'We can do this together!'

How to foster students' civic engagement and promote democratic societies 

February 16, 2022 11:00 AM
Hendrik Hüning
(University of Hamburg)

By Hendrik Hüning*

Democratic societies crucially depend on citizens that engage in civic issues. Expressing attitudes towards societal and political topics as well as engaging in civic activities not only fosters sense of belonging but also integrates citizens into a community. On the other hand, social isolation and the feeling of loneliness cannot only affect individuals’ mental health. Recent academic discussions and evidence indicate that social isolation and loneliness affect social trust and perceptions of (outside) threats. More than that. These can bolster citizens’ support for populist ideas and even make them advance conspiracy theories ([1], [2], [3]).

Schools play an important role in teaching young people democratic principles and how to engage with societal problems ([4]). Moreover, schools convey to their pupils a feeling of community and a sense of belonging ([5]). Therefore, not only from an educational perspective but also from the angle of civic engagement and populist attitudes, we need to understand how the school environment, i.e. the school’s community feeling and climate, affects students’ civic engagement.

To investigate that, we conducted a survey with 488 students in 13 schools in Hamburg and Berlin, Germany ([6]). Students were between 15 and 21 years old. We collected students’ attitudes towards civic issues as well as their local and online engagement with societal and political issues ([7]). Local engagement is defined as students’ willingness to take on honorary posts at school or being engaged in a club or association in their local neighbourhood. With regard to online engagement, we ask students about their engagement with political issues that are raised online in blogs or if they comment on (online) newspaper articles.

Moreover, we measured a school’s we-mentality by applying an automated content-analysis approach, i.e. a dictionary approach, to the schools’ general principles (German: Leitbild) that are published on each school’s homepage. With we-mentality we mean the school officials’ and teachers’ tendency to refer to students and teachers as a community that solves issues together. The general principles summarize the schools’ values, goals and teaching convictions. More specifically, in this approach we counted the frequency of “we-words” such as “we”, “us”, “together” and normalized with frequency by the total number of words in that same general principle. With this novel approach of measuring a school’s social climate expressed in their general principles, the study contributes to the increasing literature that uses “text as data” (e.g. [8]).

Interestingly, schools’ we mentality indeed affects students’ civic engagement. We find that schools that express stronger we-mentality in their general principle have more students that are engaged with local activities, such as being in a club or association ([9]). We did not find, however, that we-mentality improves attitudes towards civic issues or online engagement. Thus, interestingly, schools with stronger we-mentality have students that are more likely to be engaged in local civic activities rather than being engaged online. Overall, school-related characteristics account for 3% to 8% of the variation in civic attitudes and engagement, indicating a substantial role of the schools’ characteristics that drive civic outcomes of students.

Schools play an invaluable role in educating young people to become full-fledged members of a democratic society. Understanding their role in shaping individual attitudes and engagement with civic issues would shed light on how to prevent social isolation of young people and how to introduce them to the societal challenges of our times. Our finding suggests when schools invest in improving students’ sense of belonging to a community by increasing we-mentality at school, students more frequently see community as a responsibility where they want to give something back.

Finally, the finding is consistent with cross-country evidence from DEMOS research that finds that school climate predicts students’ individual democratic attitudes [10]. This suggests that enhancing community feeling at school can serve as important guardrails, protecting young people from extreme or populist views and anti-democratic attitudes.


[1] Sherer, A. (2021). America the lonely: Social isolation, public health, and right-wing populism. Berkeley Political Review, published March 25, 2021.

[2] Lynch, R., Lynch, N., Chapman, S., Briga, M., Lynch, E., & Helle, S. (2019). Support for populist candidates in the 2016 presidential elections predicted by declining social capital and an increase in suicides. PsyArXiv.

[3] Bolet, D. (2021). Drinking alone: Local socio-cultural degradation and radical right support – the case of British pub closures. Comparative Political Studies, 54(9), 1653–1692.

[4] Guillaume, C., Jagers, R. J., & Rivas-Drake, D. (2015). Middle school as a developmental niche for civic engagement. American Journal of Community Psychology, 56, 321–331.

[5] Encina, Y., & Berger, D. (2021). Civic behavior and sense of belonging at school: The moderating role of school climate. Child Indicators Research, 14(4), 1453–1477.

[6] Hüning, H. (2022). Schools’ we-mentality and students’ civic engagement: A text-based approach (DEMOS Working Paper) 

[7] Importantly, we do not ask for “formal” ways of civic participation such as engagement in party campaigns or voting itself but rather informal ways such as being engaged in an honorary office at school, at a local club or association or being engaged with political and societal issues online.

[8] Gentzkow, M., Kelly, B., & Taddy, M. (2019). Text as data. Journal of Economic Literature, 57(3), 699–746.

[9] In order to account for the nested structure of the data, i.e. students within schools, a multi-level framework is applied that accounts for both, student-level and school-level characteristics that (potentially) affect their civic engagement.

[10] Boda, Z., Butkevičienė, E., Mancosu, M., & Morkevicius, V. (2022). Democratic efficacy and schools: Curricula, institutions, and attitudes (DEMOS Working Paper). Incoming on the DEMOS website.

About the Author

* Hendrik Hüning is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Department of Economics, University of Hamburg, from where he received his PhD in 2018. His research examines the effects of communication on economic behavior using Text Mining and NLP techniques. His publications have appeared in the North American Journal of Economics and Finance and the Journal of Economic Interaction and Coordination.

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