November 05, 2012

Voting as a Social Act

SternheimerBy Karen Sternheimer

Are you planning to vote during this year’s election? If so, you will be participating in a form of civic engagement, a subject of sociological study examining anything from volunteering, participation in social movements, or any action we take that involves consideration of the greater good.

Sociologists study what factors motivate people to make commitments towards creating social change, and often use ethnography to study the how this process works from the inside, focusing on how people work together (and sometimes struggle to work together) in the course of commitment to a particular cause.

The internet has revolutionized civic engagement, enabling people to wage campaigns on Facebook and Twitter and to mobilize people locally, nationally, and even internationally. Perhaps the most dramatic example of this shift is the revolutions collectively known as the Arab Spring, which were largely shaped by electronic communication, especially since traditional forms of media were mostly censored.

Even in the internet age, there is something profoundly powerful about being physically present and part of a group. The crowds who gather to see political candidates can often easily see the stump speech on television or online, but will sometimes wait for hours to be there with other supporters for that unique experience of being in the same place as the candidate. From the Occupy protests, Tea Party rallies, and gatherings in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, being part of a crowd can add a deeper layer of meaning to their participation.

VotingFor me, going to the polls on Election Day is not just a political act, but a social act. My polling place is typically a local American Legion office, a veteran’s assistance center decorated with photos of soldiers from World War II and other conflicts. Entering the building conjures a sense of patriotism and pride for the sacrifices of local residents who served overseas. Just stepping foot in the building one can’t help but feel part of the larger American experience and feel fortunate to be able to vote. Because of this, I tend to feel like I’m missing something if I’m out of town and have to vote by absentee ballot.

I often see neighbors at my polling place too, sometimes stopping to chat after work and having a rare political discussion. Regardless of how people vote on issues or candidates, coming together for this important ritual reaffirms a sense of community and purpose, uniting us in the democratic process whether or not we agree on how important matters should be decided. Either way, we are participants in something larger than our individual lives and concerns.

The polling place is also a rare opportunity to be in the same space with neighbors we haven’t met from different backgrounds and ages. While waiting in line, unlikely conversations start between people who might only live blocks away from one another but might otherwise have little in common. I notice this especially during presidential election years, when voter turnouts are higher than usual and the excitement is generally more palpable. During the 2008 election the lines were long, and I stood behind a newly minted eighteen-year-old female voter and an elderly man. She was excited to be able to vote, unlike some of her younger classmates, and he spoke of the first presidential election he voted in during the 1950s, drawing the rapt attention of the teen.

Even wearing an “I Voted” sticker is a social act. Whether a personal statement of pride or a reminder to others not to forget to vote, the ever-present stickers serve to place us as part of a larger collective action taking place that day.

Besides voting, what other forms of civic engagement do you regularly partake in?

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