Method & Demographic Profile
In line with a core tenet of symbolic interactionism – that “human beings act toward things on the basis of the meanings that the things have for them” (Blumer, 1969, p. 2) – I assume that the meanings common terms like “politics” and the “good citizen” evoke in the minds of Americans help to define what public acts are imaginable, acceptable and compelling. As part of a larger qualitative study of how young American professionals make sense of politics, community and citizenship, I asked my respondents’ “what does it mean to you to be a ‘good citizen’?” This article focuses on their answers to this question.
The data for this study come from semi-structured, face-to-face interviews I conducted with thirty-five young American professionals in the Boston area from July 2004 to June 2006. Their occupations ranged widely, from research assistant, nurse practitioner, and software developer, to architect, corporate attorney, and U.S. Army lieutenant. I chose to study professionals because they tend to have more work autonomy and responsibility, and a considerable literature indicates that workers with more autonomy and responsibility are more likely to be active in civic and political life (e.g., Burns, Schlozman & Verba, 2001; Daniel, Grunberg & Greenberg, 1996; Elden, 1981; Pateman, 1970; Wilson & Musick, 1997). I used U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics listings of professional occupations to get a sense of the range of professional occupations and to help me select professionals to interview. I then screened prospective interviewees, asking for their occupation as well as how much and what kind (in their own words) of freedom and responsibility they exercised at work. Those prospective interviewees who indicated that their professions entailed “some” or “a lot” of autonomy and responsibility, and/or whose own job descriptions confirmed such qualified for the study.
Demographically, with one exception, all my respondents were born between 1975 and 1980 in the United States. At the time of my interview with them, they ranged in age from 23 to 32 years, and had lived the vast majority of their lives in the United States. Seventeen of my interviewees were women, eighteen were men. Beyond these demographic variables, I let my respondents vary by education, race, religion, income, home ownership, marital and parental status. A majority (22 out of 35) completed bachelor’s degrees, two had high school degrees, eight had Master’s degrees, one a doctorate, and the remainder had professional degrees in medicine and law. Twenty-seven identified as White, two as Black, two as Hispanic, four as Asian. All but five identified their family religious background as Christian (21 Protestant, nine Catholic), the rest as Jewish, Hindu, or non-religious, though most (23/35) reported that they did not practice a religion at the time I screened them. Their incomes ranged from $20,000-$30,000 to $150,000-$250,000, though most (24/35) made $60,000 or less. The great majority (28/35) did not own a home, and rented instead. Most (26/35) were single, three were engaged, five were married, and one identified as in a domestic partnership. Only one of my young respondents was a parent.
Politically, I sought a balance of political orientations. Fourteen of my respondents identified as independents, 11 as Democrats, nine as Republicans, and one as a Libertarian. On a ten-point scale, 1 being most politically conservative, 10 being most liberal, seventeen interviewees chose a number between 1 and 5, and sixteen chose a number between 6 and 10. The mean self-ranking was 5.55. The median was 5.
My interviewees were also on the whole relatively engaged in civic and political life. All said they were registered to vote, 27 claimed they voted in all or most elections, 30 were occasionally or often involved in voluntary associations, and 22 recalled taking part in at least five of 15 different public activities over the previous 12 months, including one-day volunteering, charitable fundraising, donating money to a public cause, signing a public petition, and contacting an elected official. These data points when compared with national survey findings (ANES, 2004; Zukin et al., 2006) indicate that my interviewees were on the whole more engaged in civic and political life than most Americans. Their relatively greater civic and political engagement was not a precondition for their participation in this study, but it suited my inquiry given my interest in studying young American professionals whose greater job autonomy and responsibility disposed them (at least theoretically) to participate in public life.
I selected my interviewees using a non-random, purposive sampling method. With all prospective interviewees I conducted an initial screening survey by phone or email to ensure that they fit the basic profile I sought (i.e., American professionals born in the mid-1970s to 1980 who had spent most of their lives in the United States), and that I gathered a balanced sample by gender and political orientation. None of my interviewees were paid. Most of my respondents (23) responded to appeals for interviews I posted on the internet, at craigslist.org and other venues. The other 12 agreed to interview when I asked them either at alumni events, social gatherings, or through friends. A majority of my respondents thus self-selected into this study. This self-selection bias may help account for my respondents’ relatively high levels of civic and political engagement as they volunteered for a study that asked them how they “define themselves, make sense of basic public issues, and connect with the world around them,” as the appeal for interviewees read.
The interviews ranged from 1:42 to 3:35 hours and minutes in length, with the vast majority lasting between two and three hours. Most of the questions were open-ended. In a few cases I offered my respondents multiple choice questions, or hypothetical opinions for them to respond to, but in all these cases I solicited, recorded and studied their open-ended explanations. All interviews were tape recorded and transcribed in full, then coded using the qualitative analysis software, Atlas.ti.
This research project stands in a long line of qualitative interview-based studies of American political culture (e.g., ; Croteau, 1995; Hochschild, 1981; Lane, 1962; Munson, 2009; Reinarman, 1987). Such studies may not statistically represent what is going on in larger populations, but they can be used to challenge or develop existing theory, bring depth to complement existing surveys’ breadth, and generate hypotheses or questions to pursue through quantitative research (Lamont and White, 2008). I here employ my qualitative interview data to assess and critique the civil conception of citizenship many of my interviewees upheld. In so doing, I try to follow in both style and substance the “social science as public philosophy” that Robert Bellah and his colleagues advocate in their bestselling book, Habits of the Heart (Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan & Swidler, 1985, pp. 297-307). Such social science sheds light on shared assumptions and principles so that specialists and citizens alike can ponder and debate their public implications. Such social science seems to me well suited to inquiry about the eminently public issues of democracy and citizenship.