Citizenship: Passive, and devoid of erotic promise?

In between drinking tea, browsing Which? for camcorders, and packing for my holidays  I’ve been thinking about how we perceive ourselves in relation to society… or more specifically – how uninspiring and lacking in appeal the notion of ‘citizenship’ is…. As Barbara Ehrenreich put it when talking of the public sector:

“Everything enticing and appealing is located in the (thoroughly private) consumer spectacle. In contrast, the public sector looms as a realm devoid of erotic promise.”

This made me go back to the “Citizens or Consumers” study (Lewis, Inthorn, Wahl-Jorgensen, 2005) which looked into portrayals of the public by US and UK news media over a set period of time in 2001-2002. Two insights that were supported by this report and study of over 8000 news media portrayals of members of the public were that:

1) “Instead of beginning with public opinion or the action of citizens and using this to address the politicians,the news media begin with the politician’s agenda and then invoke the actions, thoughts or feelings of citizens in response to this agenda.” (ie. the public is cast in a role of respondent, rather than activist – news is generally produced in a top-down, expert-led way.)

2) “The great majority of references to citizens or public opinion in the news- over 95% – are not based on any identifieable sources of evidence.” (ie. there are alot of ‘the public believe this, most people think that’ type of claims being made in the press which are largely unfounded… again, the public is pushed into the backseat, with no active role.)

If the public is consistently portrayed as being passive and responsive rather than active and agenda-setting, and if centrally controlled news media still has a profound influence on our self-perception as a society (whether accessed online or off); then what does this mean for individuals’ attitudes to the worth of individual behaviour change and the future of consumerism in an environmental context?

‘Consumer’ or ‘citizen’ – each are likely to have quite different personal responses to the challenge of climate change. So how far does the media impact on our self-perception in taking up either one of these roles, and therefore our willingness to act altruistically for the good of society?

Rather than think about this myself any further (as I do have quite alot of packing left to do) I’ll leave you with another couple of quotes on this relationship between how we perceive ourselves as being active or passive and the relatively short term thinking that underpins our value system. 

First quote is from Victor Lebow, a retail analyst working post WW2 (1955):

“Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and selling of good into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction in commodoties… We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing rate.”

This seems more relevant than ever to me, but I still want to buy that camcorder.

The second  quote is from the environmentalist Donella Meadows (2001):

“The Earth says: money measures nothing more than the relative power of some humans over other humans, and that power is puny compared with the powers of the climate, the oceans, the uncounted multitudes of one-celled organisms that created the atmosphere, that recycle the waste, that have lasted for three billion years. The fact that the economy, which has lasted for maybe 200 years, puts zero value on these things means only that the economy knows nothing about value – or about lasting.”

This seems to put things into context, though not sure about the ‘Earth says’ bit…

Anyway, the authors of “Citizens or Consumers” make some interesting suggestions as to how the portrayal of publics by news media could be altered in order to encourage a more lively and active citizenship. They say for example, that by using polling data in a more bottom-up and active way; “we might begin with what people want and then ask the politicians to respond to those demands.” I  think this has great potential for a more meaningful and useful interaction between media, publics and politicians and seems particularly relevant to the climate change debate in terms of releasing deadlock on tough policy decisions.

Also, trends towards a more networked journalism have been on the increase (possibly) since the publication of the ‘citizens or consumers?’ study … so when might we start to see more user-generated policies where citizens are enabled to play an active role rather than to respond by ‘buying’ or ‘not buying’ through the ballot box?

Howver, in the spirit of a long term planning approach I’m going to spend a bit more time mulling over what a sexy/cool/remotely appealing ‘citizenship’ might look like while I roam around  the lowlands of Scotland. Must go and finish that packing….!



  1. i am quite intrested in the argument that the decision to engage in a more active form of citizenship should be left to the media – personally I think the key to changing the current dynamic is education of citizens so that they can critically assess the situation and engage in more sophisticated discussions to create a more participative framework of engagement…

  2. Interesting post. Do you know if anyone has set up a MyStarbucksIdea for government yet?

    I like the idea of getting people to become more active citizens but I do think there needs to be a note of caution with that:

    Sometimes the general public simply isn’t well informed about all aspects of a particular issue. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In practice we don’t have enough time to look into and discuss all these issues ourselves as individuals. That’s part of the reason for having elected officials to do it for us.

    Because we’re not always well-informed, relying too much on polls and public opinion in general can be, I think, potentially quite dangerous.

    Anyway, that aside, I do think there’s a lot of potential for good, creative ideas to come from the public and I’d like to think some of the funky Web technology that’s come out lately could do a lot to help facilitate that.

  3. I think its sad that the idea of Citizenship should ever have got to the point where people think its dull or boring.

    I think the top down thing does lead to a feeling of detachment – I’m not so sure that the media actually do work that way though. My impression has always been that they feel as though they’re a law unto themselves and actually have the power to influence or control Government often by speaking on behalf of the ‘people’ but without having actually spoken to the ‘people’.

    It be interesting in the next few years to see whether increased use of social media will challenge the current power of the traditional media.

    Where I think theres a real issue in the UK at the moment is ‘cultural confusion’ – I think in our efforts to accommodate and integrate so many different immigrant cultures we’ve reached a point where people are confused about what being British actually means…….. and then we go and throw Citizenship into the national curriculum and hope that will mean all 18 year olds will happily turn up to vote at the next election!

    I think Citizenship in schools should be very concerned with helping young people understand what Being British actually is – maybe then they’ll be able to understand what being a British Citizen means.

    (Unless of course we decide to be English/Scottish/Irish/Welsh instead!?!)

    Picking up on the previous comment I think the idea that the ‘General Public’ don’t have knowledge or time for issues etc. is something that may well change in the near future – I think the web has huge potential here in being able to involve members of that ‘general public’ which of course includes hugely talented people who do have time and knowledge for particular issues but maybe don’t have time, interest or opportunity in mainstream politics. I don’t go along so much with the idea that Ministers have more knowledge & understanding than a great many of the general public – if they do I’m amazed at how somebody can so easily move from being say the Minister for Housing to becoming responsible for criminal justice!

  4. Thanks for all your comments everyone – engaging as ever!

    I’d be interested to know what Anthony means by ‘participation needs to be seen as a moral issue’ and how that moral aspect would motivate people, or be framed to attract diverse groups to a process. I’d be inclined to think that would be a tough sell.

    Masyomo’s point about where expertise lies – with the ‘general public’ is also interesting (after all who are these folks anyway?) or with politicians – – – my question would be: should WE not one and the same when it comes to a true participation process? Democratically elected representatives are there to act on behalf of the public… but how are they supported to do that most effectively in the current system and what could improve?

    Is it only two years Stella? Feels somehow longer… ;)

    I won’t give you any Castells to ponder on, but here’s something else instead from a recent conference – and to read more on this I’d recommend looking at Charlie Beckett’s POLIS blog:

    “Formulations of journalisms role in a democracy are subject to change”. The last big change was in the middle of the 20th century. And we are now going through a period of severe re-definition. Everything is on the table, the challenge is to unpack the forces that are making these changes.”

    ….So how can we use this opportunity to leverage a more enticing citizenship?

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