Youth Electoral Study (YES) - Report 2: Youth, Political Engagement and Voting

Updated: 20 January 2011

2. School Students and Political Engagement

1) Student Political Actions

In the questionnaire we listed a number of activities which we called "forms of political action". The activities were meant to replicate those used frequently in previous surveys regarding youth political socialization (Saha, 2000b). We asked the students to tick the relevant box as to whether they had, or would engage in these actions. The question is as follows:

Given below are some different forms of political action in Australia that people in Australia have taken.

Which of the following best describes you? Tick appropriate boxes for BOTH (a) and (b).

Boxes under (a) were labeled "Have done it", and Boxes under (b) were labeled "Would do it".

Figure 1 displays the results from this item, and gives the per cent for both "Have done it" (upper bar), and "Would do it" (lower bar).

Percentage of Students who have, or would engage in various activist events

The percentages in Figure 1 show that by far the most common activity experienced by the students in our sample has been the signing of a petition, with over 55% reporting that they had done it. Other less common experiences included collecting signatures and taking part in a rally or demonstration, with 21% and 15% respectively. Contacting or writing letters formed a third cluster of activities, ranging from 8% to 12% for the Prime Minister or the media respectively. These activities can be considered "normative" insofar as they fall within the scope of acceptable behavior in Australian society. They are legal and they do not involve violence.

However there is another cluster of activities included in Figure 1 which consist of more controversial forms of action and which might be considered "non-normative", and these are occupying buildings, damaging things during protests, and using violence in protests.

These activities sometimes can violate laws and can be considered illegal. Some argue that these and similar kinds of activities, such as xenophobic and hate-related activities, are not really "political" in the citizenship sense, and "clearly fall in a separate category" (Youniss et al., 2002). There was a small percentage of students who reported having engaged in these three forms of action in the questionnaire, ranging from 5% to 6.5%.

The percentages also indicate the difference between those who had engaged in these activities, and those who would, or could see themselves doing them in the future. With the exception of signing petitions, much larger percentages of students said they "would" engage in these behaviours, with writing letters and collecting signatures being the most common with over 50%. Also noteworthy and perhaps disconcerting are the relatively large percentages, 35.7% to 21.6% who say they would engage in the three "non-normative" actions, namely occupying buildings, and resorting to damage or violence.

2) Gender Differences In Political Actions

Do male and female students differ with respect to these political activities?

Current research suggests that young females have become more prominent in various forms of political activity, and this is a trend which has been increasing since the late 1970s (Loeb, 1994). In Australia, Vromen found that women tended to be more participative than men for two of her four scales, the activist and the communitarian, while males were marginally more likely to participate in Party activities (however, not statistically significant) and neither sex was predominant for individualist activities.(Vromen, 2003a; 2003b).

Saha found that female secondary school students were more likely than males to say they would join protests in favour of social movements (Saha, 2004a). Furthermore, in his study of six domains of political culture, he found that female secondary school students tended to engage more in political activism and were more committed to human rights than males, but males scored higher on political knowledge, attention to politics, and were more committed to political freedoms. There were no differences in feelings of political efficacy (Saha, 2004b).

Gender is clearly a relevant factor in understanding differences in youth political engagement. In their analysis of the Australian IEA data, Mellor, Kennedy and Greenwood emphasise its importance and say it is an "untapped" area for civic education research (2001). There is thus good reason to focus on gender differences in the political behaviours and voting in the YES survey and interview data.

Figure 2 displays male-female differences with respect to activities already experienced by the students, the "have done" portion of the question.

Percent of total who said "Have Done Activity" by Male and Female

From the table, it is clear that female students were more likely to have participated in the "normative" actions, namely signing petitions, collecting signatures, taking part in rally/demonstrations, and writing letters or contacting the Prime Minister, members of Parliament, or the media. On the other hand, the males by far are more likely to have experienced the "non-normative" or more violent activities. This again, is consistent with previous research findings.

How do the students in our survey compare with previous generations? Are they more or less active in the sense that we have described them? Fortunately there have been two previous surveys using the identical question (except for the item "collecting signatures") in 1987 and 1992 (Saha, 2000b).

In Figure 3 we compare the results of the three surveys.

Students who have engaged in Political Activities 1987, 1992, 2004 in percent

While there are small variations between the three surveys, the pattern over the 15 year period is remarkably similar. Signing a petition is by far the most common political activity that secondary school students seem to have done, with collecting signatures and taking part in a rally or demonstration the next most often experienced. What is equally interesting is the small but consistent percentage of youth who say they have participated in forms of protest which have involved damage or violence.

Key Points:

  1. Already in secondary school young people begin to experience political engagement through various kinds of politically linked activities.
  2. There is wide variation in the kinds of political engagement that young people experience.
  3. The most common form of political activity experienced by our 2004 surveyed students is signing petitions (55%), followed by collecting signatures for a petition (21.2%), and taking part in rallies or demonstrations (15%).
  4. Female students are more likely than male students to engage in non-violent, "normative" forms of political activism, while male students dominate the more violent "non-normative" types of behaviour.
  5. The patterns of participating in types of political activism have remained fairly stable over the past 15 years.

3) Student Support of Social Movements

It is well-known that already in secondary school various social movements attempt to recruit young followers to support their causes. Branches of the environment movement, such as Greenpeace, and the human rights movement, such as Amnesty International, already promote activities for youth. Since 1997 the Discovering Democracy curriculum package has encouraged students to participate in various political activities, including social movement activities. Evidence of the political awareness and involvement of some youth occurred in early 2003 when thousands of primary and secondary school students throughout Australia participated in peace marches to protest against the threatened war in Iraq. (See, for example, "Gutsy students repeat protest history", The Australian, March 6, 2003.)

In the YES survey questionnaire the students were presented with a list of social movements, and were asked the following question.

"If one of the following groups organized a public demonstration to promote their cause, would you attend it? (Tick one box for each group.)"

The students were given four response choices: "Definitely Not", "Not Very Likely", "Quite Likely", and "Very Likely". These four response categories were scored 1 to 4 respectively, with "Definitely Not" = 1, and "Very Likely" = 4.

Figure 4 displays the per cent of the students who said they would "likely" or "very likely" join a protest in support of each of the eight social movements listed, starting with the movement receiving the highest support to that receiving the lowest.

Percent who would "Likely" or "Very Likely" Join Protest in Support of Movement

There is clear differentiation between the social movements. The movement generating the most support is the peace/anti-war movement, while that generating the least is the anti-abortion movement. Furthermore, the movements at the top half of the list tend to be less contentious than the movements at the bottom.

But are there differences between male and female students in the propensity to support a particular movement? The previous discussion in Section 2.2 (Figure 2) about gender differences in political activity is relevant here as well.

Figure 5 displays social movement support by sex of student. The figures represent the mean score, or average, for males and females, with an average of 4 being the highest level of support, to 1 being the lowest level of support.

Student willingness to Participate in Demonstrations in Support of Specific Social Movements, by Male and Female

The data show a pattern similar to that which we observed in the discussion about political activism, namely that the female students are more likely to attend social movement demonstrations than male students for all eight movements. Furthermore, with the exception of the anti-abortion protest, the female mean scores are above two (into the "Quite Likely" response category), while only one male average score is greater than two, namely the peace/anti-war movement.

Key Points:

  1. Already in secondary school, students differentiate between the social movements that they would likely support.
  2. The "popular" social movements for students are the peace/anti-war, the environment, the free asylum-seekers/refugee movement, and the Aboriginal Land Rights movement (all with a mean score above 2).
  3. Female students are more likely than male students to say they would attend movement demonstrations for all eight social movements.