We can improve civic literacy by teaching people information they should, but don’t, know. But this will only get us so far. To make lasting changes we need to understand the relationship among many factors, including what makes people think and act as they do. Multiple forces, such as culture for groups and personality types for individuals, shape people’s ideas and activities.
Information does not exist in a vacuum—it is introduced into existing social contexts. If we want information to change society for the better, then we need to understand how information enters a context and is translated into social action.
Take voting. This excellent NYT analysis shows that richer, older, better-educated adults are more likely to vote. No surprise there.
But dig down just a little deeper and see what the data shows. In 2012, for instance, black people were more likely to vote than white, Hispanic, or Asian people at every level of education. Black people were more likely to vote than white, Hispanic, or Asian people at every level of income. Women were more likely to vote than men—no surprise there either—but black women were more likely to vote than other women and black men were more likely to vote than other men. Yes, President Obama’s candidacy in 2012 probably shaped this a little, but the trends hold up over time.
My point? Almost by definition, the behavior of “voting” cannot be boiled down only to information. When one group, black people, shows higher participation across gender lines and at every economic and educational level, something cultural is at work. The act of voting or not voting is the same for everyone, but it is clear voting means something different, on average, to different groups of people.
No doubt better information would benefit everyone regardless of race, gender, income, or education. But until we understand better the link between information and these other factors, all the information in the world will not produce the social change we seek.
Farnsley is Research Professor of Religious Studies at IUPUI, Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture, and Executive Officer of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR). He has written books on politics in the Southern Baptist Convention, faith-based welfare reform, the social role of urban religion, and individualism’s links to American folk religion.