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Schlozman, Verba, and Brady: Participation's not a paradox

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Schlozman, Verba, and Brady. 1995. Participation's not a paradox: The view from American activists. British Journal of Political Science 25 (January): 1-36.

In Brief

  • Who/what are they challenging? "Applicability of narrow rational choice approaches to political activity" (p. 1). (challenging Olson, Downs, etc)
  • Question: Riddle of collective participation: How do those who take part in seemingly irrational behaviour (from utility maximizing perspective), such as voting, volunteer work, etc. explain their decision to take part in the activity?
  • Data used: Schlozman et al. test the distribution of these gratifications/benefits across different types of voluntary activities based on their surveys (asking what motivated individuals to participate).
  • The survey data is from Citizen Participation Study (1989-1990) (p. 8).
Question: How to gratifications compare across political activities? Findings: (Average percentage of respondents who reported each gratification) see p. 16. Consistent with Rational Choice or Logic of Collective Action Predictions?
Independent Variables Selective material benefits 29% (without outlier = 25%) Least important No.
-selective social benefits 30%, Somewhat important Rational choice probably predicts that social benefits are more than "somewhat" important.
-selective civic gratifications 79%, Very important No.
-desire to influence policy gratifications 48% (without outlier = 54%), Important No.
DV -engaging in voluntary activity


  • Despite predictions based on rational choice models, Schlozman et al. find that material benefits are not very important determinants of voluntary activity.
  • Schlozman et al. claim they find that social benefits "are invoked frequently" by respondents. I don't see why they claim to find this, given that an average of only 30% state this as important. Either way, it is clearly less important than civic gratification and policy influence.
  • Civic gratification is important in many, if not most voluntary activities.
  • They also find that the desire to influence policy has an important influence. This is particularly annoying to rational choice advocates, because the probability that they actually will influence policy is negligible. It doesn't explain why this should be a gratification.

In the 16 types of voluntary activities they tested:

  • 8 rank Civic > Policy > Social > Material
  • 3 rank Civic > Policy > Material > Social
  • 2 rank Civic > Material > Social > Policy
  • 1 ranks Civic > Social > Material > Policy
  • 1 ranks Policy > Civic > Material > Social

Schlozman et al. also test the subject matter of political activity, but the analysis of gratifications derived from voluntary activity was the primary focus.