Mobilizing mini-publics: The causal impact of deliberation on civic engagement using panel data

AuthorShelley Boulianne,David Kahane,Kaiping Chen
Publication Date01 November 2020
Date01 November 2020
DOI10.1177/0263395720902982
SubjectArticles
/tmp/tmp-18Iya5zKR8i7iF/input 902982POL0010.1177/0263395720902982PoliticsBoulianne et al.
research-article2020
Article
Politics
2020, Vol. 40(4) 460 –476
Mobilizing mini-publics: The
© The Author(s) 2020
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causal impact of deliberation
https://doi.org/10.1177/0263395720902982
DOI: 10.1177/0263395720902982
journals.sagepub.com/home/pol
on civic engagement using
panel data

Shelley Boulianne
MacEwan University, Canada
Kaiping Chen
University of Wisconsin–Madison, USA
David Kahane
University of Alberta, Canada
Abstract
Deliberative exercises may reinvigorate civic life by building citizens’ capacity to engage in other
types of civic activities. This study examines members of a citizens’ panel (n = 56) who participated
in a 6-day deliberative event on climate change and energy transition in Edmonton, Alberta
(Canada), in 2012. We compared panellists’ civic engagement, political interest, and political
knowledge with those of the general population using a concurrent random digit dialling survey
conducted 2.5 years after the event (n = 405). Panellists are more likely to talk about politics, and
volunteer in the community compared to their counterparts in the larger population. Examining
three points in time, we reveal a trajectory of increasing political knowledge and civic engagement.
Finally, we examine the mechanisms that mobilize panellists into greater civic engagement. This
study illustrates how deliberative events could strengthen engagement in civic and political life,
depending on the degree to which deliberation was perceived to have occurred.
Keywords
civic engagement, deliberative democracy, longitudinal, political interest, political knowledge
Received: 27th March 2019; Revised version received: 15th October 2019; Accepted: 19th November 2019
The purpose of many deliberative exercises is to provide public input into policy areas
based on reasoned discussion (Bohman, 1996; Elster, 2007, Chapter 25). However, these
events may also help reinvigorate civic life and build enthusiasm for additional discur-
sive participation (Christensen et al., 2017). Furthermore, participation in deliberative
Corresponding author:
Shelley Boulianne, Department of Sociology, MacEwan University, Room 6-398, City Centre Campus, 10700
104 Avenue, Edmonton, AB T5J 4S2, Canada.
Email: sjboulianne@gmail.com

Boulianne et al.
461
processes may affect the propensity to vote in elections (Gastil et al., 2008, 2010) and
may build capacity to engage in ‘thicker’ types of civic activity (Barber, 1984), thus
serving as a school of democratic participation and agency. The extent of these forms of
capacity-building depends on the nature of the deliberative event.
This study examines members of a citizens’ panel (n = 56) who participated in a 6-day
deliberative event in Edmonton, Alberta (Canada), in 2012. We compared panellists’ civic
engagement, political interest, and political knowledge with those of the general population
using a concurrent random digit dialling survey (n = 405) collected in June 2015 – 2.5 years
after the deliberative event. Our article shows that panellists are more likely to talk about
politics, and volunteer in the community compared to their counterparts in the larger popula-
tion. We attribute these differences to participation in the citizens’ panel. We also note that
panellists reported higher levels of boycotting and political interest – a difference which may
relate to a self-selection bias. In addition, we examine the trajectory of changes in panellists’
political interest, knowledge, and civic engagement, which reveals patterns of increasing
knowledge and engagement across multiple data points, from the pretest survey to the survey
conducted 2.5 years after the event. The deliberative event and the period afterwards built
citizens’ capacity to engage in additional civic and political activities. Finally, we examine
the mechanisms that mobilize panellists into greater engagement in civic life. Using our
panel design, we explore how listening to diverse viewpoints and supporting the develop-
ment of evidence-based opinions impact political interest, political knowledge, and civic
engagement. This study illustrates how deliberative events can strengthen capacity for
engagement in civic and political life, depending on the degree to which participants report
deliberating. Our study is distinctive in employing six-wave panel data, gathered over
2.5 years, as well as a high-quality comparison group to assess the process through which
deliberative events can transform civic capacity and engagement in civic and political life.
The data sources and modelling approach advance scholarship on deliberative democracy
and on processes through which citizens are mobilized into civic action.
Deliberation and civic participation: The relationship
Over a century ago, De Tocqueville first hypothesized a relationship between jury service
and civic engagement (Gastil et al., 2010: 26) and pointed out various participatory and
deliberative practices as schools of citizenship (De Tocqueville, 1835). Many contempo-
rary scholars expanded upon these insights. Deliberative events can be ‘schools’ to
develop public-mindedness (Fishkin, 2009). The experience of jury service can serve as
a ‘civic educational experience that inspires many Americans to heighten their sense of
civic commitment and do things such as vote, join local boards, and so on’ (Gastil et al.,
2007: 356). Many scholars have provided empirical evidence to demonstrate the positive
relationship between deliberation and civic engagement (e.g. Delli Carpini, 1997; Delli
Carpini et al., 2004). In a national US survey of a random sample (n = 1500), Jacobs et al.
(2009: 87–117) found that the more people participated in various online or offline delib-
erative forums, the more they volunteered in the community, worked on community
organizing, and engaged in problem-solving.
Moving beyond correlation analysis and self-reported data on deliberation and civic
engagement, Gastil and his colleagues used a national study of court and voting records
to compare the voting behaviour of people who served on a jury and those who did not
(Gastil et al., 2008). They found that jury deliberation can significantly increase turnout
rates among those who were previously infrequent voters. Therefore, ‘there is strong

462
Politics 40(4)
evidence that deliberative participation in one form of public life can increase the likeli-
hood of civic or political participating in other settings’ (Gastil et al., 2008: 363). People
do not just feel more engaged; there is evidence that after deliberation, they are more
likely to participate in non-voting political activities such as following politics through
media, contacting public officials, and volunteering (Gastil et al., 2010).
Scholars also suggested that deliberation influences key mediators in the mobilization
process for civic engagement. These mediating factors include political interest and
knowledge (e.g. Boulianne, 2011). Knobloch and Gastil (2015) investigated two delibera-
tive events in Australia and Oregon, which included surveys asking people whether they
thought there was a change in their political interest and participation since the conclusion
of the deliberative process. Participants self-reported changes in how frequently they
talked to others about politics, worked in the community and went to political meetings.
Knobloch and Gastil did not measure behaviour before and after the deliberative events,
but rather relied on self-reports of perceived changes.
Fournier et al. (2011: 115) examined three deliberative events and found that compar-
ing pretest and post-test values, ‘participants report paying more attention to the news,
becoming more interested in, and feeling more informed about politics at the end of the
process than they did at the beginning’. They also compared panellists to a group that
expressed interest in the event but were not chosen to participate. They documented par-
ticipants’ higher levels of political interest and feelings of being informed (knowledge),
compared to non-participants. Finally, Christensen et al. (2017) compared interest in
engaging in political talk before a deliberative event and after; they find a significant
increase in interest in engaging in political talk after the event.
As part of the deliberative process, participants may learn about how their input feeds
into the government decision-making process, which contributes to political knowledge.
A knowledgeable citizenry is not only a democratic ideal, but political knowledge is a key
predictor of participation in election campaigns, including voting and donating money
(Delli Carpini and Keeter, 1996). Furthermore, a meta-analysis of research on voting
demonstrates that political knowledge, as well as political interest, is a consistent predic-
tor of voting (Smets and Van Ham, 2013). As such, deliberation could build capacity and
skills, particularly political knowledge, leading to increased civic engagement.
Building on these findings, we propose that participation in a deliberative event has
long-term impacts on participants’ levels of civic engagement. We use a contemporary
definition of civic engagement to include volunteering, donating, and other forms of par-
ticipation that exist outside the formal mechanisms of the state (Theocharis and van Deth,
2018). We test this relationship using multi-wave...

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