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The ways people communicate, to whom, and with what effects are crucial elements of vibrant public life, democracy, and social relationships. Our contemporary world is defined by changing constellations of new technologies and traditional communication media. The Center for Communication and Civic Engagement is located in the Department of Communication and co-sponsored by the Department of Political Science at the University of Washington. CCCE is dedicated to understanding and facilitating the uses of these dynamic media systems and communication practices to promote citizen engagement and effective participation in local, national, and global affairs. Faculty and student affiliates of the Center engage in research, policy analyses, educational programs, and the development of web-based information and network resources for citizens, scholars and journalists.

This is an important historical period in which to develop communication models aimed at creating opportunities for citizens to find voice for new experiences and social concerns. Important changes both in individual values and civic life are occurring in the United States and in many other nations. Recent trends such as the globalization of commerce and consumer values, the speed and personalization of communication technologies, and an economic realignment of industrial and information-based economies are often regarded as negative. Yet there are many signs --from the WTO experience in Seattle to the rise of global activism aimed at making biotechnology accountable --that new forms of citizenship, politics, and public engagement are emerging. The activities of the Center seek to identify and promote these new forms of engagement, while studying their relationships to traditional aspects of communication, politics and group life.

The Center has a broad range of research capabilities drawn from faculty affiliates and aided by the technology laboratories of participating departments. Primary responsibilities for coordinating the research, learning, and outreach activities of the Center are shared by faculty, staff, and students across the university through a network of Faculty Affiliates and the CCCE Advisory Board.


Public Life in National, Comparative, and Global Perspective

An Intellectual Agenda

Recent debates on both sides of the Atlantic have raised questions about possible declines in the psychological importance and organizational coherence of traditional politics. Some observers offer gloomy views about contemporary civic life, as reflected in diminished confidence in government institutions, declines in voting, and shifts in political identity and identifications with others in society. Proponents of the civic decline school often argue that these changes are caused, or at least aggravated by communication. Popular communication-centered explanations for civic decline include the isolating effects of television, the tabloid trends in news media, and the rise of political marketing techniques that break up society by appealing to immediate individual emotions over broader social identifications.

In contrast, other observers argue that changes in national institutions and citizen identification patterns simply mark a transition from modern to late- or post- modern society. In these views, new forms of public identity and civic life are emerging even as old patterns fade away. From this perspective, changes in political rhetoric, marketing methods, campaign techniques, or news formats are less the causes of, than they are responses to, changing societies. For example, new forms of family, community, religion, work experience, and social association may be accompanied by more fluid social identities. Accompanying forms of civic engagement may be more closely linked to personal lifestyles. Indeed, for many of today's global citizens, the very private activities of consumption are regarded as having public and even international consequences for human rights, labor conditions, life in fragile democracies, and environmental quality. From these standpoints, politics is still thriving, but political engagement may be closer to home, less conventionally organized, and more likely to be defined in terms of struggles over evolving notions of rights, morals, and lifestyle values. It is increasingly likely that engagement can occur on both local and global levels without traditional participation through traditional government or national institutions. In this view, the forms of public life, and the ways in which communication organizes them, are not only changing, but they require new concepts and methods for study.

These broadly different views of social and political change raise important questions about the political uses of communication, and the very definitions of politics and citizenship in democracies. It seems particularly important to design new research that helps to identify new patterns of communication and civic and engagement in order to understand the way in which they fit with more traditional political communication forms, and to compare those patterns across different societies. The agenda below illustrates the range of projects of interest to the research faculty affiliated with CCCE.


Research Interests

Reassessing the role of traditional media and citizen information needs

The agenda-setting function of daily papers is challenged by the rise of the 24-hour news cycle and the fragmentation of news audiences. What are the political implications of the decline of traditional media gate keeping both for public opinion formation and for the political communication strategies of groups, leaders, and candidates?

The fragmentation of media audiences and the growing personalization of information delivery raise a host of questions about how people process similar topical information from different media. Is the role of entertainment media in framing social issues increasing as the focussing capacity of news declines? How do people talk about social issues as conventional vocabularies of politics become less desirable in everyday communication?

What are the advantages and disadvantages of civic journalism in this media environment? And what alternatives to civic journalism might help the press regain a more stable mediating role in democratic communication?

How can the growing access to new media such as the Internet be used to facilitate citizen networking and two-way communication both among citizens and between citizen networks and elites? What communication formats are most attractive, and what vocabularies, information retrieval, and communication options motivate continued engagement?

Understanding the rise of "lifestyle" values and the related disengagement from traditional politics.

How have the symbols of politics, along with the communication strategies of political actors, changed in nations undergoing declines of traditional party and national identifications?

Are people who are less likely to respond to collective and traditional political appeals more likely to engage with concerns about life quality, such as threats to the environment, rights, or labor conditions surrounding the production of consumer items?

Can disaffection from traditional politics be countered with lifestyle and consumer based value appeals? If so, does such engagement translate into identification with other causes, or to renewed interest in more conventional politics?

The decline of common political experience and socialization to new politics

As traditional symbols of political identification become less commonly shared, what kind of communication will constitute shared engagement with public issues for different kinds of people?

What kind of imagined communities (either virtual or socially constituted) will new generations find and join?

How are national and international boundaries, identities, and political regimes being shaped by the Internet, and by its growing use to promote global issue and cause campaigns?

How do people engage in local activism on social issues such as pornography, violence, drugs, crime, traffic congestion, environmental quality, and youth mentoring? Are these concerns regarded as political? How is information gathered and shared? And how can both traditional and new media facilitate such engagement?

The new politics of the Internet

Beyond the uses of the Internet for traditional political communication about issues and elections, there are many political aspects of cyber politics that are relatively neglected.

How many largely Internet-based cause campaigns currently exist, and what is their growth rate? How does participation in networked campaigns differ (both for people and for the policy impact) from more conventional group and institution based political engagement?

How can we best understand Internet activism and the surrounding struggle over commercial and public uses of the Internet? What is the underlying ideology and role of the open source movement?

What methods can be developed for mapping cause networks, charting their changes over time, and assessing their effects? (E.g., How was a coalition of consumer advocates, open source ideologues, and business interests formed and how did it work to secure landmark government antitrust action of the Microsoft operating system monopoly?)

Global citizenship initiative

While some observers see little change for conventional politics stemming from the Internet, others see the emergence of new network politics joining individuals across national boundaries in new political regimes dedicated to supra-national issues of a global order.

In what ways does it make sense to distinguish network action from group based activism? How can we conceptualize net-based issue and cause campaigns, and how are they distinctive in their communication patterns, stability, membership commitments, and political effects?

With regard to what issues and campaigns (e.g., genetic modified food and organisms, environmental issues, human and labor rights) does it make sense to think about a convergence of local and global politics? And how does communication and participation in such campaigns differ from traditional interest campaigns oriented toward policy change through traditional participation in government institutions?

How can we measure the growth of global cause networks? How should we conceptualize the effects of participation in such networks in terms of consciousness, community building and policy change?

What are promising new technologies for developing effective citizen networking strategies?