Participation in civic life is an important developmental task in youth. So far, however, it still remains a largely unanswered question in how far predictors of civic engagement differ between immigrant and majority youth. This question is of particular importance as immigrants’ civic participation is not only an indicator of successful integration into their host society, but also a fundamental pillar of a democratic society.
One prominent theoretical approach that allows for a thorough investigation of factors underlying civic participation was introduced by the civic voluntarism model (Verba, Schlozman, & Brady, 1995). According to the civic voluntarism model, three main factors underlie civic behaviors: Resources (e.g., education, money), social networks (e.g., being involved in voluntary associations), and psychological engagement (e.g., political efficacy).
Previous research suggests that people from ethnic minority and majority groups may be motivated to engage civically for different reasons. Yet, as most research has focused on US samples, there is need for a more contextualized understanding of the predictors of civic engagement in other cultural groups and countries. Drawing on data from a large-scale, pan-European project, this study aims to narrow these gaps in the literature.
Design and Research Questions
Our research was based on adolescents and young adults from Belgium (N = 483), Germany (N = 648), and Turkey (N = 495). We chose these three countries deliberately because they all include Turkish immigrants as minority group (i.e., the immigrant group in Turkey was made up of ethnic Turks who repatriated from Bulgaria). This provides for the unique opportunity to examine whether differences between majority and immigrant youth are due to ethnic-cultural reasons (e.g., properties of a certain cultural group) or due to migration-specific factors (e.g., experiences that all immigrants have in common).
We first examined whether there are differences in mean levels of engagement by ethnic background (Research Question 1). We then examined whether predictors of civic engagement differed by ethnic background (Research Question 2). Using the theoretical framework of the civic voluntarism model, we assessed the effects of resources, social networks, and psychological engagement (i.e., internal political efficacy).
Contrary to our expectations, young immigrants were more civically engaged than their majority peers in all three countries. Since this pattern remained the same when background variables were taken into account, it is unlikely that this finding can be exclusively attributed to demographic differences between the groups (e.g., in age, gender, or SES).
We then examined whether predictors of civic engagement differed according to ethnic background. Multi-group structural equation modeling indicated that being involved in social networks was more important for immigrant than for majority youth. Internal political efficacy beliefs, in turn, were only found to be a significant predictor of civic engagement among majority youth. We found this pattern in all three countries which indicates that it was caused by experiences that all immigrant groups had in common (i.e., migration-specific experiences).
Concerning the effects of resources (educational level & parental SES), contrary to the assumptions of the civic voluntarism model and prior empirical findings, only few effects reached statistical significance.
Overall, the civic voluntarism model has shown to be a useful framework to better understand the factors that promote youth civic involvement. At the same time, our findings indicate possible group differences (e.g., by ethnic background) that need to be taken into account. These theoretical considerations also have an impact on the practical implications of our results. After all, democracies require the support of all citizens, regardless of their ethnic, cultural, or social backgrounds. The measures to promote civic behaviors therefore need to be more differentiated. Instead of applying a uniform approach, interventions to encourage youth civic engagement should be tailored to specific groups’ characteristics. As our results indicate networks of social support are of particular importance for young immigrants, while majority youth might also benefit from approaches that strengthen confidence in their political abilities.
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