Civil society and civic engagement: Towards a multi-level theory of policy feedbacks
Scholars are increasingly recognizing that design of a public policy influences the scope and nature of political engagement around that policy. Such 'policy feedback' models typically focus on organizational engagement (such as interest group lobbying) or on individual engagement (such as joining associations), with each formof participation treated as a discrete phenomenon. Here, drawing on US laws and regulations surrounding civil society and civil rights, I develop a multi-level model of policy feedbacks that integrates organizational and individual participation. Specifically, I suggest that laws and administrative rules operate on voluntary organizations to structure the resources, capacities, strategies, and ideals of individuals. To develop the model, I draw on policy feedback mechanisms identified by Suzanne Mettler and Joe Soss to derive empirically grounded hypotheses about feedback effects. I suggest that public policy (1) structures the political orientation of civil society by stimulating the development of certain types of groups and strategies, while constraining others, with implications for the range of participatory opportunities afforded to individuals; (2) alters the capacity of civil society groups, including resources and political learning, to channel civic engagement towards non-political strategies of social improvement; (3) affects the framing of strategies in a way that might influence mass attitudes about the optimal form that civic engagement should take; (4) defines civic membership; and (5) forges political community in ways that encourage rights-based advocacy over communitarian notions of public service. I conclude with thoughts on how the theories and hypotheses put forth in this conceptual article might be evaluated empirically and incorporated in practice. © 2010 Taylor & Francis.
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