Theda Skocpol and Morris P. Fiorina, (eds.), Civic Engagement in American Democracy (1999).

‘Summary: this is a collection of essays on civic engagement in the US. Some of these are quantitative, but most are qualitative. Specific findings are listed in the notes section below.


Important Insight: while American civic life remains relatively robust in comparative terms, there has been a notable shift towards groups that solicit money or try to add names to their membership list as against groups based in local chapters of more or less active members. Thus, the decline of civic life looks less pronounced if one counts organizations than if one gauges participation in the new universe of groups.


The reason for this is that these organizations are quite oligarchic, and in no way answerable to a mass membership base. Moreover, advocacy organizations have their own dynamic, which – in the search for the ‘drama and controversy’ they need to sustain themselves – impels them toward narrow stances and polarized positions.






*in a civic life dominated by staff led advocacy, ordinary people have little voice. Instead, under a ‘reconfigured class structure’ the managerial and professional stratum occupies key positions.

**this reshaping and partial decline of civic activity includes several elements:

*race is relevant insofar as legal integration may have had the perverse effect of weakening some national civic groups. Some whites withdraw from settings whose racial character can no longer be guaranteed.

*changing religious commitments: absent the great upsurge in evangelical denominations, religious would have surely declined. Yet these newer denominations make a more modest civic contribution than do the older variants of American Protestantism that they have replaced.

*persistent inequality: people with more resources are more civically engaged.

*in the introductory essay, Skocpol and Fiorina review three theories that posit alternative causes for ongoing transformations in civic life:

1) the social capital approach, which emphasizes socialization into the norms, networks, and cooperative actions seen as necessary for solving social problems.

2) the rational choice approach, which focuses on incentives for individual action.

3) the historical-institutional approach, which emphasizes changing organizational patterns, the resources available for collective action, and relationships between elites and the mass public.

*whereas Putnam emphasizes the role of social trust in fostering democracy, Skocpol points out that the creation and evolution of democratic regimes also is fostered by conflict and distrust.

*research in this volume makes clear that scholars who use different theoretical perspectives may reach differing conclusions about how voluntary associations affect civic life, social capital formation, and the operations of political institutions.

*several essays address the question of whether the associational life of American communities has increased or decreased over time or changed in other ways that significantly influence social capital formation and its effects on civic engagement:

*Dobkin Hill focuses on the community level, and analyzes trends in the population of organizations from 1850 to 1998 in New Haven, CT, and the implications of organizational change for patterns of civic engagement.

*he argues that the rise of tax-exempt nonprofit agencies devoted to delivering social services moves these social agencies away from reliance on membership relationships.

*chapters by Skocpol and by Clemen indicate that women’s voluntary associations have had significant effects on social welfare policy. They both highlight ways in which the institutions and activities of American government have influenced the identities, organizational forms, and strategies of voluntary associations at the centre of ‘civil society’, even as associations themselves have helped to transform public policies and the very ‘rules of the game’ in politics and governance.

*as Skocpol points out, this contrasts to Putnam’s conclusion that these associations had few effects on policies during the Progressive era.

*Clemen provides an historical analysis of the role of women’s groups in the transformation of American politics between 1890 and 1920. She reveals their role in political mobilization and shows how their structure and internal procedures affected both external perceptions of the organizations and patterns of interaction among them.

*multiple models of organizations – an ‘organizational repertoire’ – enabled challengers of the established political order to employ non-political models of organization.

*Berry addresses post-WWII patterns of citizen advocacy groups through an examination of their participation in congressional hearings on domestic social and economic policy as well as media coverage of group activity. His research suggests that growing membership in groups based in Washington reflects a shift from local voluntary organizations to national groups that focus on policy solutions at the national level.

*because such membership often entails little or no activity other than writing a cheque, the creation of social capital may be weakened.

*several chapters evaluate long-term changes in American society and their consequences for voluntary associations and civic engagement:

*Bint and Levy consider cultural and organizational changes among professionals.

*they argue that contemporary leaders of professional associations do not address society-wide civic values as much as their predecessors did. Professional engagement with public concerns is now more bureaucratized and compartmentalized.

*Crawford and Leviitt use the PTA for a case study.

*Ridlen Ray discusses the effects of changes in communications technology for group formation.

*argues that each wave of technological innovation in some ways facilitates, and in other ways undercuts, the social ties that undergird civic engagement.

*Wuthrow explores the effects of religious involvement on patterns of civic engagement.

* the newer (evangelical) religious denominations make a more modest civic contribution than do the older variants of American Protestantism that they have replaced. These denominations tend to channel *Skocpol examines changes over time in the universe of voluntary associations, with a focus on the withering of national membership federations and the development and growth of advocacy groups arising from social movements of the 60s.

*she attributes alterations to changes in the political opportunity structure, new methods and models for building and maintaining organizations, shifts in social class relationships, and evolving race relations and gender roles.

*an alternative approach for examining social capital formation is provided by Rahn, Brehm, and Carlson. They use survey data to examine how social capital may be generated through participation in a national election.

*they suggest that participation in the shared ritual and organized contention of national elections can strengthen Americans’ sense of political efficacy and social solidarity.

*patterns of civic engagement are generally assessed as a positive contribution to society, but negative consequences may flow from political participation.

*Fiorina points out possible negative consequences from activism by extremists. Argues that political participation tends to be dominated by extremists, rather than typical citizens, by people who are strongly issue-oriented in contrast with those who are often uninformed, somewhat indifferent, but nevertheless collectively solid.

*Schlozman, Verba, and Brady examine inequalities in civic participation and consider the biases that these bring to the political system.