Exploring the relationship between civic engagement, early life, and wellbeing: a mixed methods study with a diverse sample of university students

PhD Thesis

Farr, R. 2023. Exploring the relationship between civic engagement, early life, and wellbeing: a mixed methods study with a diverse sample of university students. PhD Thesis University of East London School of Health, Sports and Bioscience https://doi.org/10.15123/uel.8w322
AuthorsFarr, R.
TypePhD Thesis

The level of civic engagement within a society is said to be a clear reflection of the health of that society’s democracy (Barrett and Zani, 2015). Despite the growing global interest in civic engagement, especially in the context of higher education, UK-based empirical research is lacking, and applications of life history perspectives to the growing civic engagement phenomenon are especially sparse. The concept of civic engagement carries definitional ambiguity, is subjective, and does not hold a universal understanding. For the purpose of this thesis, definitions of civic engagement, wellbeing and early life can be located in the ‘definitions table’ (page 8) and are explored throughout.

It has been found in the past that disadvantaged and ostracized groups are less likely to part-take in civic engagement than affluent groups (Beetham, 1994). All primary data were collected in East London, a culturally diverse and disadvantaged borough. Data were collected from a multifarious sample of students from international educational backgrounds at a widening participation university. No similar research was found in this context. As a result of this gap in the literature, the aim of this study was to explore the relationship between civic engagement, early life, and wellbeing among this underrepresented population.

Three separate and unique empirical research studies were designed and conducted, including: a series of focus groups; a 3-part quantitative survey; and a series of in-depth life history interviews. Interview participants were sampled based on their survey responses. All three elements of research were influenced by the vast, multi-disciplinary literature landscape. This thesis includes a unique adaptation of a collaborative life calendar method for qualitative interviews to collect civic engagement data.

Findings demonstrated a relationship between civic engagement, early life, and wellbeing. Impacts of socioeconomics and childhood adversities on civic engagement and wellbeing outcomes were highlighted. The survey component offered a plethora of data and findings, and these were explored further within the interviews. Findings demonstrated students to be civically engaged - although further echoed the aforementioned definitional ambiguity and underlined the ongoing challenges in universally measuring civic engagement. The survey demonstrates factors such as family stability and positive family relationships in early life may predict higher levels of civic engagement, wellbeing, and self-esteem. The qualitative elements explored the complex concept of civic engagement at depth, and the recognition that bringing together a diversity of voices and ideas that can better reflect and shape society is key. Motivations behind civic engagement were at times a pursuit of protecting others, or of personal development and wellbeing.

Overall, the data demonstrates the relationship between early life, civic engagement, and wellbeing is a fluid, reciprocal and inter-linked relationship, where civic engagement may play a mediating factor between early life experiences and health and wellbeing.

Within this thesis, the predetermined notion of what it means to be civically engaged was challenged and broadened to include hidden, daily, informal, potentially unmeasurable yet valuable acts of engagement in the civil society. Future research in the area may seek to capture these daily civic behaviors. Life histories are vital for better understanding civic engagement, and civic engagement has a strong relationship with wellbeing. Further studies are needed to better understand the inequalities of civic engagement within marginalised groups in the UK, and how these are associated with life trajectories. This thesis demonstrates the need for policy makers to better understand and respond to the role that socioeconomics and early life may play in generating civically engaged citizens and could help to improve uptake of political engagement by supporting educational initiatives that are able to collaboratively reach underrepresented groups, build trust, and ensure more voices are heard across all categories of civic engagement.

PublisherUniversity of East London
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)https://doi.org/10.15123/uel.8w322
File Access Level
Publication dates
Online19 Jul 2023
Publication process dates
Completed01 Jun 2023
Deposited19 Jul 2023
Copyright holder© 2023, The Author
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