Attitudes to Political Engagement At the core of anxieties about the political ‘disaffection’ of young people are concerns about young people’s attitudes towards the political system itself, and their subsequent orientations towards political involvement. Bynner and Ashford (1994) identify four dimensions of political alienation relating to cognitive, affective and evaluative orientations towards politics: political trust; political interest; political efficacy; and political awareness. However, significant methodological problems attend their investigation and this chapter therefore begins by considering how these concepts have been defined and measured. It also reviews existing survey evidence addressing political interest, knowledge, efficacy and trust amongst young people in Britain. Claims of ‘youth disaffection’ implicitly involve comparisons with other population groups, as well as comparisons over time in the nature of young people’s political attitudes. Are young people more disconnected from politics today than in previous years? Are young people more ‘disconnected’ in comparison with older citizens? Has the extent of any differences remained constant over time? Based upon analysis of the British Social Attitudes surveys, these and related questions are considered here. Finally, since the relationship between political action and its social determinants also varies across the life cycle, this chapter also addresses the social and attitudinal determinants of political action and involvement amongst young people with reference to data tailored explicitly to the investigation of young people’s political socialisation in modern Britain - the ESRC 16-19 Initiative. Measuring Attitudes to Politics By and large, the study of political attitudes has been conducted mainly within the framework of survey-based methodologies. The measurement of political attitudes has therefore been vigorously debated with regard to issues of validity (the extent to which research instruments measure what they purport to measure) and reliability (the extent to which they give the same results each time they are used). Advocates of quantitative methodologies often emphasise the greater reliability of survey data in comparison with qualitative evidence, and studies generally confirm the reliability of survey indicators of political trust and efficacy (e.g., Abramson and Finifter, 1981; Craig et al., 1990). However, the validity of these indicators is sometimes more questionable (Citrin, 1974; Craig et al., 1990). Whilst qualitative methods are often challenged with respect to the reliability of research findings,
attitudinal survey research suffers from similar concerns in establishing the validity of research instruments. This stems partly from the complexity and multidimensionality of concepts such as political trust and efficacy. Despite their prominence in theory and research, notions of political efficacy and trust remain relatively poorly defined (Craig, 1979). However, Campbell et al.’s (1954: 187) early definition of political efficacy remains a useful starting point. Political efficacy is:
… the feeling that individual political action does have, or can have, an impact upon the political process .… It is the feeling that political and social change is possible and that the individual citizen can play a part in bringing about this change.