Matthew Baggetta

Systematic Social Observation in the Study of Civic Activity

Date: April 1, 2016

Time: 2:00-3:00pm

Room: Wells Library, Rm LI 030


Scholars and observers from Alexis de Tocqueville onward have focused on face-to-face interactions as crucial sites for individual civic development. Ethnographers studying small numbers of sites have uncovered many important characteristics of micro-contexts that can dramatically shape the civic nature of those interactions. Quantitative approaches to studying civic activity, however, capture little data on micro-contexts. Civil society studies, therefore, face a fundamental, unanswered empirical question: what is the distribution of civic micro-contexts across interaction settings? New research tools are needed to answer this. We argue for the adaptation of systematic social observation (SSO) to the study of civic contexts as one such tool. SSO uses multiple trained observers and carefully constructed protocols and forms to capture rich, comparable data from substantial numbers of observable settings. In this paper, we summarize insights about civic contexts derived from traditional methods and then illustrate what an SSO approach can capture using data from a pilot study of student association meetings and events on a college campus. We argue that data like this, collected at scale, would provide answers to the field’s fundamental distributional question and would open the door to new and improved versions of explanatory analyses of individual civic engagement.



Matthew Baggetta is Assistant Professor of Public & Environmental Affairs at Indiana University where he studies civil society, civic engagement, and social movements with a focus on membership associations. His work has appeared in the American Sociological Review, American Journal of Sociology, Social Forces, Perspectives on Politics, and Nonprofit & Voluntary Sector Quarterly, among other outlets. He is a contributing editor at Mobilizing Ideas and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from Harvard University.