A Critical Review of Hays’ Community activists’ perceptions of citizenship roles in an urban community

Hays, R. A. (2007). Community activists’ perceptions of citizenship roles in an urban community: A case study of attitudes that affect community engagement. Journal of Urban Affairs, 29(4), 401-424



Allen Hays (Hays, 2007) looks at the connections and barriers between community activism (community-based organizations) and political participation in a small urban community to determine how they are viewed by participants. He is particularly interested in the contrast in opinions of those participants that view each other’s activities as separate.  There is no common ground or opportunity for either to join the other’s activism or political participation.  Hays employs a qualitative case study of community and political activists’ attitudes in a small urban community in northern Iowa.  The study is based on Robert Putnam’s theoretical model that suggests a strong connection between local civic and political engagement and Nina Eliasoph’s model that suggests there are barriers between local civic and political participation.  Hays (2007) tested these models through a series of in depth interviews with the above cross-section of a community’s population actively involved in civic and political activities.  He explores perceived boundaries between the two areas to better understand those boundaries might be overcome in similar cities.

Review of the Literature

Hays (2007) restricts his review of literature for this article to either political engagement, defined as participation designed to, “directly influence public policy or electoral outcome,” and civic engagement as, “participation in voluntary community-based organizations and associations.”  His case study is based on the theoretical research of Robert Putnam (Putnam, 1995, 2000), that suggests a strong connection between these two poles of community activity, and the theoretical research of Nora Eliasoph’s theoretical model (Eliasoph, 1998) that suggests there are barriers between these same two activities.

Hays cites Putnam’s study of local government in Italy (Putnam, 1993 in Hays, 2007) that concluded government, in order to successfully function, must exist in a relationship of trust, reciprocity, and obligation of public good with the surrounding civil society.  Putnam (1995, 2000 in Hays, 2007) in his study of the collapse and revival of American communities in the United States drew attention to the decline in civic engagement within communities and the resulting negative impact on the political process.  Hays (2007) research is laid within the context of the research of scholars who define “civil society” as informal ties and relationships where there is an attempt to harmonize “conflicting demands of individuals’ interests and social good” that is flexible and public-spirited and distinctly tied to political involvement in several ways (Bellah, 1985; Etzioni, 1998; Woolcock, 1998; Lin, 2001 in Hays, 2007).

Hays (2007) also cites additional research that calls into question the degree that civic activity is linked to political engagement.  This is based on individual context that may be successfully linked in one situation and unsuccessful in another where access may be based on access to decision-makers or wealth (Edwards and Foley, 1997; Skocpol, 1996, 2000 in Hays, 2007).  Additionally, Eliasoph, (1998, in Hays, 2007) cites research that calls this link into question with group norms that suppress the relationship between group membership and political action.  Individual activities in one realm were discouraged from effecting change in the other (Eliasoph, 1998 in Hays, 2007).

Hays (2007) calls into question the validity of both extremes, but does not dismiss them entirely when he opts for zones of engagement depending on the group norms that are situationally dominant.  The author’s definition of contextual engagement civic and political activity as defined here may be valid for this case study, but that is an extremely narrowly constructed definition, and there are activities that are glaringly missing from it.  Anti-authoritarian actions such as a general strike, Occupy, protests, and other activities should be included within civic activities of the local community that are employed to influence change. None of these are included.  And while this may have been a small community in Northern Iowa, the participants cannot have been so insulated to not be affected by national and international events, especially in a college community.


Research Question

Hays (2007) looks at the links to political engagement in four ways:  Civic engagement, personal concerns, and community needs; civic engagement, organizing, and mobilizing; civic engagement, individual confidence, and likely political activism; and civic engagement, relationship networks of trust, and political action (Lin, 2001 in Hays, 2007).  Hays, also explores a critique to these links that concentrates on attitudinal dimensions of the relationships between group membership and political action where social group norms discouraged serious discussion of political issues and encouraged a cynical attitude of political disengagement (Eliasoph, 1998 in Hays, 2007).

But these two extremes of perspective may not exist so purely in the real world.  So for this study, Hays (2007) proposes an alternative “Zones of Engagement,” that are intersectional links between civic and political engagement:  Family Relationships, Peers and Work Relationships, Civic Engagement, and Political Engagement.  The first two zones are included for comprehensiveness of the model, but they are not the author’s focus, though their influence is felt in the latter two zones that are the focus of this study.  Civic participation, being voluntary, divides itself into three categories, according to the author.  They consist of social groups devoted to sports or hobbies, commonality groups devoted to disorder or disease support or neighborhood beautification, and community service groups devoted to a larger community good.  The author utilizes a case study that utilizes questions to address a description of the case at hand and themes that emerge from its study (Locke et al, 2010).  He focuses on the latter two categories as potential bridges to political participation.  He examines the attitudinal barriers and advantages between them to determine an individual’s willingness to transition their time and energy from the civic to the political to determine the strength of those connections.

While the author’s zone of civic engagement is generally inclusive of protest and “women’s activism” (the word feminism is not used throughout the article), Hays (2007) limits his definitions of protest to public funding of disease treatment, neighborhood cleanup, and poverty.  Within the study, he offers no understanding or examples of deeper and wider protest of societal problems or political unrest.  Activism takes many shapes and forms, but the title of the article is terribly misleading when it seems to harken back to an earlier distant decade and not the one in which it was written.


Study Design

Hays (2007) emphatically states that he employs an exploratory case study design using fixed data that includes the activities and perspectives of a group of 40 community activists in Waterloo/Cedar Fall, Iowa, a metropolitan area of 125,000 residents at the time of this study (Yin, 1994 in Hays, 2007).  Utilizing Yin (2007, in Hays, 2007) the author developed a series of five propositions that are stated specifically to particularly support Eliasoph’s (1998 in Hays, 2007) proposition that there are distinct boundaries between the political and the civic, while a distinct lack of support would reinforce Putnam’s idea (1993 in Hays, 2007) that the two are connected. Hays also admits here that to fully test this case study design would entail further research and a much larger sample.

The propositions consist of the following:

  • A behavioral boundary exists between civic and political involvement.
  • An attitudinal boundary exists between civic and political engagement.
  • A motivational boundary exists between civic and political participation.
  • The skills and attitudes acquired through civic participation will be somewhat different than those acquired through political participation.
  • An attitudinal boundary exists between active political and civic participants and those who do not participate in community affairs. (Hays, 2007)

The author specifies that this is a case study and he is very explicit in his study parameters within the community and what his expectations might be.  Given that he admits that this may be an isolated result until the study is completed with a much larger sample, I still question the narrowness of his definitions of civic and political engagement.  And I wonder if the same results would occur if his definitions included several forms of protest and anti-authoritarian actions.


Population and Sample

The population of Waterloo/Cedar Falls, Iowa due to the influx of Black Americans from the South in the 1920s (14%) and Latinx (2%) workers more recently, makes it the most ethnically diverse city in Iowa as of the 2000 U.S. Census.  The sample of 40 individuals were drawn from active groups of neighborhood associations, civic groups, arts groups, groups formed to eliminate poverty, and political groups.  The author found that 60% (24 participants) engaged in no political activities, 45% of those (18 participants) only engaged in civic activities, and the remaining 15% participated in both civic and social activities.  The remaining participants that engaged in political activities (40%) engaged in one to three activities. Some mentioned actual service as a political official, nine (22.5%) noted only one political activity, six (15%) listed two activities, and one person listed three activities. (Hays, 2007).  Demographically, the city was represented by 16 (40.0%) white women 13 (32.5%) are white men, four (10.0%) Black American women, four (10.0%) Black American men two (5.0%), Latinx women, and one (2.5%) Latinx man. This reflected the overall community, excepting the white men who were under-sampled.  Politically the participants were represented as 52.5% “liberal,” 25.0% as “moderate,” and 22.5% as “conservative.” (Hays, 2007) There were no other political categorizations (Hays, 2007).

Twenty-three participants are employed full-time (57.5%), 12 are retired (30%), four work part-time (10%), and one is a full-time homemaker.  Thirty-five (87.5% have a Bachelor’s or graduate degree, while the remaining participants have some college or a high school diploma only.  The ages of the participants range from 17.5% under 40, 55% between the ages of 40 and 60, and 27.5% over the age of 60.  Politically, the participants range from 52.5% liberal, 25% moderate, and 22.5% as conservative (Hays, 2007).  The fact that there are no outliers gives me pause to wonder if the sample was not selected but already available from an existing pool that the author was already familiar with.  The author has been a resident of the community for 20 years prior to the study and extremely active in community affairs acting as a consultant for non-profits and local government as well as the director of his university’s community outreach program.  This has made him a regular fixture within the political and civic realms of the city. While he has mentioned his involvement and its extent within the community, he has not mentioned how his familiarity with many of the community members might affect the outcome of this study.


Data Collection Procedures

Hays (2007) and his staff utilized in-depth in-person interviews and employed open-ended questions the 40 individuals described above who met the criteria of being variously active in the community.  The interviews themselves were not restricted to allow for detailed and thorough answers and lasted from 45 to 90 minutes.  The questions were open-ended to allow each participant space enough to speak on their subjective experience within the civic and political areas of activity and reflect on their varied involvement.  The author also disclosed that in order to determine any underlying causes of civic participation, a comparison control group of inactive participants would be necessary, but that wasn’t his intent here.  Instead, his interest was to determine if active participants conformed to what might be expected in the already existing literature.  While the main purpose of the Hays (2007) case study was to test already existing research, it is still limiting and validation of the results will necessarily require additional research with a larger sample.


Data Analysis

Hays (2007) broke down his analysis of the results into broad categorical percentage tables of recruitment, motivation for participation, sources of satisfaction, frustrations, and obstacles within their projects of volunteer or political involvement, what participants learned from participation, reasons for local citizen involvement, and how to increase participation.  While the questions that the interviewers utilized were open-ended, they were specific enough to yield results that allowed the author to map the activities of the sample participants to several tables.  The way the information was presented was very clear and appropriate to test Putnam’s (1995, 2000 in Hays, 2007) and Eliasoph’s (1998, in Hays, 2007) theoretical models, but had the author allowed for a more flexible research method (ethnographic, participatory action research), he would have yielded a more open pool of responses more representative of the community and its members.  With his case study, the open-ended questions acted almost as a survey that seemed extremely limited instead of what might have resulted with a more participant-centered approach.


Study Findings

Hays (2007) broke down the results into several sections, the first for community service.  Most participants, including political leaders, decided to list all or most of their activities within civic involvement and rarely mentioned any political activities and fewer social.  Hays determined that most participants identified civic activities with volunteer work.  One elected official even listed his elected office work within the civic realm.  Politically, all participants were registered to vote and almost all participated in influencing policy decisions or volunteering to assist in the election of a local candidate which directly undermines the study’s Proposition 1.  The participants are also very goal oriented in their volunteer and political activities and referenced dissatisfaction in failed attempts to recruit participants to their volunteer activities but not the political, which supports Proposition 2.  Ultimately, the participants see a boundary between volunteer, civic, and political activities but rarely see an issue when they cross the line from one to the other.  Others who are less frequent participants are uncomfortable crossing that line.


Summary and Discussion

Hays (2009) concludes that the boundaries between no participation and civic and civic and political are permeable to a handful of people.  Activists travel that line frequently and recruit others infrequently.  The results support Eliasoph’s (1998, in Hays, 2007) proposition that political organizations in many urban communities have not facilitated a means for everyone to publicly contribute.  Because Hays’ results are valid for some small urban communities, in future studies, I would like to see a similar study in a larger community where the definitions for political participation and community activism are expanded to include left-leaning anti-authoritarian protest and actions and right-leaning political involvement that include actions and political protest since he only left room for mild activism and political participation, but not protest.




Hays, R. A. (2007). Community activists’ perceptions of citizenship roles in an urban community: A case study of attitudes that affect community engagement. Journal of Urban Affairs, 29(4), 401-424.

Locke, L. F., Silverman, S. J., & Spirduso, W. W. (2010). Reading and understanding research (3rd ed., pp. 158-279). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

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