The Self-determination Theory of Political Motivation proposes a new perspective on the origins of political engagement. Based on Self-determination Theory by Deci and Ryan, I introduce the multi-dimensional concept of political motivation for explaining political engagement. Employing cross-sectional and longitudinal observational data as well as experimental data, I explore the origins of political motivation and how it leads to political action.
Here´s the rationale for that project:
In the wake of the cognitive revolution, the social sciences have gradually replaced the construct of needs by cognitive concepts such as goals and expectancies as dominant motivational concepts and the inquiry of the processes of goal selection outshined the investigation of goals´ contents and origins (cf. Deci/Ryan 2000: 227f; Reeve 2015, 40ff). Reflecting this shift in the attention from what we want on to how we choose, many studies in political science rely on action theories that translate given preferences into behavior by the assuming the individual to make utility optimizing decisions. Most clearly exemplified in Rational Choice Theory, but in an implicit fashion broadly embraced across the discipline, these principles have paved the way for a detailed comprehension of the conditions and consequences of instrumentally motivated political engagement (i.e. Brennan and Lomasky 1997; Downs 1957; Finkel, Muller, and Opp 1989; Fowler and Kam 2007; Klandermans 1997, Riker and Ordeshook 1968; 1968; Verba, Schlozman, and Brady 1995; Whiteley and Seyd 2002).
Compared to these insights, the antecedents and mechanisms of other crucial predictors of political engagement like political interest or the sense of civic duty are far more poorly understood although these concepts are widely accepted to be at least as important for explaining political engagement (Blais 2000; Blais and Rubenson 2012; Smets and van Ham 2013; Verba, Schlozman, and Brady 1995). This imbalance can be understood as a side effect of the discipline´s focus on decision rules and the principle of utility optimization which had appeared to reduntantize the inquiry of goals´ origins and content. But only within the realm of instrumental behavior, makes the safeguard of rationality answering what an action is ultimately performed for dispensable. Attempts to reconcile utility-optimization with non-instrumental behavior (Brennan and Lomasky 1997; Hamlin and Jennings 2011; Klein 2002; Schuessler 2000) make a step forward but still struggle to meaningfully explain behavior that is enacted as its own reward and are criticized for leading to infinite regresses (Green and Shapiro 1994; Shapiro 2008). I argue the neglect to inquire action´s primum movens and the basic origins of human motivation to be political science´s blind spot and to be the root cause of why intrinsically motivated political activities – such as those driven by interest in politics or a sense of civic duty– are poorly understood.
Here, the study of political engagement (Berger 2009) can profit from the reemerging field of motivation studies and self-determination theory (SDT, Deci and Ryan 1985; 2002; Ryan and Deci 2014) which was developed specifically to explain this kind of intrinsically motivated behavior and has been applied to a broad variety of subdisciplines of social science. SDT seeks to answer what energizes people into action in the first place and views human action as driven by the basic needs for relatedness, autonomy and competency. Individuals are intrinsically motivated to engage in behavior that were previously experienced as need-supportive. So, seemingly non-instrumental action can be understood as conducted for its inherently satisfying conditions with regard to these basic human needs.
A second contributions of SDT which is to be capitalized for understanding political engagement is the differentiation between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. While the former is volitional and autonomously regulated, extrinsic motivation originates from the demands and expectations from an individual´s social environment. Extrinsic Motivation is subdivided into different types, reflecting degrees of successful internalization of societal values and norms which are associated with varying degrees of how self-determined an action is perceived to be. The depth of internalization of (political) norms values depends on the need-supportiveness of one´s environment particularly during early socialization and is facilitated by seemingly non-political factors such as need-supportive parenting styles (Grolnick, Deci, and Ryan 1997; Sapiro 2004; Smits et al. 2010; Vansteenkiste et al. 2014).
As a consequence, this perspective may shed light on both, political motivation´s origin in socialization as well as its consequences for political behavior. It expands the unitary perception of motivation as it considers the type of motivation (why) next to the sole amount of motivation (how much). These types range from external regulation (not internalized, i.e. social pressure or material awards), to introjected regulation (partly internalized, i.e. feelings of shame or guilt), identified regulation (deeply incorporated into the self-concept) to intrinsic motivation (fully volitional) and are ordered on a continuum of relative autonomy, as perceived by the individual. The continuum of relative autonomy as the theory´s cornerstone not only meaningfully reconciles intrinsic (“non-instrumental”) motivation with other types of motivation but also allows systemizing the plethora of proposed explanations for how norms drive political engagement (Almond and Verbas 1972, 161–79; Blais and Achen 2010; Campbell et al. 1980, 166–67; Coleman 1990; Downs 1957, 260–67; Hardy and Carlo 2005; Lazarsfeld, Berelson, and Gaudet 1969, 153–57; Muhlberger 2000; Teske 1997) along that continuum of relative autonomy as more autonomously motivated political engagement is less context-dependent, more stable and more satisfying with regard to an individual´s basic needs. Thus, individual differences in the composition of one´s political motivation determine the probability, frequency and type of one´s political engagement.