Civic Participation

Social and Community Context

About This Literature Summary

This summary of the literature on Civic Participation as a social determinant of health is a narrowly defined examination that is not intended to be exhaustive and may not address all dimensions of the issue. Please note: The terminology used in each summary is consistent with the respective references. For additional information on cross-cutting topics, please see the Social Cohesion literature summary. 

Related Objectives (1)

Here's a snapshot of the objectives related to topics covered in this literature summary. Browse all objectives.

Literature Summary

Civic participation encompasses a wide range of formal and informal activities, such as voting, volunteering, participating in group activities, and community gardening.1 Some are individual activities that benefit society (e.g., voting) or group activities that benefit either the group members (e.g., recreational soccer teams) or society (e.g., volunteer organizations).1 In addition to the direct benefit that civic participation provides to the community, it also produces secondary health benefits for participants.2,3  This summary focuses on the relationship between civic participation, health, and well-being.i

One way civic participation improves health is by building social capital, which is defined as “features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit.”4  For example, a study found that members of civic groups were more likely to be physically active. Belonging to civic groups expanded participants’ social networks, which made them more aware of opportunities to be physically active in their community.2 Engaging in meaningful civic activities can also help individuals develop a sense of purpose, which may promote continued civic participation.5  Social capital is discussed in more detail in the Social Cohesion summary.

Participating in the electoral process by voting or registering others to vote is an example of civic participation that impacts health.3 A study of 44 countries (including the United States) found that voter participation was associated with better self-reported health, even after controlling for individual and country characteristics.3 In another study, individuals who did not vote reported poorer health in subsequent years.6

Volunteering is a common form of civic participation that can yield health benefits.7,8 Studies show that volunteers enjoy better psychological well-being and more positive emotional health.7,9 Volunteering can increase social resources like having friends to call,9 which may help explain the association between volunteering and reduced levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms.9,10 Additionally, one study found volunteering can relieve stress as measured by cortisol (a hormone released when feeling stressed).11 Volunteering might be especially beneficial for older adults; a study of adults age 60 and older found that volunteers had a lower risk of cognitive impairment.12

Simply belonging to groups can improve health as well. Membership in formal groups (e.g., Girl Scouts, Kiwanis, Rotary, PTA) or informal groups (e.g., book clubs, bird watching clubs) has been shown to increase social capital and decrease social isolation among members.13,14 As a result, these groups may indirectly improve the physical and mental health of their members.13 For example, a women’s group, the Red Hat Society, has been shown to provide emotional support and a sense of community to its members.14 Many formal and informal groups also engage in charitable activities that directly benefit health research (e.g., the Ice Bucket Challenge, Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure).

Individuals who are involved in community gardening may form a sense of neighborhood pride,15 experience an increased appreciation for their neighborhood, and be more motivated to get involved in community life.16,17 Community gardens also increase access to healthy foods. A thematic review of the effects of community gardens notes that 13 studies have found higher levels of fruit and vegetable consumption in areas with community gardens.18

Civic participation varies by generation19 and education.5 For example, one study found that while young people may be less likely to engage in mainstream media consumption, 90 percent of the high school students surveyed had engaged in politics in general and 40 percent had engaged in participatory politics. This civic engagement primarily occurs through social media.20 Individuals with higher education levels may have more opportunities for civic engagement, as college students have opportunities to get involved in community affairs through fraternities, sororities, or other student organizations — but male college students are less likely to engage in civic activities than female students.21,22 Other studies have found that African American, Latino, and Asian American college students are more likely to intend to volunteer than their White peers.21

Many different strategies can promote civic participation. Encouraging young people to be active in their community is important for promoting lifelong civic participation. One study found that high school students involved in community service are more likely to vote and volunteer in adulthood.23 Initiatives like AmeriCorps, which are designed to help young adults serve their communities, have been shown to increase civic participation later in life as well.24,25 Public health media advocacy campaigns are another strategy; they promote policy change through media engagement and community action.26

Additional research is needed to increase the evidence base for what can successfully impact the effects of civic participation on health outcomes and disparities. This additional evidence will facilitate public health efforts to address civic participation as a social determinant of health.


i Well-being is both a determinant and an outcome of health. It encompasses objective and subjective elements and reflects many aspects of life and states of being, including physical and mental, as well as emotional, social, financial, occupational, intellectual, and spiritual elements.



Abbott, S. (2010). Social capital and health: The role of participation. Social Theory & Health, 8(1), 51–65.


Marquez, B., Gonzalez, P., Gallo, L., & Ji, M. (2016). Latino civic group participation, social networks, and physical activity. American Journal of Health Behavior, 40(4), 437–445.


Kim, S., Kim, C. Y., & You, M. S. (2015). Civic participation and self-rated health: A cross-national multi-level analysis using the world value survey. Journal of Preventive Medicine and Public Health, 48(1), 18.


Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling alone: America’s declining social capital. Culture and Politics (pp. 223–234). Palgrave Macmillan, New York.


Barber, C., Mueller, C. T., & Ogata, S. (2013). Volunteerism as purpose: Examining the long-term predictors of continued community engagement. Educational Psychology, 33(3), 314–333.


Arah, O. A. (2008). Effect of voting abstention and life course socioeconomic position on self-reported health. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, 62(8), 759–760.


Jenkinson, C. E., Dickens, A. P., Jones, K., Thompson-Coon, J., Taylor, R. S., Rogers, M., ... & Richards, S. H. (2013). Is volunteering a public health intervention? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the health and survival of volunteers. BMC Public Health, 13(1), 1–10.


Burr, J. A., Han, S. H., & Tavares, J. L. (2016). Volunteering and cardiovascular disease risk: Does helping others get “under the skin?”. Gerontologist, 56(5), 937–947.


Musick, M. A., & Wilson, J. (2003). Volunteering and depression: The role of psychological and social resources in different age groups. Social Science & Medicine, 56(2), 259–269.


Burr, J. A., Tavares, J., & Mutchler, J. E. (2011). Volunteering and hypertension risk in later life. Journal of Aging and Health, 23(1), 24–51.


Han, S. H., Kim, K., & Burr, J. A. (2018). Stress-buffering effects of volunteering on salivary cortisol: Results from a daily diary study. Social Science & Medicine, 201, 120–126.


Infurna, F. J., Okun, M. A., & Grimm, K. J. (2016). Volunteering is associated with lower risk of cognitive impairment. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 64(11), 2263–2269.


Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. Simon and Schuster.


Son, J., Yarnal, C., & Kerstetter, D. (2010). Engendering social capital through a leisure club for middle‐aged and older women: Implications for individual and community health and well‐being. Leisure Studies, 29(1), 67–83.


Alaimo, K., Reischl, T. M., & Allen, J. O. (2010). Community gardening, neighborhood meetings, and social capital. Journal of Community Psychology, 38(4), 497–514.


Litt, J. S., Schmiege, S. J., Hale, J. W., Buchenau, M., & Sancar, F. (2015). Exploring ecological, emotional and social levers of self-rated health for urban gardeners and non-gardeners: A path analysis. Social Science & Medicine, 144, 1–8.


Armstrong, D. (2000). A survey of community gardens in upstate New York: Implications for health promotion and community development. Health & Place, 6(4), 319–327.


Malberg Dyg, P., Christensen, S., & Peterson, C. J. (2020). Community gardens and wellbeing amongst vulnerable populations: A thematic review. Health Promotion International, 35(4), 790–803.


Flanagan, C., Levine, P., & Settersten, R. (2009). Civic engagement and the changing transition to adulthood. CIRCLE. Retrieved, 10(18), 10.


Marchi, R., & Clark, L. S. (2021). Social media and connective journalism: The formation of counterpublics and youth civic participation. Journalism, 22(2), 285–302.


Delli Carpini, M. X. (2000). Gen. com: Youth, civic engagement, and the new information environment. Political Communication, 17(4), 341–349.


Rosenthal, S., Feiring, C., & Lewis, M. (1998). Political volunteering from late adolescence to young adulthood: Patterns and predictors. Journal of Social Issues, 54(3), 477–493.


Hart, D., Donnelly, T. M., Youniss, J., & Atkins, R. (2007). High school community service as a predictor of adult voting and volunteering. American Educational Research Journal, 44(1), 197–219.


Flanagan, C., & Levine, P. (2010). Civic engagement and the transition to adulthood. The Future of Children, 159–179.


Grimm, R., Spring, K., & Dietz, N. (2007). Corporation for National and Community Service, Office of Research and Policy Development. The health benefits of volunteering: A review of recent research.


Wallack, L., & Dorfman, L. (1996). Media advocacy: A strategy for advancing policy and promoting health. Health Education Quarterly, 23(3), 293–317.

Back to top