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The unequal landscape of civic opportunity in America


The hollowing of civil society has threatened effective implementation of scientific solutions to pressing public challenges—which often depend on cultivating pro-social orientations commonly studied under the broad umbrella of social capital. Although robust research has studied the constituent components of social capital from the demand side (that is, the orientations people need for collective life in pluralistic societies, such as trust, cohesion and connectedness), the same precision has not been brought to the supply side. Here we define the concept of civic opportunity—opportunities people have to encounter civic experiences necessary for developing such orientations—and harness data science to map it across America. We demonstrate that civic opportunity is more highly correlated with pro-social outcomes such as mutual aid than other measures, but is unequally distributed, and its sources are underrepresented in the public dialogue. Our findings suggest greater attention to this fundamentally uneven landscape of civic opportunity.

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Fig. 1: The geography of civic opportunity in the USA.
Fig. 2: Inequality of civic opportunity.
Fig. 3: The association between civic opportunity and the emergence of mutual aid during COVID.
Fig. 4: Sources of civic opportunity.

Data availability

The replication data are available at

Code availability

The replication code is available at


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The authors received no specific funding for this work. We are grateful to J. Booth-Tobin, other members of the P3 Research Lab at Johns Hopkins, and attendees at the American Politics Speaker Series at the Harvard Kennedy School for feedback on the project.

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Authors and Affiliations



Conceptualization: M.d.V., J.Y.K. and H.H. Methodology: M.d.V. and J.Y.K. Investigation: M.d.V., J.Y.K. and H.H. Visualization: M.d.V. and J.Y.K. Funding acquisition: H.H. Project administration: M.d.V. and H.H. Supervision: M.d.V. and H.H. Writing—original draft: M.d.V., J.Y.K. and H.H. Writing—review and editing: M.d.V., J.Y.K. and H.H.

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Correspondence to Milan de Vries.

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Nature Human Behaviour thanks Ji Ma and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work. Peer reviewer reports are available.

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de Vries, M., Kim, J.Y. & Han, H. The unequal landscape of civic opportunity in America. Nat Hum Behav (2023).

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