Different styles, different publics: a typology of political engagement

Trust in politicians and the Government has gone down since the 1980s. Turnout has too, as has participation in a range of political activities. It might appear that the British public is less politically engaged now than it once was. However, as with so many things, it isn’t very helpful to think of the public as one homogeneous group.

Segmenting the public

Studies have shown that certain groups in the UK are more likely to be politically disengaged than others, and that the form their disengagement takes varies. These groups are generally identified on the basis of certain demographic characteristics they share, for example age, ethnicity and gender. But it is not clear how these characteristics motivate or explain the political engagement of the people in these groups.

Companies, political campaigns and public sector organisations have increasingly sought to segment the public into groups based not only on demographics, but also on ‘psychographic’ information. This is “data that provides insight into the beliefs, values, worldviews and attitudes of population groups”, in order to understand what motivates these groups.

Using both demographic and psychographic information, this post presents a typology of four groups in society with different levels or styles of political engagement. This typology was developed using Latent Class Analysis on European Social Survey data from 2014; methodology and R code can be downloaded at the bottom of this page.

Four styles of engagement

The table below shows the four groups identified in the analysis and the proportion of the population that falls into each of these groups. For each group, the table shows the most likely response on four indicators of political engagement:

  • Interested in politics (not to very)
  • Trust in politicians (none to complete)
  • Confidence in one’s own ability to take part in politics (none to complete)
  • Voted at the last national (general) election (yes/no)

Different styles, different people?

As well as showing different levels or styles of engagement, these groups have some other characteristics that help to distinguish them (only characteristics that were found to be significant are included in the analysis below).

Uninterested bystanders

Uninterested bystanders are more likely than interested voters and confident participants to think that other people will take advantage of them, rather than try to be fair. They tend to be younger, and are less likely to be from an ethnic minority group than interested voters.

Indifferent voters

Like the uninterested bystanders, indifferent voters tend to be younger than interested voters. They are more likely to have a higher level of education and are more likely to be in paid work than interested voters. Indifferent voters are less likely to be from an ethnic minority group than interested voters.

Interested voters

Interested voters are more likely than uninterested bystanders, but less likely than confident participants, to think that people try to treat others fairly. They tend to be older than uninterested bystanders and indifferent voters, and more likely to be from an ethnic minority group than all other groups. They tend to have completed a lower level of education than confident participants and indifferent voters and are less likely to be in paid work than these two groups. Moreover, interested voters are less likely than confident participants to value trying new and different things in life, and more likely to be women.

Confident participants

Confident participants are more likely than interested voters and uninterested bystanders to think that people generally try to treat others fairly. Compared to interested voters, they place greater value on trying new and different things in life, are more likely to be women and to be in paid work, and tend to have completed a higher level of education. They are less likely to be from an ethnic minority group than interested voters.

Engaging with different publics

Understanding the characteristics of different ‘engagement groups’ in society may help organisations aiming to increase political engagement to target their efforts. They could go for an ‘easy win’ – or the most effective use of their resources – and target people who are already somewhat engaged. Or they could target non-voters, who may be harder to engage in politics as they tend to distrust other people, probably including the people trying to engage with them. Organisations working to increase political engagement could use different approaches for different groups, or design an approach that appeals to all at once.

The above suggests that such organisations could try to develop activities aimed at raising people’s confidence in their own ability to participate in politics. Or they could try to increase people’s interest in politics by demystifying the political process. There is probably only so much they can do, however, when it comes to raising people’s trust in politicians.

 

Download the methodology and R code used in this post via this link: Methods and code

For an overview of the UK Parliament’s approach to public engagement, see Library Briefing Paper 8158 Public engagement in the UK Parliament: overview and statistics.