From Entertainment to Citizenship? A Comparative Study of the Political Uses of Popular Culture by First-Time Voters

  • Street, John (Principal Investigator)
  • Inthorn, Sanna (Co-Investigator)

Project Details


This project investigates the extent to which first-time voters use popular culture to articulate political attitudes and values, especially in relation to ideas of citizenship. It does so through a comparative study of different forms of popular culture: television, music and videogames. Rather than treating popular culture as a single entity, this project allows us to discern the particular ways in which different forms of culture are used differently in the adoption and expression of political attitudes and values. In the context of widespread concerns over 'civic apathy', we believe that the results generated by this project will have important implications for public policy, particularly in relation to the work of organisations like the BBC, Ofcom, the DCMS and the Electoral Commission, but also in the teaching of citizenship in schools.

As the media remain citizens' main source of political information, symptoms of civic disengagement, such as citizens' lack of trust in the political process and government, cynicism and not feeling part of a community are commonly traced back to media content. An influential critic of the media's role in the political process is Robert Putman, who suggests that dependence on popular media for entertainment are closely correlated with civic disengagement. Arguing against this pessimistic view is a growing number of writers who suggest that media studies and political science need to recognise the potential of popular entertainment to address audiences' civic identities and encourage civic engagement. Liesbet Van Zoonen, for example, highlights the analogies between fan communities and citizens involved in politics, while others suggest that 'new political television', such as The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, addresses audience's concerns and instigates political discussion.

The intellectual background of our project is situated in this field, which we aim to advance in three ways: Firstly, unlike previous research we will not limit our research to an analysis of television, but will compare television, with video games and popular music. Secondly, we will complement the comparison of different forms of popular culture with a study of audience engagement with these cultural forms. This comparison will allow us to ask what it is about a particular medium's mode of address and ways of storytelling that engages audiences' civic identities better or less than other forms of popular culture. Thirdly, our project will take seriously the 'irrational' in civic engagement and take account of the role of emotions in political action. The role of laughter, feelings of excitement and fear in civic engagement will be explored.

Our audience research focuses on first-time voters. This particular group of citizens represents the focus for much of the public policy debate about the role of entertainment in civic engagement. Schools are increasingly utilising the potential of media culture for learning and teaching strategies and broadcasters, such as the BBC in the 'Schools' section of its website, offer educational content specifically designed for citizenship education.

The results of our project will be a valuable resource for programme makers, but also schools. We aim to work closely with the latter in particular and involve the schools which form part of our primary research closely in our project. We will offer to support the citizenship aspects of the curriculum, as well as the study of sociology, media and psychology. In addition, we will offer to present our findings to parents and the local community. This will help us widen the impact of our research beyond the academic community and make it applicable to citizens' everyday lives.
Effective start/end date1/06/0830/09/09


  • Economic and Social Research Council: £77,435.00