Civic community and civic engagement. What are the essential conditions of successful democracies? What is the significance of civic community for the development of good institutions? We explore Robert D. Putnam’s path-breaking analysis of civil traditions in Italy.
contents: introduction · central themes in civic community · putting theory to the test – civic community in Italy · social capital · conclusion · further reading and references · links
[T]he most democratic country in the world now is that in which men have in our time carried to the highest perfection the art of pursuing in common the objects of common desires and have applied this new technique to the greatest number of purposes. Is that just an accident, or is there really some necessary connection between associations and equality…. Feelings and ideas are renewed, the heart enlarged, and the understanding developed only by the reciprocal action of men one upon another. Alexis de Tocqueville 1850 (pp 514-5 in the 1994 edition)
The place of virtue in politics – especially that of civic virtue – has long been a matter of debate. Liberty could only be preserved, according to Machiavelli, if leaders and citizens alike were prepared to ‘advance not his own interests but the common good, not his own posterity but the common fatherland’ (quoted by Skinner 1981: 63). Machiavelli understood humans to be ‘ambitious and suspicious’. He thought that most ‘would never do anything good except by necessity’. His problem, thus, was how could civic virtue be fostered among the body of people – and it was to this question that much his Discourse was spent. The means he identified were the law, institutions, education and religious systems. Machiavelli’s republicanism (along with that of a number of his contemporaries) became the subject of considerable critique by those stressing individualism (and individual rights) as against community (and obligation). However, such a stress on the individual carries with it great dangers, as de Tocqueville pointed out. People can become isolated from one another, and the conditions for freedom (and human well-being more generally) undermined.
In the last decades of the twentieth century in US debates especially there was a growing interest in republican themes. Perhaps the best known are the explorations of communitarianism by Etzioni (1995; 1997) and the crisis posed by individualism in American life by Bellah et al (1985; 1992). From another source, socio-biology, another key theme has emerged. While our minds may have been built by ‘selfish genes’, we have also come to understand that they have also ‘been built to be social, trustworthy and cooperative.’ As Ridley (1996: 249) put it, human beings, ‘come into the world equipped with predispositions to learn how to cooperate, to discriminate the trustworthy from the treacherous, to commit themselves to be trustworthy, to earn good reputations, to exchange goods and information, and to divide labour’. In other words, the roots of social order are in our heads (ibid.: 264).
One of the most compelling studies of civic virtue in politics in recent years has been by Robert D. Putnam and his colleagues in Making Democracy Work (1993: 83-120). Their initial concern was to explore the relationship of economic modernity and institutional performance. What they discovered in their investigation of civic traditions in modern Italy was a strong link between the performance of political institutions and the character of civic life – what they termed ‘the civic community’ (ibid: 15). We will focus on this account here as it provides one of the clearest introductions to what the essential conditions for successful democracy may be. It has also provided a set of themes that subsequent writers and commentators have needed to address.
Putnam 1993: 87-91) sets out four central themes in the writings of republican theorists with regard to civic community. (See also, the discussion of community elsewhere on these pages). These themes can be found most strongly in de Tocqueville’s much quoted account of American democracy.
Civic engagement. Citizenship in a civic community is characterized by active participation in public affairs. Being interested in public issues and prepared to be involved in debates and common activities are important signs of civic virtue. As Putnam (1993: 88, quoting Skinner 1984) puts it:
To be sure, not all political activity deserves the label “virtuous” or contribute to the commonweal. “A steady recognition and pursuit of the public good at the expense of all purely individual and private ends” seems close to the core of the meaning of civic virtue…. Citizens in a civic community, though not selfless saints, regard the public domain as more than a battleground for pursuing personal interest.
Political equality. Citizenship in the civic community entails equal rights and obligations for all. This is how Putnam (1993: 88) puts it:
Such a community is bound together by horizontal relations of reciprocity and cooperation, not by vertical relations of authority and dependency. Citizens interact as equals, not as patrons and clients nor as governors and petitioners… The more that politics approximates to the ideal of political equality among citizens following norms of reciprocity and engaged in self-government, the more civic that community may be said to be.
Solidarity, trust and tolerance. Virtuous citizens are ‘helpful, and trustful to one another, even when they differ on matters of substance’ (Putnam 1993: 88-89). This isn’t to say that a civic community is conflict-free, but we can expect such a community to be characterized by dialogue, respect for the other and a recognition that we are dependent on each other in various ways.
Associations: social structures of cooperation. Putnam (1993: 89) argues, after de Toqueville, that the norms and values of the civic community ‘are embodied in, and reinforced by, distinctive social structures and practices’. The classic form linked to civil community is the association. Participation in civic associations develops skills of cooperation, a sense of shared responsibility for collective endeavours and a means of engaging with broader political systems.
When some view is represented by an association, it must take clearer and more precise shape. It counts its supporters and it involves them in its cause; these supporters get to know one another, and numbers increase zeal. An association unites the energies of divergent minds and vigorously directs them toward a clearly indicated goal. (de Tocqueville 1850/1994: 190)
Thus, ‘a dense network of secondary associations, both embodies and contributes to effective social collaboration’ (Putnam 1993: 90). (See association elsewhere on these pages).
These themes can be found with different emphases and interpretations within many currently popular discussions of the nature of democracy e.g. Dahl 1998. They find a particular place in those discussions concerned with deliberative democracy (e.g. Gutmann and Thompson 1996) and discursive democracy (Dryzek 2000).
If all that Putnam and his associates did were to set out the above themes then their work would merit little more than a footnote. Their great contribution was to then take these themes and to connect them up with a range of data sources for different regions in Italy. They found that a clear line could be drawn between civic and ‘uncivic’ regions – and that ‘public affairs are more successfully ordered’ in the former (Putnam 1993: 113).
Exhibit 1: Civic community in Italy
At the other pole are the “uncivic” regions, aptly characterized by the French term incivisme.Public life in these regions is organized hierarchically, rather than horizontally. The very concept of “citizen” here is stunted. From the point of view of the individual inhabitant, public affairs is the business of somebody else—i notabili, “the bosses,” “the politicians”—but not me. Few people aspire to partake in deliberations about the commonweal, and few such opportunities present themselves. Political participation is triggered by personal dependency or private greed, not by collective purpose. Engagement in social and cultural associations is meager. Private piety stands in for public purpose. Corruption is widely regarded as the norm, even by politicians themselves, and they are cynical about democratic principles. “Compromise” has only negative overtones. Laws (almost everyone agrees) are made to be broken, but fearing others’ lawlessness, people demand sterner discipline. Trapped in these interlocking vicious circles, nearly everyone feels powerless, exploited, and unhappy. All things considered, it is hardly surprising that representative government here is less effective than in more civic communities.
Putnam 1993: 115
Another significant finding was that there was social and political strife in many of the more civic areas. At one level this flies in the face of our expectations. We might think that exchanges might be more harmonious in civic communities. However, further exploration might indicate why there can be conflict in civic communities. As Gutmann and Thompson (1996) have shown, moral conflict cannot be avoided in politics. The important questions concern whether there is an appropriate social and institutional framework in which these conflicts can be addressed.
Putnam then went on to explore some of the historic reasons for the development of civic society in some regions and not in others and the extent to which other possible explanations for the better performance of democratic institutions in some regions rather than others. He found that the evidence was unambiguous – by far the most significant factor in explaining good government was ‘the degree to which social and political life in a region approximates the ideal of civic community’ (1993: 120).
The final step that Putnam and his colleagues took was to link these to the notion of social capital (discussed elsewhere on these pages). They (1993: 167) argued that:
Voluntary cooperation is easier in a community that has inherited a substantial stock of social capital, in the form of norms of reciprocity and networks of civic engagement.
Social capital here refers to features of social organizations, such as trust, norms, and networks, that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated action.
Networks of civic engagement expressed through things like neighhourhood associations, cooperatives, sports clubs and mass-based political parties involve horizontal interaction. ‘The denser such networks in a community, the more likely that its citizens will be able to cooperate for their mutual benefit’ (Putnam 1993: 173). Why do they do this? The answer Putnam suggest makes use of game theory. Networks of civic engagement:
Increase the potential costs to the defector in any individual transaction. Opportunism puts at risk the benefits people expect to receive from all the other transactions in which they are involved.
Foster robust norms of reciprocity. Those who act in many different social contexts are likely to develop strong norms with regard to acceptable behaviour and to convey their expectations to others involved. These norms are reinforced by the network of relationships.
Facilitate communication and improve the flow of information about the trustworthiness of individuals. They allow reputations to develop and to be spread. All other things being equal, it is likely that the greater the communication among participants, the greater their mutual trust and the easier they will find it to cooperate.
Embody past success at collaboration that can serve as a culturally defined template for future collaboration. The continuity allows past informal solutions to be used in the present. (Putnam 1993: 173-4)
The use of game theory by Putnam underlines a point also made by de Tocqueville (and argued by biologists such as Ridley 1996) – self-interest remains the underlying basis for making decisions (Beem 1999: 86). The argument was then developed that not only did a reserve of social capital enhance the functioning of political institutions and social organizations – it also fostered economic growth. (A similar point is also argued by Dahl 1989 with regard to democracy). ‘Norms and networks of civic engagement contribute to economic prosperity and in turn are reinforced by that prosperity’ (Putnam 1993: 180).
Putnam went on, famously, to apply his analysis around civic community and social capital to what he saw was a decline in civic engagement in the United States (in Bowling Alone 1995; 2000). However, the account of civic community he offered in Making Democracy Work is ‘exceptionally important’ (Beem 1999: 85). His analysis provided a much needed restatement of republican themes (as such he can be regarded as neo-Tocquevillian) and underpinned these with strong empirical data.
Bibliography and further reading
Bellah, R. N., Madsen, R., Sullivan, W. M., Swidler, A. and Tipton, S. M. (1992) The Good Society New York: Vintage. 347 + viii pages. Exploration of the importance of institutions in (US) society. The book has a good introductory pieces on the way in which we live through institutions – and goes on to examine political economy: markets and work; government, law and politics; education: technical and moral; the public church; and America in the world. The concluding chapter ‘Democracy means paying attention’ sums up one of the dominant themes in the book. Follow-up to the very influential Habits of the Heart. Individualism and commitment in American life 2e, Berkeley: University of California Press (1985; 1996).
Dahl, R. A. (1989) Democracy and its Critics, New Haven: Yale University Press. 397 + viii pages. One of the most important explorations of the nature of democracy in the last part of the twentieth century. Examines the sources of modern democracy, critiques of it, and sets out a theory of democracy. Problems and limitations are also noted.
Dahl, R. A. (1998) On Democracy, New Haven: Yale University Press. 217 pages. Very helpful introduction to democratic theory with sections on ideal democracy, actual democracy, and favourable and unfavourable conditions.
Dryzek, J. S. (2000) Deliberative Democracy and Beyond. Liberals, critics, contestations, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 195 + vii pages. ‘A critical tour through recent democratic theory’. In particular Dryzek distinguishes between liberal constitutional deliberative democracy and discursive democracy (criticizing the former and advocating the latter).
Etzioni, A. (1995) The Spirit of Community. Rights responsibilities and the communitarian agenda, London: Fontana Press. 323 + xii pages. Influential US text that argues for the balancing of individualism with social responsibility. The section titles provide an insight into the line: shoring up morality; too many rights, too few responsibilities; the public interest.
Etzioni, A. (1997) The New Golden Rule. Community and morality in a democratic society, London: Profile Books. 314 + xxi pages. Interesting development of communitarian debates based around what Etzioni sees as the two cardinal founding principles and core virtues of the good society: social order (based on moral values) and autonomy (or “thick” liberty). The “golden rule” is where these are in equilibrium.
Gutmann, A. and Thompson, D. (1996) Democracy and Disagreement, Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press. 422 + viii pages. Exploration of ‘why moral conflict cannot be avoided in politics, and what should be done about it’. The writers examine how deliberative forms of democracy can address controversial questions in societies.
Putnam, R. D. (1993) Making Democracy Work. Civic traditions in modern Italy, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 258 + xv pages. Based on substantial empirical research, this book argues that the quality of civic life is central the cultivation of successful institutions in a democratic society. The book makes particular use of the notion of social capital.
Putnam, R. D. (2000) Bowling Alone. The collapse and revival of American community, New York: Simon and Schuster. 540 pages. Groundbreaking book that marshals evidence from an array of empirical and theoretical sources. Putnam argues there has been a decline in ‘social capital’ in the USA. He charts a drop in associational activity and a growing distance from neighbours, friends and family. Crucially he explores some of the possibilities that exist for rebuilding social capital. A modern classic.
Machiavelli, N. (1961) The Prince (tr. G. Bull), London: Penguin Books.
Machiavelli, N. (1983) The Discourses (ed. B. Crick), London: Penguin Books.
Skinner, Q. (1981) Machiavelli, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Skinner, Q. (1984) ‘The idea of negative liberty: Philosophical and historical perspectives’ in R. Rorty. et al (eds.) Philosophy in History, New York: Cambridge University Press.
de Tocqueville, A. (1994) Democracy in America, London: Fontana Press.
Wolin, S. S. (1960) Politics and Vision. Continuity and innovation in western political thought, London: George Allen and Unwin.
Acknowledgement: The picture of Alexis de Tocqueville is a photogravure from a steel engraving from 1899 edition of Democracy In America. [In the public domain as the copyright has expired – Wikipedia Commons].
© Mark K. Smith 2001.