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Working Paper 05: Promoting Positive Citizenship: Priming Youth for Action

by Jonathan F. Zaff
March 2003

“Researchers have theorized that programs to promote positive citizenship should begin with an opportunity for adolescents to participate in civic activities, such as community service or political volunteering. In this report, we expand this theoretical perspective by arguing that programs to promote positive citizenship may need to begin by focusing on: social interactions in youths’ lives, such as interactions with parents and peers; the environment in which youths live, such as neighborhoods and schools; and on promoting civic values. We hypothesize that these influences in early adolescence lead to civic engagement in late adolescence. Civic engagement in late adolescence then leads to civic engagement in young adulthood.”


Executive Summary

Purpose of Study

Researchers have theorized that programs to promote positive citizenship should begin with an opportunity for adolescents to participate in civic activities, such as community service or political volunteering. In this report, we expand this theoretical perspective by arguing that programs to promote positive citizenship may need to begin by focusing on: social interactions in youths’ lives, such as interactions with parents and peers; the environment in which youths live, such as neighborhoods and schools; and on promoting civic values. We hypothesize that these influences in early adolescence lead to civic engagement in late adolescence. Civic engagement in late adolescence then leads to civic engagement in young adulthood.

We test the full theoretical model, from early adolescence to young adulthood, incorporating insights from two previous studies of civic engagement that examine the first and second halves of the model. These insights helped refine the model to maximize our results using the available data set. We estimate a structural equation model to test this revised model, in which we posit that social contextual influences and altruistic/communal values in 8th grade each uniquely predict civic participation in 11th grade. Civic participation in 11th grade, as well as peer and parental influences, predict civic participation in young adulthood. In a subanalysis of the African American sample, we examine the influence of ethnicityrelated factors on civic engagement.

Results/Conclusions

  • Previous civic participation predicts future civic participation. Our analyses are consistent with previous research, which has shown an association between participating in civic activities as a youth and participating in civic activities in later adolescence and young adulthood. This relation with later participation, also present for previous participation in other extracurricular activities, remains after controlling for relevant demographic, individual and social contextual factors.
  • Social context influences youth civic engagement above and beyond previous civic participation. Parental modeling of civic behaviors, friends who have positive aspirations and attitudes, and friend who give support to youth appear to create a social atmosphere that promotes civic participation. However, the specific process underlying this influence is not clear.
  • Cultural context is important for policy makers and program developers to understand. Aside from social interactions, the culture in which youth live, in this study defined by ethnicity, appears to influence levels and types of altruism. Matching program activities to these cultural values as well as making these activities salient and related to youth’s goals and values could prove to be more effective than generic program packages.
  • Promoting youths’ values and goals could further promote youth and young adult civic behaviors. We found a direct relation between communal/altruistic values in early adolescence and civic engagement in later adolescence. Though more research is needed to confirm this finding, we suggest that youth’s value systems could be an integral target outcome of youth development programs.
  • More comprehensive measures of citizenship behaviors, attitudes and values should be created. The proxy that we used in this study for positive citizenship is restricted to a relatively small number of possible behaviors. Developing and assessing additional ways in which youth and adults can be positive citizens could result in more refined models for how to promote citizenship. At the same time, while our measure of values is rudimentary, we do not know of any longitudinal surveys that have used anything more complex or of any valid scales that have been created. The creation of values measures, therefore, is essential to have a greater understanding of the individual attributes that lead to civic engagement.


There is not yet an understanding of how social capital promotes youth and young adult civic behaviors. The social contextual variables that we included could be considered proxies for social capital present in youth’s lives. However, we used measures on an individual level, so we do not know whether social capital on a family, community or cultural level uniquely promotes civic engagement. In addition, we do not know the specific mechanism through which social capital influences civic engagement, whether through modeling of behaviors, providing an infrastructure for civic activities or creating social norms that are consistent with civic engagement, among other possible pathways.

Researchers have theorized that programs to promote positive citizenship should begin with an opportunity for adolescents to participate in civic activities, such as community service or political volunteering. In this report, we extend the theory by arguing that programs to promote positive citizenship may need to begin by focusing on social interactions in youths’ lives, such as with parents and peers, on the environment in which youths live, such as neighborhoods and schools, and on civic values. We hypothesize that these influences lead to civic engagement in late adolescence. Civic engagement in late adolescence subsequently mediates the relation between factors in early adolescence and civic engagement in young adulthood. We use a diverse, longitudinal dataset to test these hypotheses. The implications of our findings will be discussed in the context of program and policy development.