Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Trained for Democracy: The Differing Effects of Voluntary and Involuntary Organizations on Political Participation

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Trained for Democracy: The Differing Effects of Voluntary and Involuntary Organizations on Political Participation

Article excerpt

This article examines the relationship between activity in non-political organizations and political participation. In their 1995 book, Voice and Equality, Verba, Schlozman, and Brady claim that, for a variety of reasons, activity in these non-political organizations has a positive effect on an individual's level of political participation. However, using empirical evidence, this study calls some of these findings into question by demonstrating that there are fundamental differences in the effects of workplace activity and similar activities undertaken in other non-political groups. Specifically the results indicate that activity in more voluntary groups has the greatest effect on political participation, especially time-based and volunteer oriented activities. In several instances the effects of activity in these non-political organizations rival those of the classic SES variables.

In democratic countries knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge; on its progress depends that of all others.

Alexis de Tocqueville, 1969: 517

As this quote demonstrates, the recognition of the power of associations is not something new Indeed, a belief in the beneficial effects of individual level involvement in organizations is a common theme found in the works and ideas of numerous political theorists (Bachrach 1967; Barber 1984; Blumberg 1968; Cole 1919; Dahl 1970, 1985; Pateman 1970; Mason 1982). However, until recently such ideas have remained just that, political theory. Only lately has empirical research begun to delve into some of the more intriguing aspects of the posited effects of involvement in associations. Paramount among these is the purported connection between citizen involvement in associations and the citizenry's level of political participation. To varying degrees, supporters of such a connection contend that activity in non-political organizations has a positive effect on the future political participation of citizens (Baumgartner and Walker 1988; Strate et al. 1989; Putnam 1995a, b).1

Most recently research into the relation between people's involvement in associations or non-political organizations (hereafter NPOs) and their level of political participation has centered around the notion of "civic skills."2 These are participatory or "democratic" type activities which NPOs give their members the opportunity to perform, and which are supposed to increase the likelihood of these same members participating in the political process. Examples include activities such as giving a speech/presentation in connection to the group, or participating in a decision-making meeting. The reasoning behind the belief in the connection of these skills to political participation is two-fold. First, it is thought that such skills are directly transferable to many forms of political participation, and therefore offer a type of democratic training. Citizens learn some of the actual mechanics and skills necessary to participate in the political system. Additionally, it is felt that the practice of such skills might serve to demonstrate to their practitioners the effectiveness and importance of participation in general, offering a type of educative process.

Several groups of NPOs have been identified where these skills are purported to take place: the family workplace, fraternal organizations, etc. In their 1995 book, Voice and Equality, Verba, Schlozman, and Brady use data from the 1990 Citizen Participation Study to determine that the performance of civic skill-- acts in the workplace, church related groups, and other voluntary NPOs is positively related to political participation. However, they go further and make the claim that the skills exercised in all three groups are equatable.

This article takes issue with such assertions. While there is evidence which suggests that the practice of civic skills in certain organizations is related to a citizen's participation in the political process (Verba, Schlozman, and Brady 1995; Brady Verba, and Schlozman 1995; Almond and Verba 1965), there is a rather important distinction between types of NPOs which has not been recognized. …

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