Use Of Unconventional Political Participation Essays On Poverty

South African Youth: Politically Apathetic?

Elnari Potgieter and Barend F. Lutz, Independent Researchers on behalf of InkuluFreeHeid


“Before the birth of democracy in the country, young people were at the forefront of the revolution, but today, many young people seem to be ignorant about politics”.1

Before, during and after the South African national elections of 2014, concerns had been raised over the seeming lack of political participation among young South African voters, particularly “born frees”. The sentiment had been captured in statements and headlines such as, “South Africa’s youth is often seen as a ‘lost generation’”,2 “Why aren’t South Africa’s born frees voting?”,3 “The Young and the Restless: Political Apathy and the Youth”,4 as well as, “Born free! But dying young: A post-mortem on youth and democracy in South Africa”.5

Is what is being witnessed among the youth merely a matter of voting apathy rather than political apathy? Whatever the reason, the question remains; what are the possible (de)motivators of political participation in the current youth of South Africa? This article aims to investigate whether the South African youth is politically apathetic and explores possible (de)motivators for political participation among the current youth of South Africa.

Youth”: A Non-Standardised Term

Various definitions exist for the age bracket defining “youth”, invariably generating challenges when conducting comparative analyses.6 The United Nations (UN) Secretariat defines youth/young people as those between 15 and 24 years of age, without prejudice to the various definitions of member states and other entities.7 The African Youth Charter defines youth/young people as “every person between the ages of 15 and 35”,8 while South Africa’s National Youth Commission Act of 1996 refers to all persons between the ages of 14 and 35 as youths.9 The latter definition had been acknowledged in South Africa’s National Youth Policy for 2008–2013.10 Prior to the national elections in 2009, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) of South Africa defined “youths” as persons in the 15-to-29-year-old age group.11

For the purposes of this paper, the categorisation of youth by the IEC will be used. Given that the voting age for South Africans is 18 years,12 persons between the ages of 15 and 17 will not be included in the analysis.

Forms of political participation in South Africa

Voting is possibly the most prominent and frequently performed manner of political participation; however, a wide range of activities can be regarded as methods of political participation. The definition of political participation varies, depending on the normative model of democracy held as the standard, but, at its core, the term refers to a citizen’s ability to take part in the conduct of public affairs.13 It defines the freedom to assemble, associate and express individual opinions, desires and beliefs in the public sphere, with the intention of influencing the structure of government, policymakers and the policies themselves.1415

In exploring the various forms of political participation in South Africa, it is practical16 to separate participation into conventional and non-conventional participation, as Sidney Verba and Norman H. Nie proposed in their seminal work on political participation, Participation in America: Political Democracy and Social Equality.17 Conventional participation involves or comprises the activities expected of a good citizen. These activities aim to either support or influence government. In South Africa, these civil duties include, but are not limited to:

  • Voting in municipal and/or national elections.

  • Volunteering for a political campaign.

  • Being involved with national, provincial or municipal (local) government.

  • Informal community work.

  • Campaigning; making political donations and contributions.

  • Belonging to, and participating in, legal activist groups (online or offline).

  • Voting in potential referendums.

  • Staying up-to-date with government gazettes.

Unconventional participation comprises activities that defy or challenge government and/or the dominant political culture. These activities can be legal or illegal, and are mostly characterised by a mistrust of the political system, a strong sense of political efficacy, and a high sense of group consciousness.18 These activities include, but are not limited to:

  • Staging demonstrations and protests (legal and/or illegal19).

  • Supporting boycotts, occupation movements and strikes.

  • Signing petitions.

  • Committing politically motivated violence, including assassinations, terrorism, sabotage, vandalism and cybercrime.

Both conventional and unconventional forms of political participation shape South Africa’s political system. Participation drives decision-making, ensures government responsiveness, influences and shapes public opinion, protects interests at the individual level, provides legitimacy to government, and frames political discussions.20

Figures: Youth, Youth Registration and Youth Voting

South Africa has a young population. The average age of the country’s population is 24.9 years, one of the lowest in the world, and lower than most emerging economies (e.g. BRICS and the developed world). The estimated global average age is 29.1 years.21 South Africans younger than 35 years of age constitute approximately 77.6 per cent of the country’s population of over 52 million people,22 with 42 per cent of South Africans between the ages of 14 and 35 years of age.23

Given that young South Africans make up a significant proportion of voters,24 involving the large number of South African youth in the processes of democracy is elemental to embed democracy.25 While bearing in mind that political participation extends beyond voting, the focus here will be on voting, given the essential role of elections as a democratic process.26

How has the South African youth fared in terms of voter registration and voting? Following Fakir et al.,27 we first traced the national registration and voting trends (Table 1), where after the registration trends for youth, in particular, were captured (Table 2). Given the above-mentioned various definitions of “youth”, as well as limits in terms of the availability of comparative data for “youth” voter turnout, we can only identify possible trends.

Table 1: National election data: 1994–2014

Election Year







Registered voters

18 172 751

20 674 926

23 181 997

25 388 082

Ballots cast

19 533 498

16 228 462

15 863 558

17 919 966

18 654 771

Voter turnout





Valid ballots

19 340 417

15 977 142

15 612 671

17 680 729

 18 402 497

Spoiled ballots

193 081

251 320

15 612 671

239 237

252 274

% spoiled






Source: Table compiled from data sources for each election, listed by year ( and IEA national turnout statistics ( Data accessed: 27 May 2014.

Table 1 illustrates that voter registration has increased in numbers. However, the number of registered voters, comprising just over 25 million of the 31.4–34.4 million eligible voters 28 (the exact number has been a matter of contention), is disappointing. Furthermore, a decrease in voting participation is evident, as the number of ballots cast declined from 19.3 million in 1994 to 18.6 million in 2014. In addition, voter turnout declined from 89.3 per cent in 1999 to 73.5 per cent in 2014.

Table 2: Nationally registered voters from 18–29 years of age

Election Year

Age band






5 834 918

5 877 131

6 283 630

6 376 383


18 172 000

20 674 926

23 174 279

25 335 265

Source: Table compiled from IEC South African Registration Case Study (24 October 2007) and IEC registration statistics, as on 27 May 2014 at

Table 3: Registered voters (18­–29 years) as a percentage of the total eligible voting population

Age group

Eligible voting population ISS Aug 2013 Data

Registered population (Jun IEC data)

Percentage registered









Source: Table compiled from ISS Policy Brief: Forecasting South African election results at and IEC registration statistics, as on 27 May 2014 at

Table 2 illustrates that the number of 18-to-29-year-olds who registered to vote increased slightly from 5.8 million in 1999 to 6.3 million in 2014. However, it should be noted that, although voters in South Africa in the 18–29 age group represent about 34 per cent29 of all potential voters in the country, only about 41 per cent of these eligible voters between the ages of 18 and 19 registered, while 76 per cent of eligible voters between the ages of 20 and 29 registered. At the time of publication, data on youth voter turnout for the 2014 elections had not officially been released. However, a survey by the IEC indicated that the biggest decline in intention to vote was among 18-to-19-year-olds, 20-to-24-year-olds, 25-to-35-year-olds, as well as among eligible voters in informal settlements, residents from Limpopo, the Free State and Western Cape, and among coloured adults. The intention to vote declined by at least 10 per cent from the previous elections, five years earlier.30

From data observable above, the identifiable trends are a decline in national voter turnout, as well as a worrying low percentage of registered eligible voters, particularly young registered voters in the 18-to-19-year-old age group, starkly contrasting with the 76 per cent of 20-to-29-year-olds that registered, but did not necessarily vote.

The following section will offer possible explanations for the trends indicated above, while also embedding these findings within a broader context of political participation among the South African youth.


The question here is not only what motivates young South Africans to participate in politics, but also, what demotivates them from participating. Numerous theories and models had been advanced to find these (de)motivators, one of which is the “Civic Voluntarism Model” (CVM) by Verba, Brady and Schlozman.31 Although not without its imperfections, it offers guidance on possible indicators for participation.32 In looking to answer the question of who participates, the authors asked both who does not participate, and why. They subsequently offered three answers:

  1. Some people cannot participate, i.e. they do not have the resources to do so. Here, factors such as education, income, employment and status have often been used in research.

  2. Others do not want to participate. In this instance, factors such as political attitude and political interest play a role.

  3. Some people had never been asked to participate. Here, recruitment networks and social capital come into play.33

Using the CVM as a point of reference, we look at some of the motivators/demotivators that may impact on the political participation trends of the South African youth.

Bread-and-Butter” Constraints

Lauren Tracey, for the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), writes that some of South Africa’s youth have decided not to participate in elections, given that the realities of poverty, inequality and unemployment are held against the promises of a bright future,34 which is thus found wanting. What are the economic realities of the South African youth?

The Global Youth Wellbeing Index (compiled by the International Youth Foundation and The Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington) found that South Africa ranks poorly as a nation looking after the wellbeing of its young people, particularly in terms of economic opportunities.35 The Index looks at 40 indicators across six domains, which include Information and Communications Technology, Safety and Security, Health, Education, Citizens’ Participation, and Economic Opportunity. The index was compiled for 30 different countries. South Africa ranked 23rd overall and worst in terms of economic opportunities, with youth unemployment and the number of youth not in training, employment or education playing a large role in the latter ranking.36

According to the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Risks 2014 Report, South Africa has the third highest unemployment rate in the world for people between the ages of 15 and 25. It stated that more than 50 per cent of South Africans from 15 to 24 years of age are unemployed.37 Furthermore, South Africa’s Gini coefficient (at around 0.7) is indicative of the limited progress that has been made in terms of income equality in the country since the end of apartheid.38 Thus, not only do young people in South Africa grapple with unemployment and little economic opportunity, they do so within a highly unequal society.

But what do these economic realities have to do with low voter turnout? According to the above-mentioned WEF Global Risk 2014 Report, “[M]uch of the younger generation lacks trust in institutions and leaders …” and “… the generation coming of age in 2010 faces high unemployment and precarious job situations, hampering their efforts to build a future and raising the risk of social unrest …”39 Disillusionment among the youth of South Africa with the formal institutions of democracy is probable, given that these institutions and their leaders have yet to cater for the needs of young South Africans, particularly in terms of employment. In the words of a young South African, Asanda Mkhwane (19), "I realised, what am I going to vote for? I don't believe in our government leaders and their empty promises.”40

Thus, a combination of a lack of resources necessary to participate (given the high unemployment rates and poverty), as well as disillusionment with political leadership to grapple with these problems, may influence the political participation choices of young South Africans.

Education concerns

A more comprehensive definition of personal resources would factor in education, given that it enables citizens to understand and process information, foster self-confidence and the sense that individuals have the capacity to control their own circumstances, while also empowering them to pursue certain goals and take part in deliberative processes to achieve certain objectives.41 Some scholars assert that education does not directly impact on political participation, but rather on political interest and knowledge,42 as well as on employment opportunities and thus the available resources to participate in political activities.43 So how is South Africa faring in terms of education?

The South African government spends abundantly on education, with 5 per cent of the country’s GDP made available for education. A diagnostic overview by the National Planning Commission (NPC) indicated that the overall gross enrolment ratio in the country is 92 per cent. However, not all learners manage to stay enrolled and complete schooling. Furthermore, despite this financial investment in education, the quality of education provided by state schools in the country is poor.44

The apartheid regime brought about an unequal education system that has been difficult to rectify.45 The South African government has struggled to maintain quality education while improving access to education.46 Furthermore, a research report by Servaas van den Berg et al., “Low Quality Education as a Poverty Trap”, states that the current education system in general delivers outcomes which reinforce patterns of poverty and privilege, instead of addressing or changing them.47 Thus, low-quality education is possibly exacerbating the above-mentioned personal resource constraints, which hinder participation in political activities.

In a study on the predictors of political participation in new democracies, it was indicated that it is important to consider not only the level of education of voters, but also the content of what is learned.48 Considering the low registration rate of 18-to-19-year-old citizens, the need for greater education in preparing first-time voters for their roles in democratic processes is crucial to improve registration and voter turnout.49 As a 22-year-old student from the Eastern Cape expressed in an interview with ISS Africa, “I’ve decided not to vote because I feel I do not know enough to make an informed decision”.50

However, personal resource constraints limiting some of the youth do not render all South African youths apathetic or uninterested in politics. In a democracy, active citizenship involves exercising democratic rights in holding public representatives responsible.51

Group Membership

Group memberships and networks can be relevant enhancers of political participation, particularly for citizens with fewer resources. Memberships of religious, cultural, regional, social civic, issue-related or work-related organisations (among others), and even family life, may bring about social communication, which may, in turn, bring about opportunities for collective action. Furthermore, association groups may attract those citizens who linger on the margins of political life into political activities.

Participation in association groups may further develop skills of members, enabling them to take part in political activities. These groups may even manifest as reference points for citizens to discern whether they deem political activities to be worthwhile.52

Youth participation in elections might be worrisome; however, service delivery / community protests, which will be discussed in more detail below, debunk the myth of political apathy among the South African youth. Not only has the mounting frustration with socio-economic realities led to the mushrooming of street protests countrywide,53 but young South Africans are often “involved in, if not instigators of, protest activity”, as was discovered through a survey by the Institution for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR).54

Concurrently, lower levels of youth membership in labour unions (which had previously been primary sites for political socialisation) and low rates of participation in student council elections at tertiary institutions were recorded.55 This may indicate the inability of agents of social and political socialisation to include the youth of South Africa in particularly formal political processes, such as elections.56

However, young South Africans continue to be politically active, particularly in groups. Interest in elections among the youth may be moderate, but other forms of political activities and/or political expression (such as volunteering, cultural channels including theatre and music, direct action and protest, as well as through social media platforms) remain pronounced and appear to be gaining traction among young South Africans.57

Dissatisfaction and disillusionment with the current South African political system

We would argue that the above-mentioned factors are among the issues that could lead to dissatisfaction and disillusionment with the current South African political system. This dissatisfaction and disillusionment has the potential to impact on overall and youth political participation, as it can lead to citizens not wanting to participate politically. This relates to the second aspect of the CVM58 discussed above, and in the run-up to the 2014 elections, and was the topic of many heated debates.

There are multiple factors that come into play in determining why certain people do not want to participate in political activities. Verba et al.59use the idea of “engagement” to highlight some of the motivations behind political participation. Engagement in this sense represents a variety of psychological predispositions, such as political interest, political trust, identification with a political party, and commitment to specific policies and parties. If a citizen is “engaged”, he or she is normally motivated to participate. However, if this engagement is broken, for example by the belief that voting or political activities are of no influence, the motivation to participate is also diminished. This seems to be the case among many of the youth voters in South Africa.

There are factors that could lead to the broken engagement of certain citizens, including the youth. These factors broadly fall under the term “voter apathy”. Apathetic citizens are not only those who do not care about politics, but are also those who have more profound concerns flowing from feelings of indifference, insignificance and inconsequence.

Beyond the factors of education, bread-and-butter constraints and group membership discussed above, voter apathy is arguably the most prominent challenge to political participation in South Africa. In the next section, we will examine two key factors influencing voter apathy in the country.

Perceptions of structural flaws

Firstly, a large section of the South African society holds perceptions of structural flaws pertaining to the government and other political institutions in the country. The 2013 South Africa Survey60 by the SA Institute of Race Relations (IRR) indicated that only 54 per cent of South Africans believe that the government performed well in 2012.

This perception of dysfunction is further described in the survey. It found that only 55 per cent of South Africans have confidence in Parliament, 52 per cent in provincial government, and 49 per cent in local government. The IRR survey indicated that 35 per cent of South Africans are generally not interested in politics and elections. Furthermore, focusing specifically on the youth, a July 2013 opinion poll61 by the market research company, Pondering Panda, found that almost a quarter of South African youths did not intend to vote in the 2014 national and provincial elections. The 18-to-34-year-olds polled62 had two key reasons for not voting. These were the beliefs that, “things would stay the same no matter who won the election” (44 per cent) and that, “there was no party worth voting for” (31 per cent).

Although the accuracy and representativeness of these results are open to debate,63 it is hard to argue that these results do not at least hint at a serious underlying dissatisfaction and disillusionment within citizens’ perceptions of government and government institutions in South Africa.

The Institute of Justice and Reconciliation’s 2013 South African Reconciliation Barometer also looked at these issues in its section on political culture.64 This survey found that, of all the largest public institutions in the country, South Africans had the lowest confidence in political parties (46.2 per cent), the police (47.9 per cent) and local government (48.6 per cent).

Furthermore, since 2012, confidence in all the measured government institutions has been declining, as can be seen in the graph below. The survey also examined the perceptions of political inclusion, voice and participation, and showed that citizens’ sense of agency to influence institutions is also low. As many as 62.3 per cent of the respondents either agreed or strongly agreed with the sentence, "Leaders are not concerned with people like me”. Similarly, 51.6 per cent agreed or strongly agreed with, “[There is] no way to make disinterested public officials listen” and 48.3 per cent with “[I] trust leaders to do what is right”.

Figure 1: Confidence in governance institutions, 2006-2013

Source: Figure from SA Reconciliation Barometer Survey: 2013 Report at

Another issue highlighting the perceptions of structural flaws is the seemingly large support for not voting or for actively spoiling a ballot. Focusing on the ballot spoilers, this issue was perfectly encapsulated by the Sidikiwe Vukani (Vote No) campaign led by the former intelligence minister, Ronnie Kastrils. Kastrils called on voters to vote for small parties or to spoil their ballots by writing ‘NO’ across them. He stated65 that the aim of this tactic was to, “scare large parties, especially the governing African National Congress (ANC), to make them change their ways.” According to Kastrils, the broad aim of the campaign was to “stop the ANC getting a 66 percent majority”. He called on leaders to address the serious concerns facing the country, namely corruption, nepotism, inequality, police brutality and disregard for the environment.

An online survey by Business Day Live66 further illustrated this issue: 5.67 per cent of respondents said that they would consider spoiling their vote in protest, and 6.64 per cent of respondents said that they were not going to vote at all.

This relatively high support for not voting was also seen in the 2014 elections. Although it is concerning that only 73.5 per cent of the registered voting population voted, a bigger issue is perhaps that, as discussed in the results section of this paper, it is estimated that only 59 per cent of the eligible voting population in South Africa actually voted. The ANC has been elected by about 11.437 million voters, which is only 36.4 per cent of the voting public. However, it should be noted that there is no way of indicating what proportion of non-voters did not vote out of protest, or did not vote for other reasons, such as logistical problems. Ultimately, this can be regarded as a warning sign for the health of the South African democracy.

Spoiling a ballot or not voting as an act of protest falls outside the ambit of traditional voter apathy. These individuals have legitimate concerns which they choose to express through these actions: a spoiled ballot or a person not showing up to vote could be more than just a clerical or logistical error, but could be indicative of an underlying societal issue.

It should be noted that certain countries have officially tried to address this issue in their ballots. India,67 for example, has implemented a ‘None of the Above’ (NOTA) ballot option in recent years. The idea behind this is to tally up votes from those who are unhappy with the political system and the parties represented within it.

Potential problems with the representative democratic system

Secondly, there is growing scholarship which indicates that, globally, people might be becoming disenfranchised with the level of participation and direct influence that they believe they have on the political system. This concern has also been raised in South Africa and other developing countries by authors such as van Beek68, Kurlantzick69 and Mair.70

At the core of a representative democracy, such as South Africa, are popularly elected leaders, who then make key decisions for the population. If the population loses the belief that these leaders can represent them effectively, this can be detrimental to the democratic system as a whole.

South Africa lacks a more direct approach to democracy, such as a constituency-based system, and there is a perceived lack of accountability that has a negative impact, not only on aspects such as service delivery, but also on perceptions about the functioning of the system generally. The ISS and the 2003 Van Zyl Slabbert commission of inquiry recommend the implementation of a mixed-member proportional system to enhance representation. Another option would be to move even further away from representative democracy, towards a semi-direct democracy wherein citizens would have more power.

Forecast of potential outcomes and consequences of the youth apathy

Given the apparent growing level of voter apathy in the country, and the fact that this apathy is potentially prominent among the youth, there are a number of forecasts that can be made for South Africa in the near term.

Firstly, one should address the practical issues, such as public disorder, civil unrest and crime concerns. We have stated that political participation can take many forms, and one of those forms prevalent in South Africa is the more unconventional participation in civil unrest. According to crime statistics released by the South African Police Service (SAPS) in September 2013, there were 12 399 “crowd-related incidents” reported in the country between April 2013 and March 2013.7172 These incidents included demonstrations, protest marches and rallies, none of which were sanctioned by municipal authorities. The majority (10 517 cases) were peaceful, but violence was reported in 1 882 of these incidents. Furthermore, these figures indicate an increase of approximately 85 per cent in recorded cases of violent public unrest, when comparing the figures from 2008/2009 to those of 2012/2013.

Conventional and Unconventional Political Participation: Democracy in Action

This complete module with all materials may be downloaded as a PDF here.

Matt Logan

LaFayette High School

LaFayette, Georgia

This module was developed and utilized for a ninth-grade advanced placement U.S. government class to teach the AP syllabus topic "Political Beliefs and Behaviors: Conventional and Unconventional Political Participation."

Estimated module length: Ninety minutes

Conventional political participation: The signing of the U.S. Constitution. Source: Teaching American History at

Unconventional political participation: Boston Tea Party. Source: Wikipedia at


The United States is a democratic republic. This system of governance allows U.S. citizens to engage directly in political life through attempting to influence the public policies of their government. This allows different individuals and groups to choose various forms of action for different purposes. Conventional strategies like voting, running for office, making donations to candidates, or writing members of Congress are common and widely accepted. Unconventional participation is less widely accepted and often controversial. It involves using strategies like marching, boycotting, refusing to obey laws, or protesting in general. At different times in the nation’s history, individuals and groups have succeeded or failed using both forms of participation.


Students will:

Explain that in a democratic republic, citizens participate in the political system through their actions that can be conventional or, at times, unconventional.

Learn the concepts of conventional and unconventional political participation and study the civil rights movement as an example of a successful use of unconventional political participation.

Better understand the categories of conventional and unconventional political participation and types of actions associated with each category through applying knowledge to three political scenarios.

Prerequisite knowledge

In my course, this lesson is embedded in a unit on political beliefs and behaviors of U.S. citizens. It stands alone and requires no formal prerequisites, though students should have a general understanding of democracy as a form of government. It follows lessons about political beliefs and anticipates future lessons about voting and elections, civil liberties, and civil rights.

Module introduction:


Rosa Parks with Martin Luther King Jr. in the background. Source: Wikimedia Commons at

Students are first asked to access and read the Constitutional Rights Foundation web page titled “Social Protests” at This student reading with accompanying questions is a case study of the 1950s and 1960s civil rights protest movements. The reading is available for download at this link and is also included in Appendix I of this module. If laptops aren’t available, students can use their smartphones or the page can be printed and distributed. Students should read the accurate, concise, and objective overview of the protest movement and answer the two accompanying questions at the end of the reading. After completing the reading and questions, students are randomly asked to share their answers aloud. After hearing from two or three students, the teacher should then introduce the two core generalizations of the lesson by offering introductory comments similar to these: 

First, although sometimes people in a democratic republic choose to participate in politics in an unconventional manner, including protesting, boycotting, and refusing to abide by certain laws, most people choose to participate conventionally, by voting, donating money to candidates for political office, or even running for office.

Second, people involved in the civil rights movement often chose the unconventional means of protest (as the students have possibly already discerned) because they were unable to have their voices heard through more conventional means, since as a racial/political minority, particularly in the South, established laws and generally accepted customs of the white majority denied African-Americans conventional access.

As students learn more about conventional and unconventional political participation, they should realize that different situations and individual and group interests mean that there is no standardized formula for choosing or not choosing actions from either or both categories that work in every situation (estimated time, forty minutes).

The basics of political participation: Understanding and applications

Students then receive the handout “Conventional and Unconventional Political Participation.” The handout clarifies and specifies types of political participation, as well as provides students with scenarios that give them opportunities to apply what they’ve learned. The handout is available for download at this link and is also included in Appendix II of this module. The document breaks down political participation into two categories: (1) conventional participation including voting, donating money, writing letters, joining an interest group, and more; and (2) unconventional participation including protesting, boycotting, rioting, and more. Randomly ask students to read the categories in the handout aloud. 

Students then read the three short scenarios included in the handout and imagine themselves as the individual involved in each scenario: (a student concerned about low voter turnout among young people, a business owner who battles government bureaucracy, and a citizen concerned about poor local governance). They then are asked to choose one or more of the two categories of political participation, as well as specific actions from one or more of the categories they choose, that might assist the individual in changing the problematic situation he/she encounters in each scenario. Students then write brief scenarios of their choices and why they chose to act as they did for each type’s effectiveness.

Next, students will work in groups of four. Predetermined mixed-ability groups work well for this assignment to encourage thoughtful discussion and multiple perspectives. Each group should try to find consensus about what type of action would work best in each scenario. The groups need not produce a document, but they should formally agree upon the best course of action for each scenario. During this process, it is suggested that the teacher circulate in the classroom, checking for understanding, answering any questions that may arise, and trying to help create consensus within each group (estimated time, sixty-five minutes).


After all groups have shared and discussed their thoughts with each other, the teacher will take up each student’s written responses to the individual writing assignment and then address the class and summarize comments from different groups. Students will have disagreed on many finer points, but have mostly all agreed that some types of actions were required and, further, agreed that each situation called for a different response geared specifically to each scenario. The teacher may summarize the lesson with a brief statement like the following:

As we saw, participation in the civil rights movement took extraordinary courage. Everyday citizens used what little political power they had to fight for the changes that they wanted to see. The citizens who worked with the movement sometimes behaved conventionally by voting or helping political campaigns with time or money, and sometimes they behaved unconventionally through protests, boycotts, or civil disobedience. While most political situations don’t call for the level of effort the civil rights movement did, political participation is still an effective way to try to use the power that you, as a citizen, have in a democracy, whether that’s through the most popular form of participation—voting—or through protest and other less common methods. We may disagree about how to achieve our goals, but we can all agree that we should use our power to represent ourselves politically and that the methods we choose should not cause harm.

Day two: Reinforcement activity/summative assessment

As an introduction to the next day’s lesson concerning voting (turnout, trends, demographics, and laws/amendments that impact voting), students will be prompted to list the two general types of political participation and give two specific examples of each. The assignment will be collected and graded to assess concept attainment in students.

References and Resources

O’Connor, Karen, and Larry Sabato. American Government: Roots and Reform. 10th ed. Hoboken, New Jersey: Pearson, 2009. This source is a textbook that is recommended for AP U.S. government and politics classes. It provides a general overview of government.

Thorson, Esther, et al. “A Hierarchy of Political Participation Activities in Pre-Voting-Age Youth.” University of Missouri, 2010. This paper from the University of Missouri discusses youth participation in politics. It provides teachers with useful, specific background on political participation as it relates to young people.

“Voter Turnout Demographics." United States Election Project. Last modified 2016. This source from the University of Florida’s United States Election Project provides current data on turnout rates, trends in voting, and useful graphs to illustrate political participation levels. This resource is used to introduce students to a historical example of unconventional political participation, the civil rights movement. Specific events from the time period are discussed, and students are exposed to many of the strategies that were used.

Matt Logan, “Conventional and Unconventional Political Participation,” May 15, 2017. 

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