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Social capital and factors affecting civic engagement as reported by leaders of voluntary associations.


In recent years, there have been substantial changes in levels and types of participation in voluntary associations. This paper reports findings from a series of in-depth interviews with the leaders of 32 state-wide voluntary associations in Texas. While the most influential studies of civic engagement and social capital have emphasized the role of culture and values, the data presented here indicate that economic variables are also of central importance. Work-related time constraints lead to decreased engagement. Developments such as forced voluntarism, the growing number of retirees, and corporate sponsored volunteering are changing the nature of civic engagement and some voluntary associations. There is evidence that younger volunteers are increasingly concerned with volunteering opportunities as means to pragmatic ends, such resume building.

1. Introduction

Recently, scholars (and pundits) have yoked the concept of "social capital" to studies and commentaries about civic participation. Some authors conceive social capital (or at least "trust") as logically prior to engagement (e.g., Etzioni, 1993; Fukuyama, 1995). Others see evidence for engagement promoting social capital (e.g., Brehm & Rahn, 1997; cognitive dissonance theorists). Still others (see Putnam, 1995a, 1995b) posit a reciprocally causal relationship. In any event, social capital and civic engagement are highly intercorrelated, and this fact makes theories of social capital more than just academic; virtually all students of democracy are agreed that for democracy to remain robust, citizens must maintain a reasonably high level of participation in society. In other words, social capital is commonly invoked as the key to investment in community and, ultimately, democracy.

Yet for a term so widely applied, there is considerable disagreement over what "social capital" is. Within the social science literature, the most commonly cited definition of social capital is Putnam's: features of social life such as networks, norms of reciprocity, and trust that facilitate co-operative action for mutual benefit (1995 a). However, not everyone is satisfied with this definition or the direction research on civic engagement has taken since Putnam's influential "Bowling Alone" thesis was published in 1995. One concern is the relative emphasis given to cultural versus structural variables.

In this context, cultural variables deal with norms, values, and beliefs. Structural variables deal with institutional arrangements and the relationships between individuals. So for instance, the way that work is organized, the way families are organized, and the way that voluntary associations are organized are all structural considerations. On the other hand, subjective notions about responsibility to community and investment in the ideals of democracy are cultural variables. In principle, structural and cultural variables can vary independently of one another. In the real world, of course, they rarely do.

Prior to "Bowling Alone," social capital was conceived primarily as a manifestation of social structure (Bourdieu, cited in Jacobs, 1961; Loury, 1987; Portes & Landolt, 1996). Thus, Coleman (1990) rendered social capital, "The set of social resources that inhere in family relations and in community social organization and that are useful for the cognitive or social development of a child or young person" (p. 300).

But in recent years, and in part spurred on by Putnam's somewhat more culturally-oriented analyses, definitions of social capital that emphasize cultural variables over structural ones have commanded more attention. Most newspaper op-ed writers, callers to radio talk shows, conservative social critics, and many academics frame social capital and levels of engagement in terms of cultural variables such as trust and normative commitment to participation. Consequently, structural considerations such as changes in work patterns are given short shrift. As a practical matter, this means that putative declines in levels of civic engagement in the United States are commonly attributed not to an interplay of cultural and economic variables, but mostly to cultural variables such as excessive individualism and a loss of civic-mindedness among Americans (see for instance, Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, & Tipton, 1985; Elshtain, 1995; Etzioni, 1996; Huntington, 1997; Putnam, 1995a, 1995b).

In brief, there are indications that current research into social capital and civic engagement underemphasizes the role of structural variables. The data reported below substantiate that claim.

2. Methods

Thirty-two leaders of state-wide (Texas) voluntary associations were interviewed in-depth. These were presidents, executive directors, or other appropriate administrators of associations representing tens of thousands of members and volunteers (see Table 1). Associations were selected to include some gaining members or volunteers in recent years, some losing membership, and some maintaining fairly constant membership. Additionally, an effort was made to include a variety of types of associations, including political, social, service, and religious associations.

These organizational elites were interviewed as informants, as individuals with unique insights into associational patterns because of their organizational placements. In fact, informants provided extremely rich information regarding trends in engagement. Many had years or decades of first hand experience with their own associations and others with which they had worked. Moreover, informants often had considerable general information concerning trends in the nonprofit sector at large, due to their extensive contacts with other associations and association leaders. Many of the informants in this study served on boards of directors of other voluntary associations. Other informants were leaders of umbrella organizations or consultants on voluntarism and thus had especially clear insights into the nature of social capital and civic engagement.

Informants were asked such questions as why their members said they were joining or dropping out, what factors they saw promoting or discouraging involvement, whether they saw any economic factors affecting their organizations, and whether they saw indications that people were feeling differently about getting involved in organizations.

3. Results

Informants noted that a great many members or volunteers in their associations claimed to be involved because they wanted to "give back" to their community or simply because they thought it was the "right thing to do." Members of political associations were especially likely to speak in terms of "civic duty." Religious and service associations were full of individuals interested in helping others. The commonness of such sentiments suggests that cultural variables are indeed highly relevant to social capital and levels of participation.

On the other hand, informants pointed out a number of structural variables that had profound effects on the nature and memberships of their associations, and which are mostly or entirely lacking from culturalist analyses.

4. The time crunch/women working outside the home

The single most commonly noted factor affecting levels of membership and participation in the associations considered in this study was the perception by members and volunteers that they have less time to give than in the past.

Numerous informants claimed that members or volunteers reduced the amount of time they gave to voluntary associations as a result of time pressures. For example, the senior vice president of a state-wide umbrella organization of nonprofit associations noted that volunteers in their thirties are particularly likely to volunteer less than in past years, often limiting their involvement to the one or two associations most relevant to their lives. Young parents, for instance, might be involved with the Parent Teacher Association, but not other organizations. A large part of the explanation for this rationing of energies, according to this informant, is the extra demand on working women's time.

The president of one service association addressed the issue of busier people being more selective with their time this way:

"To me, it's a sign of the times that we live in...families are more stressed in our society...It's getting harder and harder to be a volunteer, because you just simply don't have as much time. Where do you spend the few hours that you have when you are called on to do more for your family in less time, and perhaps you're staying longer at your job than you used to just to try to stay ahead."

The League of Women Voters in past years was composed mostly of women who did not work, and who could therefore organize baby sitting co-operatives. Several women could take turns minding each others children, thereby freeing up the others to donate considerable blocks of time to the League. When most women work, this arrangement becomes impractical, and a stay-at-home mother is obliged to hire a sitter. This becomes an expensive proposition, particularly if the mother is giving 15 hours a week to the League, which was not unusual in the past.

Virtually all of the informants observed that the time crunch is a significant constraint on members or volunteers. When the interviewer during a few of the interviews mentioned that some studies (see Robinson & Godbey, 1997) show that Americans actually have more leisure time than in the past, informants were incredulous, often rolling their eyes, and on two occasions becoming annoyed and making intimations about academics being detached from the real world.

Along these lines, one professional volunteering consultant noted that many of the voluntary associations which are growing today are precisely those offering targeted, discrete volunteer opportunities. Some associations organize episodic, "project of the month" type activities. For example, one association for single professionals sends out monthly mailings to members, who then choose projects that interest them and provide an opportunity to meet other like-minded singles. Another informant noted that professionals, in particular, are interested in a, "Concrete volunteer job with a beginning and an end, and when they leave they can turn around and look at it... they want that immediate gratification." Pragmatic considerations, such as the possibility of meeting a mate or learning a skill, are increasingly relevant, according to informants. While there is little overall evidence for the idea of an erosion of the culture of engagement, there are indications that pragmatic considerations are increasingly shapin g decisions about participation.

5. Forced volunteerism

Presumably even the most ardent culturalist would acknowledge that coerced participation has little to do with normative commitments and a great deal to do with institutional constraints. As it happens, mandatory service is increasingly common in contemporary American society. When asked about areas of growth in the voluntary sector, one expert on voluntarism immediately mentioned the dramatic rise of organizations that make use of individuals performing court-ordered community service. One director of a municipal volunteer center (who mailed in a questionnaire rather than being interviewed) noted as a reason for joining associations, "[Being] court-ordered--we have Teen Court, J.C.C., local judges and juvenile probation, adult probation, drug treatment center [referrals]."

Along these same lines, in some cases welfare recipients must volunteer time to associations to maintain their benefits. One informant discussed this trend as mutually beneficial for volunteers and associations. She noted that while there used to be middle class women to volunteer time during business hours,

"Nobody wants to work [as volunteers] during the daytime anymore, because everybody has a job. But our administrative needs have to be met during business hours. And so the way we're meeting those needs is going out to what we call an agency outreach program, working with people that are in AFDC or food stamp programs and are mandated to do community service. We take them in, they have no skills, we work with them and train them, and they improve and they go out... and get real jobs."

The trend in "mandatory voluntarism" in the schools is another form of coercion that brings people into voluntary associations. One informant who works with recent college graduates noted that high schools and colleges are requiring students to volunteer more in recent years, reasoning that such participation produces more well-rounded graduates with stronger resumes. Another informant who works with college students estimated that perhaps 10-15% of the students who came to his center looking for volunteering opportunities are motivated at least in part by the need to fulfil class service requirements.

6. The need to build resumes

Short of bald coercion, there are still strong institutional incentives for getting involved in voluntary associations, and these incentives have little to do with the intrinsic rewards of participation. A common perception is that the workplace is more competitive than in the past, and that individuals must work harder to differentiate themselves from other candidates for jobs. Thus, one informant familiar with the motivations of college students claimed that such pressures lead them to try new strategies to build networks and gain experience:

"Twenty years ago the motivation was, I'm a good person, I have to give back. And now it's, Oh my gosh, I've got to get a job when I graduate. If I have this extra skill that I've developed, I can market myself better."

The volunteer co-ordinator at an association that places recent college graduates in service positions noted: if the economy is good, chances are people will go straight out of college and into the job market, because there is the opportunity, whereas if the market is tough ... they'll try to pick up job experience by coming to us.

The director of organization at one political association noted that some of her volunteers are stay-at-home mothers who do not want their skills to atrophy while they are taking leaves from their jobs. Thus, a journalist does the organization newsletter, and a bookkeeper acts as their treasurer.

All of these practical considerations suggest that economic factors influence participation in voluntary associations. The corporations that employ many of the individuals represented in this study are also reacting to economic developments in ways that affect participation.

7. Corporate volunteering

Several informants noted patterns of corporate behavior that affect their associations. For instance, some companies organize volunteer projects for their employees. Several associations regularly use volunteers who come as a group from a particular company and work on a project together. One informant observed that company-organized volunteer projects are appealing to middle class professionals because they are so busy that they are happy to take advantage of a ready-made opportunity requiring no research or preparation. All employees have to do to volunteer in the community is show up at the right place Saturday morning. This informant observed, "It's just that their time is so valuable, and it's so precious, that they cannot afford to waste 45 minutes calling a volunteer agency ... Who works 40 hours a week anymore? Everybody works 50 or 60 hours a week."

There is a simultaneous trend whereby other companies are less inclined to give employees time off for volunteering. Informants had difficulty saying which tendency was stronger. For years, the United Way has enjoyed the skilled services of "loaned exec's" from private sector companies. In the loaned exec program, a company agrees to give an executive a paid leave of absence, during which time the executive acts as an ambassador and/or administrator for the United Way. However, as companies are downsizing, there is less "slack" in their management hierarchies, and they can less easily afford to loan executives out in this way. Some cities that used to have 150 loaned exec's now struggle to find 5 or 10.

Briefly put, civic engagement is in some cases promoted and in other cases discouraged by particular policies pursued by large corporations, cultural ideas about engagement notwithstanding. Changes in the demographics of working America are also impacting participation in voluntary associations.

8. Retirees

One rather dramatic ramification of changes in the modern economy for voluntary associations is the increasing number of retirees. Some of the losses of volunteers and members experienced as women have joined the work force have been offset by an increasing number of retired men and women who have time to donate. Obviously, the fact that Americans are living longer than in the past is significant. Additionally, some informants mentioned the increasing number of early retirees. For instance, an informant with a broad view of patterns state-wide noted that many individuals who accepted early retirement buy-outs in the economic restructurings of the 1980s were only in their fifties. These individuals have decades to live, and many are getting heavily involved in voluntary associations, sometimes approaching them as second careers. In some cases, influxes of such retirees may be offsetting losses of harried parents in their thirties, who are much less inclined to volunteer or join associations.

Taken together, data provided by informants corroborate the thesis that economic realities have pronounced effects on civic engagement. Those who donate the most time are often those with the most surplus time to donate, for instance. Such structural constraints operate fairly independently of cultural ideas about civic-mindedness.

9. Discussion

Construing social capital as a wholly cultural variable leads to misunderstandings about changes in the voluntary sector and about levels of participation. In some cases, choice of data leads to overemphasis of cultural variables. Putnam (1995a, 1995b) for instance bases much of his argument on General Social Survey data, that is, aggregated responses to surveys. There is simply no way for him to consider, say, salient changes in the structure of political parties in recent decades (see Valelly, 1996 on this point). Others appear to emphasize the cultural side of social capital and civic engagement because it is consistent with their worldview--a picture of society in decline as a result of excessive individualism.

However, the evidence presented here suggests a more complex reality. While informants spent considerable time describing the contemporary difficulties of recruitment and retention, the overall picture is of shifts in civic engagement more than losses, and of only moderate net losses at worst. It is in this context that informants, even as they lamented novel difficulties in maintaining volunteer bases and memberships, declined to corroborate the idea of a significantly less civic populous. In fact, some had read Putnam's "Bowling Alone" article, and while they typically agreed that one fundamental issue is personal commitment to the idea of voluntarism, they tended to disagree that their members and volunteers evince an erosion of social capital.

Structural constraints are often paramount. For instance, students required to volunteer a certain number of hours to voluntary association as part of their schooling may choose associations which facilitate that sort of quantification. A single mother on foodstamps required to volunteer time will do so with an association on the approved list, which may or may not be especially appealing to her. College students anxious to build eye-catching resumes may be inclined to join associations that suit that purpose most effectively. Employees of companies may find that their jobs discourage volunteerism outside of work, or that it encourages a particular kind.

In each of these cases, individuals bend to comparatively impersonal, pragmatic, structural considerations while their first inclinations, association-wise, may be subverted. Imagine, for instance, a worthy but time-consuming and loosely organized association, perhaps a group of concerned neighbors who spend many hours a week organizing against a business development they feel will damage their neighborhood. Such an association is not likely to show up on a list of approved options for maintaining welfare benefits. Its political nature and lack of institutionalization make it less appealing as a resume builder. A corporation is not likely to organize a Saturday outing to help such a parochial (and antibusiness) organization. People channeled to voluntary associations by government agencies, schools, and corporations are likely to be channeled toward well known, uncontroversial associations.

Yet small, informal, and even time-consuming associations continue to be part of the voluntary landscape. Their members, however, are increasingly likely to be individuals who feel they must limit their participation to just one or a few organizations (or individuals who have retired and have surplus time).

Given these findings, it seems that earlier conceptions of social capital that emphasized structural factors were on the right track. The data presented here suggest the civic engagement fluctuates mostly because opportunities and incentive structures fluctuate, not because notions about the intrinsic worth of participation do.

Table 1

Associations of informants in the study

Central Texas Red Cross

Dallas Red Cross

Junior League of Dallas

Texas PTA

Austin PTA

Republican Party of Texas

Democratic Party of Texas

Common Cause of Texas

ACLU of Texas

Texas League of Women Voters

Capital Area Boy Scouts

Lone Star Girl Scouts

Texas Audubon Society

Texas Sierra Club

United Way of Texas


UT University Volunteer Center

Texas Commission on Volunteerism and Community Service

Texas Lions Club

Texas Elks

Rotary Club of Austin

Austin Chamber of Commerce

American Family Association of Texas

Texas Freedom Network

Promise Keepers of Texas

Austin (Texas) Writer's League

TX/OK Habitat for Humanity

Texas State Employees Union

ARC of Texas

MADD of Texas

Texas Catholic Conference's VESS

Heart of Texas Mustang Club


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Putnam, R. D. (1995a). Bowling Alone: America's declining social capital. Journal of Democracy, 65-78.

Putnam, R. D. (1995b). Tuning in, tuning out: The strange disappearance of social capital in America. 1995 Ithiel de Sola Pool Lecture. Political Science and Politics, 664-683.

Robinson, J. P., & Godbey, G. (1997). Time for life: The surprising ways Americans use their time. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press.

Valelly, R. M. (1996). Couch-potato democracy. The American Prospect, 25, 25-26.

Bob Price is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Illinois Institute of Technology. His teaching and research interests include the relationships between elites and civil society and the relationships between rational and nonrational impulses in modern societies.

Bob Price *

* Tel.: + 1-312-567-5132.

E-mail address: (B. Price).
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Author:Price, Bob
Publication:The Social Science Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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