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Verba and Nie: Participation in America

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Verba and Nie. 1972. Participation in America: Political democracy and social equality. New York: Harper and Row.

In Brief

Socioeconomic forces (but also group consciousness, community size, party membership, etc) affect 'who' participates. This, in turn, affects what opinions government 'responds' to. See the flowchart on pg 22 (and on pp. 18-22).


  • Participation: The authors take a narrow view of participation (see pgs 2-3). Participation includes "acts that aim at influencing the government, either by affecting the choice of government personnel or by affecting the choices made by government personel" (pg 2, emphasis in original).
    • Participation thus includes voting, contacting elected representatives, participating in campaigns, etc.
    • It does not include protest activity, marching in parades, expressing support, attitudes (e.g. "efficacy").

Chapter 1: Overview

Three themes

  1. What forces determine who participates? (Part II of the book)
  2. Who actually participates? (Part I of the book)
  3. How would governmental outputs (specifically, allocations) differ if a different set of citizens participated? (Part III of the book)

Model: See the flowcharts on pages 18-22, especially on pg 22.

Part I: Who Participates? (Chapters 2-7)

Chapter 2 (?)

Factor analysis: This is how they got the four modes of participation. They just mined the four modes.

Part II: What Forces Determine Who Participates? (Chapters 8-14)

Key points in Part II (from pgs 263-4):

  1. Socioeconomic status predicts participation well. High SES leads individuals to develop a set of "civic" attitudes, leading to participation.
  2. Other forces modify the SES model:
    • Affiliation with voluntary associations (increases the gap between high- and low-SES people
    • Partisanship also increases the gap
    • Political beliefs also increase the gap (especially the conservative policy preferences of high-SES Republicans)
  3. Black group consciousness reduces the black-white disparity
  4. The model appears to work over time (1950-1970), not only in 1967.
  5. The variables listed here do not have uniform effects on the four types of participation studied.
  6. Participation is higher in smaller communities. Urbanization decreases participation.

Chapter 8: SES and participation

Socioeconomic status (SES) correlates strongly with participation. Of the four modes of participation, SES correlates well with campaign activity, voting, and communal activity (but not particularized contracting). See Fig 8-3 (pg 131) and Fig 8-4 (pg 132). As Figs 8-5 and 8-6 show (pgs 134-5), SES's effect on activity is mediated by civic orientations.

Chapter 10: Race and participation

  • In the aggregate, blacks participate less than whites. This is merely a statistical artifact, however. Once you control for SES (see ch 8), blacks participate considerably more than whites (see Table 10-2, pg 156). The authors explain this finding based on "group consciousness": those blacks who mention "race" more frequently as a political issue (in open-ended questions) participate far more than those who do not. Thus, black "group consciousness" (X) leads to black participation (Y) (see Fig 10-2, pg 158). Once you control for both SES and group consciousness, blacks participate far more than whites (Fig 10-3, pg 161).
  • There are also some regional variations (see Table 10-8, pg 170). Northern blacks vote far more than northern whites, but southern blacks vote far less than southern whites. On the other hand, southern blacks engage in more cooperative activity (relative to southern whites) than northern blacks do (relative to northern whites).
  • (Potential problem with this research design:: This comes from 1967 survey data--the height of the civil rights movement. Perhaps that explains blacks' tendency to participate more than would be expected?)

Chapter 14: The Record of 1950-1970

  • The results described in Part II appear to hold throughout the period, not only in 1967 (the year that most of the data came from). Specifically, group consciousness increased black participation, conservative beliefs increased Republican participation, and so on. The authors speculate the beliefs and group consciousness could lead other groups to participate (e.g. a "poverty consciousness"), potentially reducing the participation disparity between high- and low-SES citizens.
  • Criticism: Why can't group consciousness also increase the disparity (as with the high-SES Republicans)?

Part III: Does it Matter Who Participates? (Chapters 15-19)

Chapter 15: Participation and Policy Preferences

Those who participate have different policy preferences than those who do not. Thus, if politicians look only to participators (letter writers, voters, protesters, etc) to gauge the public mood, they will frequently (but not always) be wrong--and not always in the same direction.

  • General issue areas: Frequent participators are more likely to (1) think poverty is an individual (not government) problem; (2) think government is not responsible for housing, employment, medical care, and care of the aged; (3) think education is a serious problem; and so on (see Fig 15-3, pg 276).
  • Specific issues: Although frequent participators (any kind of participation) are more conservative than average (in the aggregate) when it comes to social welfare and racial issues, those who contact a member of Congress about these issues are more liberal (see Fig 15-5, pg 278).
  • Protestors: Demonstrators might have views extremely out of sync with the masses (see Fig 15-6, pg 283).

(Possible criticism: Endogeneity threat. The authors claim that people with particular policy views participate more. Perhaps there is reverse causation, though: Could it be that people choose not to participate because they feel that the system does not respect their views? If you are convinced that the government only listens to people with particular views (at least in 1967), would you tune out?)

Conclusion (Chapter 20)

Chapter 20 mainly summarizes the findings already listed above. It does add one more interesting tidbit: Within each socioeconomic bloc, highly active citizens agree more with government policies than less active citizens.