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Stairway to Mobilization

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

The ultimate goal for working on the demand side from a political communication perspective is the mobilization of the public. We want to drive citizens who lack information and efficacy to being an active public, participating as relevant actors in the public sphere and in thereby in political decision making processes. Here at CommGAP, we base our approach on a range of literature from the study of public opinion and social movements and came up with what we call the "Stairway to Mobilization." In the coming days and weeks we will try to illustrate this concept with practical examples and case studies, but for now lets discuss the theoretical background.

In the first step, we identify five groups in the population: the general public, the voting public, the attentive public, the active public, and the mobilized public. This typology is mainly based on the work of Vincent Price and Gabriel Tarde. The general public comprises the entire given population, is unorganized, disconnected, has little interest in political affairs, rarely participates in politics and is mainly oriented toward individual gain. The voting public is the unorganized electorate, which manifests its opinions in election outcomes. In this group there are cyclical interest in political affairs (focused on election times) and basic forms of political participation (such as voting, charitable giving). The attentive public includes individuals that are informed and interested in public affairs, but take no sustained action to realize their role in the political process. The attentive public consumes a lot of political news, but participates only irregularly and in an unorganized manner. Where we want the public to be is at the stages of active public and mobilized public. Members of the active public are actual participants in formal and informal politics, but they still aren't regular members of organizations. The latter we count among the mobilized public where citizens have long-term interests in specific issues and are organized in political and advocacy groups.

Political communication and the study of social movements helps us find approaches to help citizens to climb this stairway from the general to the active, and eventually the mobilized public. The stairway has five steps, and each step up is connected to a specific communication technique. For the change from the general to the voting public we need (1) information. Information about political issues allows citizens to make meaningful decisions in elections and referenda. Techniques here include information campaigns and agenda setting, providing information about goals, motivation and strategies of political objectives. The next step up, from the voting to the attentive public, is about (2) attitude change. Beliefs, values, and norms need to be changed in order to increase citizen's efficacy, to make them believe that not only is change necessary, it can indeed be achieved. Values and world views can be changed through framing and persuasion that point people's attention to specific problems and moral evaluations to explain the "why" of change.

Believing in the necessity of change is still a long way from participating in change. Perhaps the biggest challenge in our work is the move from attentive to active public because this entails (3) behavior change. Values need to be translated into action - people need to roused from apathy and hopelessness. In addition to the "why" we need to explain the "how" of change. This can be achieved through embedding messages in comprehensive stories, through creating a public narrative (Marshall Ganz has done insightful work on this).

Finally, many issues require (4) sustainable participation in order to bring about change. This may require broad societal modifications in, for instance, the incentive structure for public officials (officials must live and work by the maxim that public service and adherence to public will is the first of their duties). Norms must be changed through cultivating new behaviors (we've blogged a lot on that with regard to corruption). Membership in social movements, advocacy groups, civil society organizations etc. must be strengthened through incentives, rituals that bind members to the organization, social relationships within groups, and leadership experience.

One small step at a time, one giant leap for civil society... not that we would be intimidated by the task.

Photo credit: Flickr user yui.kobo

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