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Critical Consciousness Motivates Voting Among Poor and Working Class Youth

September 28th, 2011
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Matthew A. Diemer and Cheng-Hsien Li of Michigan State University have completed a new study, forthcoming in Child Development, that finds low-income youth are more apt to vote if they are engaged in political activism and influenced by friends and family. The research was funded by the National Academy of Education and a Spencer Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship. The authors use the CIRCLE Civic and Political Health of the Nation Survey, and Diemer was an emerging scholar in service learning. Diemer and Li provide the following summary of their pending article, which is entitled “Fostering Youths’ Social Action and Political Engagement”:

It is well known that racial/ethnic minorities, poor/working class people, and younger people vote less frequently than Whites, more affluent people, and older people do. What is less well known is what motivates poor/working class White and poor/working class youth of color, or what we call here “marginalized youth,” to become politically engaged. Our study examined whether “critical consciousness,” an awareness of social inequalities and participation in social action (such as peaceful protests or marches) was predictive of poor/working class White and minority youths’ voting. Our expectation was that because critical consciousness motivates people to change social conditions they perceive to be unjust, it may also motivate marginalized youth to vote.

The Civic and Political Health Survey of 2006 surveyed a nationally representative sample of young people regarding their political knowledge, attitudes and behaviors. We used portions of this survey to study how critical consciousness develops and its implications for traditional political participation among 665 poor and working class youth (aged 15-25). We statistically controlled for youths’ civic and political knowledge, because this is a key predictor of several kinds of political engagement. We then examined how a) teachers, parents, and peers may affect youths’ perceived ability to create social change and actual participation in social action and b) whether this perceived ability and social action participation predicted youths’ voting.

As we expected, critical consciousness predicted marginalized youths’ voting behavior. Further, critical consciousness more powerfully predicted voting behavior than voting behavior predicted critical consciousness – suggesting that social action may be a more relevant form of political participation for youth who tend to be less (traditionally) politically engaged. Because critical consciousness is also associated with positive developmental outcomes such as engagement with school, mental health, and connection to future careers, we also studied how parents, peers, and teachers may foster critical consciousness by discussing political issues and social inequalities with these youth. We also found that these discussions with peers and parents predicted critical consciousness, but teachers had no effect.

These results help us understand how important figures in youths’ development (peers, parents, teachers) may foster youths’ critical consciousness and political engagement. This study changes our understanding of youths’ political behavior, which previously considered traditional (such as voting) and non-traditional political behavior (such as social action) as distinct forms of political engagement. This study also illustrates how critical consciousness may be an important pathway to traditional political engagement among groups who tend to participate less in the political system. These results have important implications for youth-focused civic and political organizations, because this study helps us understand how discussing politics and social inequalities may motivate marginalized youth to change their social conditions and become politically engaged. These results may also inform programs that aim to foster positive youth development, since critical consciousness is associated with a variety of positive developmental outcomes for marginalized youth.

Find more analysis in our 2016 Election Center. For regular updates in your Inbox about youth and the 2016 election, sign up for CIRCLE's monthly E-Update here.

2 Responses to “Critical Consciousness Motivates Voting Among Poor and Working Class Youth”

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  2. Antonio Rafael Cosme Says:

    I am writing my senior thesis (undergrad political science honors) on the role of critical consciousness and civic engagement in moving America towards a more participatory democracy. I will undoubtedly reference your study. Great work. A critical young mind might be one of the most valuable assets to any democracy, and the more this fact is recognized, the sooner we can start reshaping our institutions to encourage consciousness and participation by citizens as opposed to passivity and complacency of consumers.