The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

Civic Development Among Urban Youth: Understanding Contextual Predictors of Civic Behavior

Sunday, January 20, 2013: 11:45 AM
Nautilus 1 (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
Suzanne Pritzker, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Houston, Houston, TX
Alicia LaChapelle, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Houston, Houston, TX
Background and Purpose

Civic identity development is a key task of adolescence (Erikson, 1968; Youniss & Yates, 1997). Through learning, observing, and participating in civic experiences, adolescents develop habits of citizenship behavior and a sense of their own citizenship roles (Battistoni, 1997).  However, research indicates that large numbers of adolescents do not understand political processes and lack civic connections.  Civic involvement is least common among teenagers who are low-income or live in high poverty areas, members of some minority groups, and immigrants (Fridkin et al., 2006; Marcelo et al.,  2007; Torney-Purta, 2001).

Inequitable patterns of civic development are often maintained into adulthood, potentially signaling life-long civic disconnect (Berti, 2005; Hooghe, 2004; Verba et al., 1995).  Predictors of civic involvement rarely have been studied with low-SES or minority youth, especially Hispanics (Torney-Purta et al., 2007); although developmental pathways to involvement may differ across races/ethnicities (Pritzker, 2009).  This study examines how well contextual influences involving parents, communities and schools can predict adolescent political behavior and the extent to which these relationships differ by race/ethnicity among a sample of urban youth. Increasing understanding of whether predictors of civic involvement vary for distinct adolescent subgroups can help inform civic interventions to counter civic disparities.

Methods and Findings

This study analyzes cross-sectional survey data gathered from 805 students in two diverse urban public high schools.  The uniquely wide array of behavioral variables enables a deeper examination of civic behavior across the sample and within each subgroup of interest: Hispanic youth (N=272, 34.1%), African-American youth (N=239, 30.0%), White youth (N=151, 18.9%), Asian youth (N=60, 8%), and youth indicating another race or ethnicity (N=75, 9%). The degree of prior civic involvement varies widely, with adolescents much more likely to have engaged in non-electoral activities; however, few differences exist across subgroups.  Many more differences emerge across anticipated civic behaviors, for which mean behavioral intent ranges from 1.80 and 4.04 on a 5-point scale.  In many cases, Hispanic adolescents report a lower likelihood of participation in a diverse set of activities, particularly as compared to African-American youth. 

Contextual variables demonstrate a range of student exposure to civic influences from parents, communities, and schools. Across items, minority youth consistently report less parental involvement in civic affairs than White youth; however, African-American youth report greater community and political involvement from their religious institutions than White youth. There is no clear racial/ethnic pattern to differences in students’ reported exposure to school-based civic influences.  Structural models specifying a predictive relationship between contextual influences and political behaviors are tested for the sample as a whole, and separately for each subgroup of interest. Using SEM path analytic techniques, multiple group modeling procedures are applied to determine whether paths differ significantly by subgroup.


Findings offer potentially important implications for understanding civic development across diverse youth.  In particular, these findings underscore concerns about the engagement of Hispanic youth (e.g., Torney-Purta et al., 2007), while raising questions as to how adolescent contexts can be strengthened to support youth political development and engagement.