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Civic Engagement and Education: An Empirical Test of the Sorting Model


  • Previous versions of this article were presented to the American politics research workshop and the Center for Research on Educational Opportunity at the University of Notre Dame, the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, and the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. I am grateful for helpful comments from Bob Putnam, Chris Achen, Paul Goren, John Griffin, Christina Wolbrecht, Cindy Kam, Patrick Wolf, Jay Greene, and two anonymous reviewers.

David E. Campbell is John Cardinal O'Hara, CSC, Associate Professor of Political Science, 217 O'Shaughnessy Hall, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN 46556 (


According to the sorting model of education, the impact of education on civic engagement is relative, rather than absolute. Education correlates with greater engagement because it is a marker of social status; the degree of status conferred by your level of education is determined by the average level of education within your environment. This article tests the sorting model by paying strict heed to its assumptions. The analysis confirms the model, but considerably narrows its reach. Sorting applies only to one particular type (electoral activity), only when the educational environment accounts for variation across age and place, and only when one models the interactive relationship between education at the individual and environmental levels. Furthermore, sorting applies more to men than women. The same analytical framework demonstrates that being in a more highly educated environment amplifies the relationship between education and democratic enlightenment (political knowledge and tolerance).