The Extensiveness of Group Membership and Social Capital: The Impact on Political Tolerance Attitudes

Article excerpt

This article examines the relationship between membership in voluntary associations and political tolerance attitudes. Though the extensive literature on social capital posits a relationship between group involvement and political tolerance, empirical scrutiny of this proposition has yet to emerge. Specifically, we hypothesize that group membership-its extensiveness across a variety of different associational sectors, and the type of group affiliation-should be associated with variation in political tolerance. The 1972-1994 cumulative files for the General Social Surveys and the 1990 Citizen Participation Survey provide the data to test our hypotheses. The primary findings indicate that there is a strong positive relationship between the extensiveness of group membership and political tolerance. Moreover, this association grows stronger with each additional membership. Finally after controlling for the extensiveness of group memberships, we find that membership in several specific types of groups affects political tolerance. Overall, results strongly support the social capital proposition linking group membership to political tolerance.

Compared to other western democratic nations, the United States is considered a nation of "joiners" (Almond and Verba 1963, Verba 1965), and the impact of citizen involvement in group life has long been acknowledged to be a crucial component underlying the success of American democracy (Tocqueville 1945). Citizens learning by experience in associational settings, both political and non-political, are said to acquire transferable skills, as well as behavior patterns and orientations, i.e., "habits of the heart" in Tocqueville's words, essential for a democratic polity

Research interest on questions of the impact of associational activity upon citizen orientations and the resulting political consequences has increased in recent years, sparked by the work of political scientist Robert Putnam (1993, 1995a, 1995b, 2000). Building upon the early work of James Coleman (1988), Putnam argues that there is a crucial connection between civic engagement and responsive democratic government. Civic engagement refers to people's associational connections to the life of their communities in the broadest possible sense, from participating in a bowling league or a church to becoming active in a political party or other political group. Experience in a wide array of such activities develops what Putnam (1995a: 65-66) calls social capital: "features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit." Putnam views with alarm the apparent trend in the decline of group involvement, the lost opportunities for social capital development as a consequence, and the resulting isolation of citizens from each other as well as from their government.

Putnam's observations concerning the decline of social capital have not gone unchallenged. Perhaps the most serious critique has focused upon the exact nature of the group basis of social capital development, where some have argued that Putnam fails to understand the character of participation and social networks in the modern world, especially the increasing irrelevance of formal organizations to people's lives and the rise of new forms of networking and civic participation (see for example, Ladd 2000; Skocpol 1999; Skocpol and Fiorina 2000). Some have even speculated that "perhaps . . . the picture of voluntary associations as the source of communitarian habits of the heart is too sweeping" (Damico et al. 2000: 397).

Empirical research bearing directly on such questions is surprisingly sparse. While there is an abundance of research linking group membership to increased levels of political participation such as voting (eg., Rosenstone and Hansen 1993), there are a few studies that explore the linkage of associational involvement and the development of the kinds of citizen orientations deemed essential for a democratic system (Verba, Schlozman, and Brady 1995; Brehm and Rahn 1997; Joslyn and Cigler 2001; Damico et al. …