What moves people to engage in public life? It is a vitally important question, perhaps never more so than now when the very tenets of democracy are at risk. It is the primary question driving the research, scholarship and influence of Hahrie Han, a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University. Han is the founder and director of the P3 Lab, an interdisciplinary effort that studies participation in the civic sphere, emphasizing what it possible, probable and powerful. Han’s work, at the intersection of the academic and public, is relevant in higher education and in everyday life.
Moved to Action: Motivation, Participation, and Inequality in American Politics (2009) is Han’s first book and a helpful grounding in the field. She explains the traditional theories of political engagement, noting the consistent alignment of wealth, education and status with participation, and wonders: how and why do people with less traditional agency engage and act? In other words, resources are not the only reason that people get involved in the public life. Han’s first example in the book, the high-levels of voting from citizens of New Orleans who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina, resonates. How, then, do we think about and understand motivation? It is a relatively under-appreciated focus of research.
Han argues that motivation is a complex phenomenon that is best understood through a number of lenses. She picks up a concept, issue publics, and refashions it to dive into her research. Coined to explain why certain voters care more about certain issues, “issue publics” looks at whether the relevance of an issue is of greater importance to motivation than traditional resources. The answer is often “Yes” but not always. Is it both intuitive and more complicated than one might imagine. What issues affect which people at what times and in what situations, motivating them to engage?
The heart of Moved to Action is analysis from the interviews with 58 activists, probing what spurred them to engage in the civic sphere. Han sketches out how political engagement is often a way that people connect their personal values to public politics. Noting that in some circumstances marginalized groups of people can have significant agency, she elevates various ways that politics is often personal and immediate. In fact, personal issues are often a better predictor of engagement for the less-resourced than other models. Her study demonstrates that for many of the politically engaged, a triggering event set the individual on their way and some kind of positive feedback (through a group, a result or something different) enabled a greater sense of agency in the public sphere. Organizational structures that support this kind of engagement – political parties, campaigns, and civic organizations – accordingly can have a major role in shaping democratic engagement.
This is very good political science. Moved to Action is an influential work. It is also the first of several books and multiple articles, reports and other pieces building on these questions. For those of us in higher education interested in addressing the intersection of college and community life, in seeing our students become engaged participants in our communities, Han’s work is of tremendous value. I am looking forward to reading and learning more from her.