Implicit Citizenship Theories

Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Unsplash

Implicit citizenship theories are implicit conceptions about typical or ideal characteristics of citizens, which influence attitudes or behaviors on different levels of abstraction. They are hence not scientific theories but common or lay theories, which reduce cognitive efforts and enable quick action and decision-making despite otherwise overwhelming and complex information. Such cognitive schemas include, for example, assumptions about citizens in their roles as service recipients (needy, dependent, pitiable), as taxpayers (canny, greedy, not showing solidarity), or as activists (committed, courageous, rebellious).

Implicit citizenship theories in the public sector have a particular salience as public employees have to make decisions every day that directly affect citizens. In such situations, decision-makers often have great discretion in decision-making despite the presence of a large set of rules. In public management research, only little is known so far about the role that processes of cognitive categorization of citizens play in this regard. The research project aims to determine implicit citizenship theories both substantially and structurally; it aims to identify under which conditions these theories evolve and which consequences they have for administrative action and decision-making. We focus on the following research questions:

  1. Which implicit theories about citizens do employees in the public sector have and which valence do the respective prototypes have?
  2. In which superordinate structure are implicit theories about citizens embedded and how do differ between different professional groups in the public sector and depending on job and sociodemographic characteristics?
  3. How do implicit theories about citizens influence the decision-making behavior of members of public organizations?

The research project consists of four modules: In the first module, we will develop theoretical foundations, which are based on previous work in administration research and in neighboring disciplines. In the second module, we will apply an explorative method and combine semi-structured interviews with an open online survey to extract the attributes that employees in public administration ascribe to citizens, particularly in critical interaction contexts. In the third module, we will use these attributes for a factor-analytic study, in which we determine the structure of implicit citizenship theories based on a large-scale, rapid-response survey. In the fourth module, we will conduct two conjoint experiments in different administrative spheres in order to examine how relevant implicit citizenship theories are for decision-making processes. The result of the research project is a new research approach in public management.

Dominik Vogel
Assistant Professor of Public Management

I am Assistant Professor of Public Management at the University of Hamburg. My research focuses on the motivation of public employees, what makes leadership in the public sector successful, how citizens interact with public administrations, and how public organizations manage performance.