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Politics in the digital age

October 31, 2016
By: 
RRU Communications
School of Interdisciplinary Studies Prof. Bernard Schissel
“More young people are becoming citizens of the world, so we’re trying to figure out where their allegiances lie. Do they consider themselves local or national citizens or citizens of the globe?” Prof. Bernard Schissel

An international study of thousands of Canadian and Chinese students will examine how young people engage in politics in the digital age.

College of Interdisciplinary Studies Prof. Bernard Schissel has teamed with Li Zong from the University of Saskatchewan to study the civic and political participation of students between the ages of 18 and 30 in China and Canada.

The researchers anticipate 5,000 students from 12 universities in both countries will answer an online questionnaire this fall. Schissel, whose previous research has focused on youth engagement in politics, says the study is the first of its kind.

“There’s a World Values Survey done in all countries, but there’s nothing specific to young people in relation to civic and political participation, so this study is quite unique,” Schissel says. “A large response rate allows you to do a lot of things over time, including comparisons about civic optimism, volunteering and how young people use social media to create social change movements.”

The research will provide a snapshot of two contrasting political systems. When Schissel taught in China several years ago, he was surprised students felt optimistic about their ability to direct the future of their country, despite the relatively closed nature of their politics. Yet in Canada, a democratic nation, he said young people often feel politically disengaged.

“We’d like to figure out how young people in these really diverse political systems come to see their roles in the future,” Schissel says.

“For years there has been a lot written about low voting rates for young people in countries like Canada, but I think that’s actually changing.”

The survey, which will have identical questions for students in English and Mandarin, will also look at education and citizenship, specifically how students in China and Canada are prepared to be citizens, whether through formal schooling or mentorship. The researchers also will ask where their loyalty as citizens lies.

“More young people are becoming citizens of the world, so we’re trying to figure out where their allegiances lie,” Schissel says. “Do they consider themselves local or national citizens or citizens of the globe?”

Schissel says he suspects young people express their civic and political activity in a different way than previous generations, namely through social media. He uses young people’s support of Democrat presidential candidate nominee Bernie Sanders in the United States, who used Twitter and Facebook to engage young people, as an example of such participation.

Schissel points to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi as examples successful outreach and interaction with young citizens through social media. Rather than being a tool of distraction, Schissel hopes social media will compel young people to be active.

“All social media are sources of political participation, or at least of sharing ideas, and we have to assume that with the sharing of ideas comes political activity,” he says.

Schissel will oversee the Canadian portion of the online surveys, while Zong, who was born in China but has lived in Canada for 26 years, will manage the Chinese universities.

The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada has funded the research for two years. Schissel expects preliminary results by the end of this year and says the researchers will create a website to share the results.