Why are political scientists studying ice bucket challenges?

The way we think about civic engagement may be generation-biased as well. A new generation of young activists who are as skilled in digital communication as they are in rolling their eyes at their parents has upended the civic engagement paradigm. This summer’s viral Ice Bucket Challenge raised $115 million for research on the neurodegenerative disease ALS, even though the explanation of how the video trend got started or how it worked were never entirely clear. (That’s the way it is with most Internet trends.) Likewise, the most viral video ever, according to Time, advocated the capture of Joseph Kony, an indicted African war criminal. The United States Senate responded with a resolution condemning Kony, although the cult leaders still remains at large.

Levine and his colleagues were instrumental in pushing the U.S. Census Bureau to add a series of questions to its Current Population Survey that might capture less traditional types of community involvement. Pollsters began asking respondents in 2008 if they have worked with neighbors to fix a community problem, if they have done favors for their neighbors, or if they are a member of any organization—whether it be religious, recreational, school, service, or sports.

The upshot is that we now know that well over one-third of Americans participate in one or more groups, the most common being religious and school organizations. We know that about 10 percent have served as a group officer or committee member of those organizations. We know that almost half of Americans talk to their neighbors frequently. About one-third of them discuss politics more than once a week.