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Civic Engagement in American Democracy.

Civic Engagement in American Democracy. Edited by Theda Skocpol and Morris P. Fiorina. Washington, DC: Brookings, 1999. 528p. $52.95 cloth, $19.95 paper.

Concern about the health of civic life in the United States has generated academic debate, journalist commentaries, several study commissions, and publications by the score. Is civil society in decline, or is it reinventing itself? That is the question addressed from a variety of perspectives by the sociologists and political scientists who contributed to this volume. The chapters, initially prepared for presentation at a conference in September 1997, examine issues at the center of the debate from several theoretical perspectives. The editors organize the contributions under three headings: the roots of civic engagement, civic life in a changing society, and the ironies of contemporary activism.

In an introductory essay, Skocpol and Fiorina review three theories that posit alternative causes for ongoing transformations in civic life: the social capital approach, which emphasizes socialization into the norms, networks, and cooperative actions seen as necessary for solving social problems; the rational choice approach, which focuses on incentives for individual action; and the historical-institutional approach, which emphasizes changing organizational patterns, the resources available for collective action, and relationships between elites and the mass public.

Whereas Robert 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.

A core issue in the social capital debate is whether the associational life of American communities, so central to Putnam's argument, has increased or decreased over time or changed in other ways that significantly influence social capital formation and its effects on civic engagement. Several contributors address that issue. Focusing on the community level, Peter Dobkin Hill analyzes trends in the population of organizations from 1850 to 1998 in New Haven, Connecticut, and the implications of organizational change for patterns of civic engagement. Chapters by Skocpol and by Elisabeth Clemen indicate that women's voluntary associations have had significant effects on social welfare policy. 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 interactions among them. Multiple models of organizations--an "organizational repertoire"--enabled challengers of the established political order to employ nonpolitical models of organization.

Jeffrey Berry addresses post-World War II 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 check, 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. Steven Brint and Charles Levy consider cultural and organizational changes among professionals. Susan Crawford and Peggy Levitt use the Parent Teachers Association for a case study, Marcella Ridlen Ray discusses the effects of changes in communications technology for group formation, and Robert Wuthrow explores the effects of religious involvement on patterns of civic engagement. Skocpol examines change 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 the social movements of the 1960s. 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 Wendy Rahn, John Brehm, and Neil Carlson. They use survey data to examine how social capital may be generated through participation in a national election.

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

This book is recommended reading for scholars interested in the social capital controversy. It will stimulate further research on change over time in patterns of civic life and the consequences for social capital formation and civic engagement. Also, it illustrates the advantages of approaching research problems from a variety of theoretical perspectives.

M. Margaret Conway, University of Florida
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Conway, M. Margaret
Publication:American Political Science Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 2001
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