Wow, what a fascinating discussion to stumble into. Thank you, Peter, for bringing me into it, and to the rest of you for taking it in such interesting directions.
It strikes me that many of Peter's questions, and your (collective) answers to them, have both a definitional and a normative component to them. Could we define civic identity in such a way as to make it a necessary precursor to civic action? I imagine so. Someone who engages in civic action, and certainly someone who engages in civic action on a regular basis over time, presumably feels both motivated to act and personally invested in the action and the expected outcomes. If we define civic identity to incorporate these two aspects -- personal connection
with and motivation to engage in the civic sphere -- then by definition, civic identity is a necessary precursor to civic action. If, on the other hand, we define civic identity differently -- say, as a positive identification with a civic collective (whether local, national, whatever) -- then civic identity may not necessarily be tied to civic action. After all, some significant portion of people are engaged civically not on behalf of the collective or even with an eye to the collective good, but out of self-interest.
The question then becomes why we might choose to define civic identity in one way rather than another, and what the social science, policy, and normative implications are of such a definition. Based on Jon's comments, we might come to understand more about the relationship between a person's sense of membership in a civic collective, say, and his propensity to engage in civic action, if we define civic identity in such a way that we could construct a reasonable and valid scale that measures this (and many other things besides). On the other hand, as Peter points out, there are some worrisome political implications to inviting the state, through state-supported public education, to muck about in students' developing identities. If we define civic identity in such a way as it seems to be necessary to encouraging productive civic action, and we see public schools as having an important role to play in promoting civic engagement, then we are necessarily arguing that schools should help students develop efficacious civic identities. I am not necessarily opposed to this, but I do think that it has both political and normative implications that would need to be considered. Along this same line, there are theorists such as Melissa Williams who argue that civic identity should be taken entirely out of the picture when we consider how to motivate and justify civic engagement with others and a sense of civic responsibility for others. She is concerned that an emphasis on civic identity leads us to judge people by who they seem to be as opposed to by what actions they take, and that this is an extremely dangerous road to go down. See, e.g., Melissa Williams. (2003). “Citizenship as Identity, Citizenship as Shared Fate, and the Functions of Multicultural Education.” In Kevin McDonough and Walter Feinberg. Citizenship and Education in Liberal-Democratic Societies: Teaching for Cosmopolitan Values and Collective Identities. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 208-247.] These aren't necessarily dispositive considerations, but they do highlight what I view as a complicated relationship among social science-oriented, policy-oriented, and normative considerations.
Looking back at Peter's original "multiple-choice test" (I know, Peter, this isn't how you framed it!), it seems that each of the questions he poses is subject to this kind of analysis/balancing test. In other words, first, we could define civic identity so as to satisfy any one of the multiple-choice options that Peter presents -- context-independent vs. context-dependent, morally worthy vs. morally neutral, intrinsically connected to civic action vs. not, etc. As a result, second, we have to decide what we want to accomplish in our definition of civic identity. Do we want to define civic identity so as to: (1) learn the greatest amount that we can about what provokes reflective, responsible civic action; (2) make it possible for policymakers to justify and implement educational and other policies that will encourage reflective, responsible civic action among the broadest possible range of citizens; and/or (3) establish an understanding of the relationships among personal identity, collective identity and membership, and civic action in a democratic society that is egalitarian, non-tyrannical, and morally appealing? How we prioritize these goals may well influence what definition we select, especially since I imagine no one definition of civic identity could satisfy all three aims simultaneously.
To tie this into the conversation with Peter and I were having about civic action, I think that the same set of social science, policy, and normative tensions apply to the question of how we define "civic action." He and I have been on-and-off discussing a range of actions and assessing their "civic-ness." Here is a partial list:
- participating in a rally
- building a monument to Martin Luther King to memorialize his advocacy of affordable housing in one's neighborhood
- leading a march on MLK Day that ends at City Hall to memorialize King's advocacy of affordable housing
- volunteering with Habitat for Humanity to build a house in the Lower Ninth Ward
- giving money to Habitat for Humanity
- advocating to elected representatives for stimulus funds to be funneled through Habitat to build more houses in the Lower Ninth Ward
- going on Oprah to build awareness of the housing crisis
- serving as the plaintiff in a personal lawsuit against FEMA for providing dangerous trailers post-Katrina because one's children now have severe asthma
- serving as the plaintiff for class-action lawsuit against FEMA
- taking on the personal lawsuit or class-action lawsuit as a pro bono lawyer
- taking on the lawsuit as a well-paid lawyer
- reading the newspaper
- working as a community organizer
- attending a PTA meeting
- taking in one's nieces and nephews so they don't have to live in a FEMA trailer that exacerbates their asthma
- wearing buttons or T shirts that memorialize friends and family members killed in gang violence, or lost to Hurricane Katrina
- maintaining a memorial on the sidewalk to a friend killed in gang violence or HK
- posting a photo of this memorial on one's blog, or sending it out via Twitter
Whether or not one counts any of these things as "civic action" is a definitional question -- I think that most (but not all) of these could be defined in or out depending on how one characterizes the dimensions of civic action. How one decides to construct the definition is then subject to the same kinds of questions posed above for civic identity.