In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Civic Duty

  • Introduction
  • Core Texts
  • Journals
  • Data Sources

Communication Civic Duty
Lee Shaker
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 September 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0114


Civic duty is an internalized feeling of obligation to perform civic and political acts, especially voting, possessed by many citizens in democracies. Early studies of American elections identified the concept as an important motivating factor for voter participation and it is also invoked in later debate about the rationality of voting: Why do so many people vote when each vote requires tangible effort and offers very little instrumental utility? Perhaps, they vote because there is a deep-seated feeling among many people that voting is the right thing to do or that it is expected of them. Despite inclusion in early explorations of voting, scholars have only sporadically studied civic duty since the mid-20th century. A still-developing body of research sheds light on civic duty’s dimensions, antecedents, and consequences—but there is substantial room for additional scholarship. Who possesses feelings of civic duty, why, what are they, and how do they shape citizens’ behavior during elections and beyond?

Core Texts

The modern study of civic duty traces to Campbell, et al. 1954, though the concept only registers as an appendix in this seminal work. Here, and in Campbell, et al. 1960, “citizen” duty is first explicitly operationalized as an antecedent of political participation using a Guttman scale with four items still commonly used in the study of “civic” duty. Against this backdrop, Riker and Ordeshook 1968 provides the classic calculation of civic duty’s importance in the political process: voting cannot be accurately explained without acknowledging the motivation derived from nonrational sources. Blais 2000 aptly synthesizes much of the prior theoretical and empirical work related to civic duty, adds substantial nuance and clarity to the discussion, and is the best modern introduction to the concept. Campbell 2006 ties the study of civic duty to the ideals of Tocqueville and Madison at the founding of the United States—though the underlying philosophical roots extend at least as far back as Aristotle’s Politics.

  • Blais, André. 2000. To vote or not to vote? The merits and limits of rational choice theory. Pittsburgh, PA: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press.

    Detailed literature review of civic duty may be most effective recent synopsis of the concept. Also includes analysis of original empirical data that is illuminating.

  • Campbell, Angus, Philip E. Converse, Warren E. Miller, and Donald E. Stokes. 1960. The American voter. Chicago: John Wiley.

    Here, citizen duty is integrated in a more comprehensive exploration of voters’ motivations and behavior. Valuable as an example of research that fits civic duty into an array of factors that contribute to political participation.

  • Campbell, Angus, Gerald Gurin, and Warren E. Miller. 1954. The voter decides. White Plains, NY: Row, Peterson.

    Still vital for its clear explication of “citizen” duty and for providing access (see Appendix B) to the foundational survey items that are employed in much of the subsequent empirical research into the concept.

  • Campbell, David E. 2006. Why we vote?: How schools and communities shape our civic life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Artfully connects civic duty—a modern, empirical concept—to Alexis de Tocqueville’s exploration of the associational character of early American democracy. In doing so, helpful context for other considerations of civic duty is provided.

  • Riker, William H., and Peter C. Ordeshook. 1968. A theory of the calculus of voting. American Political Science Review 62:25–42.

    DOI: 10.2307/1953324

    With an elegant formula, this piece confirmed civic duty’s place as one of many so-called irrational considerations that explain voter participation. Also notable for the list of other “satisfactions” similar to civic duty that can motivate voters.

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