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date: 22 September 2023

What Is Political Participation?free

What Is Political Participation?free

  • Jan W. van DethJan W. van DethDepartment of Political Sociology, University of Mannheim


Vibrant democracies are characterized by a continuous expansion of the available forms of participation. This expansion has confronted many researchers with the dilemma of using either a dated conceptualization of participation and excluding many new modes of political action or stretching their concept to cover almost everything. Many newer, “creative,” “personalized,” and “individualized” modes of participation such as political consumption, street parties, or guerrilla gardening, are hard to define because they basically concern nonpolitical activities used for political purposes. Especially using internet-based technologies for these activities (“connective action”) makes it very difficult to recognize political participation. Social, societal, and political developments in democratic societies have made the search for a single encompassing definition of political participation obsolete. Therefore, an alternative approach is to integrate the core features of political participation in a conceptual map. Five modes cover the whole range of political participation systematically and efficiently, based on the locus (polity), targeting (government area or community problems), and circumstance (context or motivations) of these activities. While especially the rise of expressive modes of participation requires the inclusion of contextual information or the aims and goals of participants, attention is paid to the (dis)advantages of including these aspects as defining criteria for political participation. A conceptual map of political participation offers a comprehensive answer to the question “What is political participation?” without excluding future participatory innovations that are the hallmark of a vibrant democracy.


  • Political Behavior
  • Political Sociology

Updated in this version

A few small errors and ambiguities corrected. Bibliography expanded and updated.

Participation and Democracy

Political participation can be loosely defined as citizens’ activities affecting politics. Ever since the famous funeral speech of Pericles (431 bce), politicians and scholars have stressed the unique character of democracy by emphasizing the role of ordinary citizens in political affairs. By now, the list of participatory activities has become virtually infinite and includes actions such as voting, demonstrating, contacting public officials, boycotting, attending party rallies, guerrilla gardening, posting blogs, volunteering, joining flash mobs, signing petitions, buying fair-trade products, and even suicide protests. Political participation is relevant for any political system, but it is an indispensable feature of democracy: “Where few take part in decisions there is little democracy; the more participation there is in decisions, the more democracy there is” (Verba & Nie, 1972, p. 1). Thus, the extent and scope of political participation are important—perhaps even decisive—criteria for assessing the quality of democracy.

The growing salience of government and politics for everyday life, the blurring of distinctions between private and public spheres, the increasing competences and resources (especially education) of citizens, and the availability of an abundance of political information resulted in a continuous expansion of available forms of participation. While the political nature of the activities is immediately clear for elections, demonstrations, or letters-to-the-editor, this is much more ambiguous if we are dealing with the purchase of sneakers manufactured under specific conditions, the secret planting of public green spaces, or clicking “like” on the site of a group advocating the protection of whales in the north Atlantic. The list of these last examples can be extended simply—and with each additional form the problems of demarcating political participation become more evident.

Apparently, almost every activity by some citizen somehow can be understood sometimes as a form of political participation (van Deth, 2001). Yet this expansion—or fragmentation—has confronted many researchers with the dilemma of using either a dated conceptualization excluding many new modes of political participation or stretching their concept to cover almost everything. Demarcation problems are especially evident for many newer, “creative,” “personalized,” and “individualized” modes of participation such as political consumption or street parties or guerrilla gardening, which basically concern nonpolitical activities used for political purposes. Moreover, the use of internet-based technologies for these activities (“connective action”) has made it almost impossible to recognize political participation at first sight.

The most important consequence of the waning analytical sharpness of the concept of political participation is that it significantly hinders the assessment of the quality of democracy. Whereas a restricted definition of participation usually results in rather pessimistic conclusions (e.g., decreasing electoral turnout challenges the legitimacy of representative democracy), broader approaches typically present less alarming inferences (e.g., rapidly spreading political consumerism shows that ordinary people are very committed).1 In fact, assessments of the quality of democracy rely directly on the question of which forms of political behavior are considered to be specimens of political participation. A mutual understanding of political participation, therefore, is a conditio sine qua none for meaningful discussions about participation and, more importantly, for every discourse on the merits and chances of democracy.

To find a comprehensive solution for these conceptual problems, neither the development of all-encompassing nominal definitions nor deductive analyses of prevailing forms of participation seem to be helpful. This article does not attempt to develop a single, comprehensive definition of political participation, but follows an alternative and very different strategy instead. The core features of political participation are integrated in a conceptual map of political participation covering five distinct, clearly specified variants of political participation (van Deth, 2014). These variants systematically and efficiently cover the whole range of political participation systematically and efficiently, based on the locus (polity), targeting (government area or community problems), and circumstance (context or motivations) of these activities. Additionally, the conceptual map of political participation offered could easily include future participatory innovations, which are the hallmark of a vibrant democracy.

Expanding Participation

The main features of political participation are clear and undisputed. First, it is understood as an activity (or action)—simply watching television or being interested in politics does not constitute participation. Political participation, second, is voluntary and not ordered by a ruling class or obliged under some law. Third, participation refers to activities of people in their role as nonprofessionals or amateurs and not, say, as politicians, civil servants, or lobbyists. Fourth, political participation concerns government, politics, or the state in broad senses of these words and is not restricted to specific phases (such as parliamentary decision-making processes or executing laws) or to specific levels or areas (such as national elections or contacts with party officials). Thus, any voluntary, nonprofessional activity concerning government, politics, or the state is a specimen of political participation.

Various types of political behavior meeting these criteria can be easily identified: casting a vote, signing a petition, or filing an objection are plain examples of specific forms of political participation. By increasing the level of abstraction, participation can be understood as a latent concept (usually measured as a continuum) covering more than one form of participation as specific manifestations. Several forms of participation sharing some basic feature are called a mode or type of participation. For instance, voting and party activities can be depicted together as an electoral mode of participation. A repertoire of political participation unites all available forms—and, of course, all modes—of participation (cf. Tilly, 1995, pp. 41–48).

The repertoire of political participation expanded continuously over the last five or six decades; that is, new forms of participation were constantly added to existing activities. Since the scope of government activities and responsibilities also expanded in many countries in the last decades, the domain of political participation grew considerably. That is, political participation has become relevant in areas that would have been considered private, social, or economic only a few decades ago. Typically, empirical political participation research follows expansions of the repertoire and the domain of participation with some delay and with discussions about the nature of newly added activities as forms of political participation. These developments can be easily traced with the publication of a few landmark studies.

By the mid-20th century the rise of representative democracy and the struggle for universal suffrage in many democracies resulted in a rather strict understanding of political participation as election-related activities. Consequently, the seminal voting studies of the 1940s and 1950s focused on forms of political participation such as voting, campaigning, and party membership (Berelson et al., 1954). Contacts between citizens and government officials were added to this repertoire and by the early 1960s political participation was broadly understood as voting and other citizen activities in the context of statutory political institutions (Campbell et al., 1960). Due to the growing relevance of community politics, the repertoire of political participation gradually included direct contacts between citizens, public officials, and politicians, as well as “communal activities” relaxing the initial strong focus on election-related activities (Verba & Nie, 1972; Verba et al., 1978). These activities became known as conventional or institutionalized modes of participation.

Rapid social and political developments in the late 1960s and early 1970s encompassed remarkable proliferations of citizens’ involvement, making clear that political participation is not restricted to broadly accepted actions or institutionalized activities. Dissent, disapproval, rejection, and provocation are evidently expressions of citizens’ interests and opinions and therefore should be included in the repertoire of democratic political participation (Barnes, Kaase et al., 1979). These newer forms of participation also included many protest actions organized by upcoming “New Social Movements” initiated by pacifist, ecological, squatters’, and women’s groups. Because these activities were not in line with social norms of the early 1970s, they were labeled unconventional modes of participation. In addition, terms such as elite-challenging modes of participation (Inglehart, 1990), contentious politics (Tilly & Tarrow, 2006), or simply protest have been widely used to underline the fact that these activities present specific claims and usually reject existing social and political arrangements.

After the risks of continuously growing government expenditures became visible in the 1980s, citizens’ civil engagement was strengthened as an attractive alternative to state intervention. The disappearing borderline between political and nonpolitical spheres and the revival of Tocquevillean and communitarian approaches stimulated the next expansion of the repertoire of political participation with civil activities, volunteering, and social engagement in all kinds of voluntary associations. Especially the use of these activities at the community level had been recognized as a mode of participation earlier (Verba & Nie, 1972; Verba et al., 1978). Tocquevillean and communitarian argumentations, however, emphasize that the quality of democracy is directly related to the existence of a vibrant civil society (Putnam, 1993). Yet the question of whether civil activities, volunteering, and social engagement are specimens of political participation is still disputed, and the idea obviously challenges the use of simple definitions of the concept. The disappearing borderline between political and nonpolitical societal spheres also stimulated forms of participation that explicitly deny the need for organizations or organized actions. Instead, a strong emphasis lies on the expression of moral and ethical standpoints in actions that can be practiced by individual citizens alone. Important examples of such modes of creative participation or individualized collective action are boycotts and buycotts: citizens using their consumer power to achieve political goals (Micheletti, 2003; Stolle & Micheletti, 2013).

The spread of internet-based technologies facilitates these individualized actions by offering opportunities to express ideas, demands, and frustrations that are instantly accessible to everyone at practically no cost. Furthermore, these technologies make typical political associations even more superfluous. Using the internet as a mode of participation in itself—and not just a modern way to mobilize participants—is covered by the label connective action (Bennett & Segerberg, 2013).

The continuous expansion of the repertoire of political participation is matched by a similar expansion in empirical research. Survey-based studies, however, cannot simply expand the list of questionnaire items because only relatively small parts of the populations are involved in most forms of participation. And standardized techniques do not cover newly arising forms in their early stages. Analyses of media coverage of political events appear more adequate for detecting the rise and spread of new forms of participation and usually report long lists of protests, riots, stunts, street actions, and the like (see Ortiz et al., 2013). Interviewing activists also offers opportunities for tracing new forms of political behavior and is widely used in research on party members (see van Haute & Gauja, 2015) and on social movements (see Klandermans et al., 2014). The enormous amount of data available on the internet is still rather difficult to explore empirically due to restrictive policies of providers and the conceptual complications of distinguishing between communication, mobilization, and participation (see Cantijoch et al., 2014).

Thus, the recent expansions of the repertoire of political participation in democratic societies seem to be based on a shift in the nature of involvement. Older modes of political participation are specific activities devised and used to influence political processes: casting a vote, joining a demonstration, or supporting a candidate are all examples of such activities. As such, refusals to buy a specific brand of coffee, volunteering in a hospital, being a member of a sports club, or posting a blog on whales are not specimens of political participation, but nonpolitical activities that can be used for political purposes. These activities need not require some organization or coordinated action. Surely, to be effective a large number of people should behave in a similar way, but they can all act individually, separately, and with distinct aims and motivations. Furthermore, the internet reduces organizational costs of participation to practically nil, which enables all kinds of concerns and aims to be mobilized that would not have been articulated before. As a consequence of this “profusion of self-actualizing, digitally mediated DIY politics” (Bennett, 2012, p. 12), almost everybody can choose to be politically active about anything at any moment in time. In this way, the recent expansions of the repertoire of political participation differ clearly from previous enlargements. By now almost every conceivable nonprivate activity can be understood as a form of political participation when a political context is evident or political goals are manifest. If—in specific circumstances—the purchase of coffee or volunteering in a hospital can be considered a specimen of political participation just as going to the polls or signing a petition against government policies is, how, then, do we recognize a form of participation if we see one?

Expanding the Concept of Participation

Political participation has been defined in many ways (Brady, 1998; Conge, 1988; Fox, 2013; van Deth, 2001),2 ranging from rather restrictive understandings as “those activities by private citizens that are more or less directly aimed at influencing the selection of governmental personnel and/or the actions they take” (Verba & Nie, 1972, p. 2) to very broad approaches referring to political participation as “a categorical term for citizen power” (Arnstein, 1969, p. 216) or to all activities aiming to influence existing power structures. As these examples show, increasing the level of abstraction allows us to cover new forms of participation easily—at the price of losing analytical rigor and empirical precision. Neither the search for common aspects among available (nominal) definitions of political participation nor the enumeration of various forms of participation seem to result in an encompassing conceptualization of political participation. A more pragmatic approach is needed based on the identification of indispensable requirements for some phenomenon to be recognized as a specimen of political participation. In other words, the initial question, “What is political participation?” is converted into a practical task; that is, how to recognize a form of participation when you see one.

A fresh approach can be based on the development of an operational definition of political participation specifying the exact properties that are required to determine its existence. In his seminal work on taxonomies and classifications, Hempel (1965) pointed to two general requirements for operational definitions. First, an operational definition should provide “objective criteria by means of which any scientific investigator can decide, for any particular case, whether the term does or does not apply” (Hempel, 1965, p. 141). By pointing to, for instance, voluntariness or government directedness in definitions of political participation, such criteria are already widely used in exactly this way. What is needed is a systematically developed set of decision rules to answer the question of whether we depict a specific phenomenon as political participation. Second, Hempel not only stated that these decision rules have to be unambiguous but also stressed that they have to be efficient by placing them in a hierarchical order. In a hierarchically ordered classification each subgroup is “defined by the specification of necessary and sufficient conditions of membership” (Hempel, 1965, p. 138). Following this recommendation for political participation we need to develop a minimalist definition of the concept before more complex variants are considered.3 The advantage of this smallest set of decision rules is that we can deal with unproblematic cases easily. Because no sophisticated arguments are required to recognize voting or contacting a politician as a specimen of political participation, we should focus on properties that might bring community work, boycotting products, or blogging under the same label.

Suppose we have some phenomenon for which we want to know whether the term political participation does or does not apply. This question can be answered for any phenomenon by going through various steps, each representing a decision rule in a hierarchical scheme. If a certain property is available we move on to the next property—if a property is not found, the phenomenon under consideration is not a specimen of political participation. Figure 1 presents an overview of the decision rules proposed, each of which can be answered by confirming or rejecting the availability of a property with “yes” or “no,” respectively. The eight rules to define political participation can be briefly summarized in the following way:

Rule 1: Is it an activity or action? Nominal definitions of participation all start with references to behavioral aspects; participation requires an activity or action. Being interested in politics or watching newscasts is not sufficient.

Yet stressing the behavioral nature of any phenomenon eventually to be labeled as a specimen of political participation does not avoid all ambiguities. Specific abstentions of activities—for instance boycotting certain products, staying away from the ballot box, refusing to donate money—are, strictly speaking, not instances of activities or actions. Nonetheless, many people “regard their own decision not to participate in formal politics as itself a highly political act” (Hay, 2007, p. 26). Only in case abstentions are used in similar ways as activities should these “activities” also be treated as a satisfactory fulfillment of this first rule’s requirement. That is, only refusing to buy truly obtainable products, staying at home on an actual election day, or refusing to pay charges are accepted as specimens of relevant “activities” here.

Rule 2: Is the activity voluntary? In a democracy political participation should not be a consequence of force, pressure, or threats, but be optional and based on free will.

Because examining a person’s free will is highly problematic in empirical research, a negative formulation emphasizing the absence of observable coercion—including unreasonably high costs—seems to be more practical. Examples of such coercions are, first of all, legal obligations or mandatory tasks. They are also economic or social extortions. However, paying taxes, sitting in a traffic jam, or being summoned to appear in court are all examples of involuntary acts with (potentially) political consequences that should be excluded from the concept of political participation. However, this rule does not exclude “compulsory voting” from the concept of political participation. Contrary to what the term suggests, actually casting a vote cannot be mandatory in any system guaranteeing secret elections (a main feature of democracy). In some countries citizens are obliged to report to the polling station on election day, but no democracy enforces actual voting.

Rule 3: Is the activity conducted by nonprofessionals? Most definitions explicitly refer to citizens in order to differentiate the relevant behavior from the activities of politicians, civil servants, office-bearers, public officers, journalists, and professional delegates, advisors, appointees, lobbyists, and the like.

Essential as the accomplishments of these functionaries and officials might be for the political system, using the concept of political participation in those instances would stretch the range of relevant behavior to cover conceptually and functionally very different phenomena. The same applies to commercial activities. Therefore, the term “citizen” is explicitly incorporated into many definitions of political participation to underline the nonprofessional, nonpaid, amateur nature of activities (Stoker, 2006, Chapter 9). Some authors use the term “citizen participation” to avoid any misunderstanding (Callahan, 2007).

Rule 4: Is the activity located in the sphere of government/state/politics? The adjective “political” is a crucial part of any conceptualization of political participation.

Circular definitions are widely available and easy recognizable by the inclusion of terms such as “politics,” “political system,” “public policy,” or “policy process” in the explicans. Somewhat more informative are references to “government,” “government agencies,” or “public representatives and officials.” Although “politics,” “government,” or “democracy” are essentially contested concepts (Gallie, 1956), no conceptualization of political participation can avoid the question of whether the activities considered are located in the political sector of society; that is, the sector directed by government under the jurisdiction of state power. Since we want to arrive at a minimalist definition of political participation first, this rule should be based on the most straightforward condition available. The institutional architecture of the political system (“polity”) seems to fulfill this requirement.

These four decision rules already suffice to reach a minimalist definition of political participation. By focusing on the locus (or arena) of participation—rather than on outcomes, outputs, contexts, actors, intentions, etc.—as the defining characteristic, all nonprofessional, voluntary activities located in the sphere of government/state/politics are specimens of political participation (what I will label as Political Participation-I). These modes of participation include activities such as casting a vote (both in elections and referendums), submitting a petition, or supporting a party or candidate, as well as being active in forums such as “participatory budgeting.” Frequently used terms for activities meeting the four requirements of the minimalist definition are the above-mentioned “conventional,” “institutional,” “formal,” or “elite-directing” modes of political participation.

A minimal definition of participation obviously is not sufficient to cover citizens’ activities. Although early overviews of political participation research simply excluded “the politics of nongovernmental organizations” from the object of study (Milbrath, 1965, p. 1), in any vibrant democracy new modes of political participation are introduced outside the regular government/state/politics sphere continuously and explicitly challenge the status quo. Hay (2007) pointed out forms of political participation that “take place outside of the governmental arena, yet respond to concerns that are formally recognized politically and on which there may well be active legislative or diplomatic agendas” (Hay, 2007, p. 75). In case the activity concerned is not located in the sphere of government/state/politics (rule 4) a further rule is required to cover those activities:

Rule 5: Is the activity targeted at the sphere of government/state/politics? Activities that are not located in the government/state/politics arena can be considered as modes of political participation if they are targeted at that sphere.

Many of these modes are used to attract public attention to issues that either have not been perceived as problematic or have not been recognized as problems requiring governmental/state involvement so far. Certainly in the initial stage of their application these modes intend to challenge the conventional understanding of the scope and nature of politics and the domain of government in a society. Labels such as “contentious politics” (Tilly & Tarrow, 2006) or “elite-challenging politics” (Inglehart, 1990, pp. 338–340) underline the conflicting nature of these activities. Although the actions usually aim at expanding the understanding of politics and government, they are also used to limit state intervention (for instance when workers blockade streets to stop the deregulation of labor conditions).

If the objectives of the activities indeed include politics or the addressees are located in government or the state, then this is a second main type of political participation (Political Participation-II). The decisive point is that this feature refers to the targets of the activities considered and not to the aims or intentions of activists. Targeted political activities are covered by, for example, the Cross-National Time-Series Data Archive definition of “peaceful demonstrations” as “any peaceful gathering of more than 100 people for the primary purpose of displaying or voicing their opposition to government policies or authorities” (Banks, 2009, as cited by Teorell, 2010, p. 168). This definition clearly shows how the targets of the activities can be depicted without relying on the goals or intentions of the people involved.

Government and state agencies are not the only targets of political activities, and scholars of participation have frequently stressed the relevance of communal activities and voluntary associations (Verba & Nie, 1972; Verba et al., 1978, 1995). Discussions about political participation and civic engagement indicate that participation seems to be increasingly focused “on problem solving and helping others” (Zukin et al., 2006, p. 7). This conceptualization is too broad to produce a useful definition of political participation. Yet problem solving or helping others certainly can be accepted as modes of political participation if clearly private or nonpublic activities are excluded. To attain the adjective “political” for problem solving and helping others, these activities should be aimed at shared problems, which usually, but not necessarily, means that community problems are at the center. Hay (2007) brought this conceptualization to the point: “actions might be deemed political only in so far as they either arise out of situations of collective choice or are likely to have collective consequences, at whatever point these consequences arise” (p. 70). This solution seems more pragmatic than opening the debate on the essentially contested nature (Gallie, 1956) of concepts such as “politics,” “government,” or “democracy” once again. To deny the adjective “political” to attempts to solve collective or community problems would imply a restriction to government- and state-centered definitions of political participation, and—what is much more problematic—to an exclusion of activities by people who explicitly reject some borderline between “politics” and “society.” For that reason, these activities are distinguished from other modes of participation, but are not eliminated from the broader conceptualization of political participation:

Rule 6: Is the activity aimed at solving collective or community problems? Nonprofessional, voluntary activities that are not located in or targeted at the sphere of government/state/politics can be considered as modes of political participation if they are aimed at solving collective or community problems.

Notice that it is the character of the problem dealt with that has to be collective or shared, not the organizational aspects of the activities undertaken. Newer forms of participation are labeled as “individualized collective action” to underline this distinction (Micheletti, 2003, p. 28; van Deth, 2010).

If this last condition is met, a second variant of a targeted definition of political participation is arrived at, now aimed at solving collective or community problems (Political Participation-III). Examples of activities belonging to this category are citizens’ initiatives or neighborhood committees. As with the government/politics/state–targeted definition, no references to aims or intentions of participants have to be considered for this second variant. Authors working in the field of civil society and social capital favor the depiction of activities aimed at solving collective or community problems as modes of political participation. Macedo and his collaborators defined civic engagement as “any activity, individual or collective, devoted to influencing the collective life of the polity” (Macedo et al., 2005, p. 6; emphasis original)—a rather broad definition that perfectly matches the two types of targeted definitions of political participation (Political Participation-II and -III).

The expansion of the minimum definition with targeted definitions, however, still does not exhaust all citizens’ activities in a democracy. In case any one of the last three conditions (rules 4, 5, and 6) is not met we are apparently dealing with some voluntary, nonprofessional activity that is neither located in nor targeted at government/state/politics or at solving common problems. Such nonpolitical activities still can be used for political purposes and so become specimens of political participation. Especially newer, “creative,” “expressive,” “personalized,” and “individualized” modes of participation seem to fit this category. An important aspect of these newer modes of political participation is that they typically “refer not to ‘politics’ as a noun, but to the ‘political’ as an adjective, describing the motivations of actors wherever such motivations might be displayed” (Hay, 2007, p. 63). The depiction of political participation as “responsibility taking” underlines the ethical and moral connotations attached to these forms (Stolle & Micheletti, 2013, pp. 34–35).

An initial way to find out whether an apparently nonpolitical activity is used for political purposes is to consider the specific context of the activity.4 For example, camping or staging a play are, as such, not political activities, but they can easily become so if they are done at the gates of Downing Street or in front of the European Central Bank (Theocharis, 2015). In a similar way, a picture on the web of people showing their backs might be a student gag, but it can be recognized as a form of political participation when the accompanying hashtag is not #partydance but #nonazis. Before we reach the border of our conceptual map, then, the circumstances of the activities have to be considered:

Rule 7: Is the activity placed in a political context? A voluntary, nonprofessional activity that does not meet any of the rules 4, 5, or 6 is a nonpolitical activity that can be recognized as a form of political participation if it takes place in a political context (Political Participation-IV).

Circumstantial evidence of this kind is derived from the surrounding, environment, background, or setting of these nonpolitical activities—not from the aims or intentions of the participants, although these participants might underline the political nature of their activities by contributing to the context of their actions.

A second way to trace political purposes of nonpolitical activities is to rely on explicit expressions of the person involved: buying a brand of coffee is, as such, not a political activity. However, this can easily become a political activity if the shopper explicitly expresses his intention that this purchase should be understood as an utterance against import regulations. Many definitions of political participation include explicit references to goals or intentions and embrace references to activities that “intend” or are “aimed at” influencing government policies or the selection of its personnel. Undoubtedly, political participation is usually initiated and guided by the wish to have some impact on existing arrangements (cf. Milbrath, 1965; Schlozman et al., 2012). The question, therefore, is not whether teleological aspects can or should be included in conceptualizations of political participation after we have dealt with minimalist, targeted, and contextual definitions—the question is how to consistently include such aspects in our understanding of political participation. After applying the first seven rules, no general answer to this question is required. The introduction of subjective aspects is only required when we reach nonpolitical activities at the endpoint of our set of decision-making rules:

Rule 8: Is the activity used to express political aims and intentions? Any activity that fulfills the first three rules—activity, voluntariness, nonprofessionally—but is not located in the political arena, is not aimed at either political actors or collective problems, and is not placed in a political context can be depicted as a form of political participation if the activity is used to express political aims and intentions by the participants.

For example, Micheletti (2003) stresses that “political consumerism is politics when people knowingly target market actors to express their opinions on justice, fairness, or noneconomic issues that concern personal and family well-being” (p. 14).

Depending on the aims and intentions of the participants, applying rule 8 results in a second variant of a circumstantial definition of political participation based on expressed intentions (Political Participation-V). This type covers all voluntary, nonpolitical activities by citizens used to express their political aims and intentions that do not fit into one of the previous four types of participation. With these activities we have obviously reached the final borderline of a conceptual map of political participation. Notice, however, that intentions or aims of participants are only considered at the very last stage: only if none of the additional features of participation (rules 4–7) is available are explicit expressions considered. Obviously, these intentions and aims are usually highly interesting aspects of political phenomena, but we do not need them to depict most forms of political participation. Ockham’s razor should be used whenever possible. By organizing the crucial criteria hierarchically (see the order of the five gray decision lozenges in Figure 1), concluding whether a feature is available becomes increasingly complicated. Positively formulated, this means that phenomena such as casting a vote, contacting a politician, or organizing a budget forum can be identified as forms of political participation straightforwardly. Only after these uncomplicated forms are dealt with are more difficult criteria considered.

Figure 1. A conceptual map of political participation.

Principally, there is no reason to restrict the application of rule 8 to activities that could not be categorized under the minimalist, targeted, or contextual definitions. Although the intentions and aims of the people involved are not necessary for defining the first four types of participation, that does not exclude teleological aspects for further refinements of these concepts. Following the distinctions proposed by Hay (2007, pp. 74–75), each type of political participation can be divided into “political” or “nonpolitical” activities depending on whether the activists are primarily motivated by political or by nonpolitical aims or intentions, respectively. For example, people can attend a demonstration as an opportunity to find a partner for the rest of the weekend or they can cast a vote to help some acquaintance get elected. Downs (1957) famously excluded casting a vote for Party B instead of the preferred Party A from his concept of “rational behavior” if for some voter “preventing his wife’s tantrums is more important to him than having A win instead of B” (p. 7). By using this argument, for instance, for modes of participation covered by the minimalist definition, we arrive at the two variants of voting by the Downsian citizen: a politically motivated form for those who base their vote for Party A on their political preferences, and a nonpolitical form for those who prefer Party A, but vote for B to avoid further conflicts at home. Although these last forms of nonpolitical participation provide an interesting case for the study of participation and democracy (van Deth, 2014, pp. 359–360), they do not establish a distinct variant of political participation and are therefore not included in Figure 1.


What is political participation? Due to the rapid expansion of political activities over the last few decades and the spread of expressive modes, this question has become increasingly difficult to answer and has resulted in many disputes in this area. Are civic engagement or political consumerism types of political participation? Are intentions required to define political participation? What is gained by distinguishing between “politics” and “the political?” Is online “clictivism” participation? And so on. Basically, these debates concern terminological matters confused by an apparently strong faith in nominal definitions. Instead of starting another round of these discussions, this article has developed a set of decision rules that offer, as Hempel suggested, “objective criteria” for deciding whether the term political participation applies to some phenomenon. In this way, the question “What is political participation?” is converted into the more pragmatic question: How would you recognize a form of political participation when you saw one? Answering this last question allows for the methodical identification of any phenomenon as a specimen of political participation and for a systematic distinction between various types of participation.

The advantages of using an operational definition, however, come with a price: instead of obtaining a single, overarching definition of political participation we end up with a set of variants. Because the continuous expansion of the repertoire of political participation and especially the rise of expressive forms implies the use of nonpolitical activities in political circumstances, these newer forms of participation could be covered by a single definition only if such a conceptualization, quite literally, covered everything (van Deth, 2001). Yet social, societal, and political developments in democratic societies have made the search for a single encompassing definition of political participation obsolete. To secure analytical clarity and empirical feasibility, the conceptual map developed here results in the depiction of a set of clear-cut modes of political participation. Together, these broad variants and distinct modes systematically and efficiently cover the whole range of forms of political participation: a minimalist definition is developed first and four additional variants are based only on the availability of indispensable additional features.5 More aspects can be taken into account—legality, legitimacy, effectiveness, nonviolence, internet use, and so on—but they are not necessary for the conceptualization of political participation. Furthermore, the five variants offer a comprehensive conceptualization of political participation without excluding future innovations, which are the hallmark of a vibrant democracy.

More than a century ago Max Weber discussed concept formation in a rapidly changing world. Scientific progress, he argued, has it origin in the “constant tension” between “the intellectual apparatus which the past has developed” and the “new knowledge which we can and desire to wrest from reality” (Weber, 1949, p. 105, emphasis original). The continuous expansion of the repertoire of political participation undoubtedly has boosted the “tensions” between scholars relying on clear-cut definitions of political participation but missing new developments in their analyses on the one hand, and those who are primarily interested in new developments but lack a clear conceptualization of their main object on the other. Weber considered such developments as unavoidable and stressed that “concept-construction depends on the setting of the problem” (1949, p. 105). In participation research, this “setting” consists of the (functioning of) democratic societies. The conceptualization of political participation, then, should be continuously attuned to changes in democratic societies. If the repertoire of political participation expands continuously, only a corresponding expansion of the concept of political participation will allow us to satisfy the desire to wrest more knowledge from reality about the way democracy functions.


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  • 1. A typical example of such ambivalent conclusions of empirical analyses is: “while manifest, formal and extra-parliamentary political participation are declining . . . it might still be possible that this analysis is missing other important forms of political participation” (Boarini & Díaz, 2015, p. 28). Unless these “other important forms” are taken into account, nothing can be concluded about the quality of democracy.

  • 2. This section contains a modified version of my “Conceptual Map of Political Participation” published earlier (van Deth, 2014). An extensive discussion of the map and an empirical application can be found in Theocharis and van Deth (2018a, 2018b). Empirical applications are also provided by Ohme et al. (2018) and Steenvoorden (2018).

  • 3. Definitions are “minimal” if they “deliberatively focus on the smallest possible number of attributes that are still seen as producing a viable standard” (Collier & Levitsky, 1997, p. 433).

  • 4. I am indebted to Yannis Theocharis for drawing my attention to this variant of political participation and for his suggestion to add an additional rule to the initial map (see also Theocharis, 2015).

  • 5. In addition, every specific form of participation can be unambiguously and efficiently defined by enumerating the yes/no responses to the eight rules (see van Deth, 2014, p. 354; Theocharis & van Deth, 2018b, pp. 77–81).