Introducing Psychological Factors into E-Participation Research

Introducing Psychological Factors into E-Participation Research

Noella Edelmann (Danube University Krems, Austria) and Peter Cruickshank (Edinburgh Napier University, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61350-083-5.ch017
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This chapter looks at e-petitioning as a successful application of e-participation from a psychological perspective. It notes that e-participation should not be viewed uncritically, as digital technologies cannot remedy all (political) problems: indeed, they can strengthen old ones and create new ones. Following a brief reviews of socio-economic and application-acceptance models of e-participation, a small selection of psychological approaches factors are presented that could be applied to this context. It is argued that it is useful and important to understand the psychological factors that influence the decisions made by individuals about whether to participate in the political system by initiating, or simply signing, a petition, or choose to remain mere passive observers, no matter how well informed. These insights can both help practitioners designing an e-participation system, and designing new research projects.
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Since its beginning, the Internet has been a tool for democratic communication – simply by being able to establish communication between any two people on this earth (Schuler, 2010). Society has used the Internet for positive social change (Surman & Reilly, 2003), and Internet use has long been associated with increased civic involvement (Kraut et al., 2002) and greater engagement in social-capital-building activities (Kavanaugh & Patterson, 2001). It has been used since the 1980s to promote political participation and activism, and is now a favorite tool to promote political knowledge, interest, discussion and voting (Mossberger, 2007). In 2006, Time Magazine1 nominated “You” as the person of the year, where “you” meant all the users of the Internet who were driving the Internet development by producing “user-generated content”, including a variety of online participatory activities such as chatting, file sharing, emailing, blogging, socializing, creating Wikis; this implies that a different framework is necessary for understanding citizens and their interactions with government and public administration.

Digital technologies alone will not remedy all political or democratic problems: indeed, they can amplify old ones, and they can create new ones. Carman (2010) and Ostling (2010) point out that in the context of e-participation, the new digital tools may not only lead to inflated expectations, but to disillusionment and at the end of the day, not solve the problems imminent in democracy. Public administrations and governments will need to adopt a different attitude in their understanding and attitude towards the citizens and learn to deal with their complexity, rather than expect citizens to work with the official spaces provided for them (Ferro & Molinari, 2010). Democratic communication requires not only suitable participation or deliberation venues Schuler (2010) but individuals will also need to have the skills, the needs or desire to contribute and participate.

There is no doubt that the Internet has had a big impact on the way people communicate, and behave – the Internet is a social place, and many people fulfill their most important social needs such as affiliation, support, or affirmation over the Internet. Whilst tools and technology lead, support and sustain users’ interactions, it is the users’ social behavior, needs and personality that ‘makes’ interaction and participation happen. This chapter outlines the potential of using psychological perspectives in understanding the factors behind civic engagement: that is, why individuals would chose to participate in a political process, rather than on the many available online alternatives. It focuses on the field of online petitions or e-petitions in particular, as they are one area of e-participation with a relatively long history as part of established political processes, rather than pilot projects. By examining a number of psychological factors the aim is to encourage a deeper understanding of citizens’ behaviors and intentions whether to engage or not with an e-participation system. Psychological dimensions such as personality, needs and self-efficacy can offer both practitioners and academics an understanding of patterns of uptake, the use of e-petitioning systems, as well as the factors that influence the citizens’ decision-making process as to simply access information or act as a participating signatory.

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