Robert Putnam, Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy (1993), Chapters 1, 6.

‘Summary: looks at variations in the performance of Italian regional governments. Argues that low levels of social capital (variation in political culture) in a region lead to inefficient regional governments; the variation in political culture is then traced back to the Middle Ages.


Method: a so-called “natural experiment” – studies the performance of Italian regional governments following their formation in 1970, arguing that this introduction of a new level of government allows a perfect testing ground for determining the “conditions for creating strong, responsive, effective representative institutions” (6) since “institutional design was held constant” (10)


Critiques: theoretically, Putnam’s argument has two major weaknesses: first, he offers little to account for the persistence of traits that he argues characterized different Italian regions for about seven hundred years (historical validity) and the choice of the Middle Ages as THE point of origin seems rather arbitrary; second, social capital may be endogenous to institutional performance rather than a cause of it.


Also, Jackson and Miller (1996) examine the validity of Putnam’s statistical claims, and find that there is “very little indication from the Italian data to suggest that institutional performance depends in any appreciable manner on cultural traditions. While there is a statistical justification for the measures of civic community developed by Putnam, those measures do not address distributions of cultural values directly. More troubling is the fact that the measure of performance cannot be justified even on statistical grounds. As a result, these data provide no warrant for linking cultural values to political performance.” (644-645)


Also, see Sabetti (1996).





In Making Democracy Work, Putnam performs a study of the performance of Italian regional government performance following their formation in 1970, arguing that this introduction of a new regional level of government allows a perfect testing ground for determining the “conditions for creating strong, responsive, effective representative institutions.” (6, 10) Since he views the institutions introduced as being identical across the fifteen regions (excluding the five semi-autonomous regions with their variations in powers), Putnam is able to hold institutions constant.  As such, any variation cannot be institutional in nature and must be explained by some other variable.


Putnam carries out this study over two decades using a combination of surveys, interviews, statistical measures of institutional performance, analysis of legislation and a somewhat unorthodox investigative measure which involves the submission of fake inquiries to monitor difficulties in having complaints dealt with. (13-14) He finds that there is indeed considerable variation in the performance of regions, and that this variation occurs largely on a North-South divide. He explains this divide using the notion of political culture, arguing that if regional governments perform badly, it is because citizens have inadequate levels of trust, and society a low level of social capital. Much of this problem relates to a fundamental problem of collective action. While the North was able to overcome this problem horizontally, the South dealt with it using sub-optimal vertical measures. He traces the origin of these variations in social capital back to different forms of government in the Middle Ages (republican in the North and monarchical in the South). Since trust and civic engagement are seen as self-reinforcing, these traditions continued over time.


Putnam sums the logic of his argument up thusly:

“On the demand side, citizens in civic communities expect better government and (in part through their own efforts), they get it. They demand effective public service, and they are prepared to act collectively to achieve their shared goals. Their counterparts in less civic regions more commonly assume the role of alienated and cynical supplicants. On the supply side, the performance of representative government is facilitated by the social infrastructure of civic communities and by the democratic values of both officials and citizens. Most fundamental to the civic community is the social ability to collaborate for shared interests. Generalized reciprocity… generates high social capital and underpins collaboration.” (182-183)

As such, Putnam notes the importance of the initial, self-reinforcing conditions on the current levels of policy efficiency, and democracy more generally. The key to making democracy work is the social capital created by civic culture, activities and associations.