks back on the atmosphere in Madison during the presidential primary season of that year, there was a compelling contest among such Democratic candidates as Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards, as well as a less dramatic Republican primary contest. Wisconsin was a battleground state. To expect to find any direct connection between the involvement of those students in political campaigns that were mobilizing large numbers of the normally passive and their political conversations with freshman roommates seems far-fetched. Obviously, there is a long process of engagement, with many factors operating to activate and sustain the readiness to become involved when the opportunity arises.

The strength of this book, then, is not in “proving” that having a freshman roommate with whom one could talk politics does or does not “cause” political engagement. It is found, rather, in its thoughtful discussions and detailed exploration of the ways in which private conversations spill over into a broader process of developing civic engagement—interacting with a variety of individual predispositions and, to a lesser extent, more collective experiences.

It would have been intriguing—albeit difficult to implement—to compare autobiographical accounts of the civic careers of different patterns of engagement among selected participants. What was the career path of those who first turned to service organizations and later to more political ones? Do they remember any conversations that were especially significant? How did they become involved in networks of those already engaged and did this process begin with private, social conversations? Did they experience a civic awakening or was the process more gradual without critical moments?

While this is a book for an academic audience, it is written in an accessible manner. If one wanted to explore, in a graduate seminar, the broader process of becoming a political activist and sustaining such activity, this is a helpful discussion for teasing out the role of conversations in the process. If we cannot randomly assign people to peer groups and experimentally remove the selection factor, we can do a lot more to capture their own insights and learn more about the kind of conversational content that stimulates engagement and that which represses it.

One might find some of the answers in the large social-movement literature on collective action frames. Charlotte Ryan (Prime Time Activism, 1991), for example, distinguishes an injustice, an agency, and an identity component. One might hypothesize that private conversations often contribute in important ways to the creation of a sense of injustice, creating a collective “we” opposed to some “they,” and a sense of collective empowerment that “we” can do something about it through collective action. By demonstrating what it is in private conversations that builds the different components of collective action frames, one could further the quest for understanding their role in promoting civic engagement.