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Inaccurate, Exceptional, One-Sided or Irrelevant? The Debate About the Alleged Decline of Social Capital and Civic Engagement in Western Societies

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In his 1790 address to the Académie Française in Paris, Condorcet noted that every new generation has a tendency to accuse itself of being less civic-minded than previous cohorts. Two centuries later, this argument has once again regained front-page status. The debate is currently focused on the question of whether or not social capital and civic engagement are declining in Western societies. In his academic best-seller Bowling Alone , Robert Putnam argues that younger age cohorts, socialized in the prosperous economic conditions of the 1960s and onwards, are less inclined to engage in community life and in politics, and also less likely to trust their fellow citizens. By contrast, the ‘long civic generation’, born roughly between 1910 and 1940, is portrayed as much more motivated in these respects. They readily volunteer in community projects, read newspapers and take on more social responsibilities. In this view, a process of generational replacement is responsible for a steady decline of social capital and civic engagement in American society. As the long civic generation is replaced by younger age cohorts, the social capital stock of American communities slowly diminishes. The indicators used to substantiate this claim are numerous and diverse: measures for voter turnout, attendance of club meetings, generalized trust, the number of common family dinners, the number of card games played together, and even respect for traffic rules. All of these attitudes and behaviours, it is argued, depict a significant downward trend. Although Putnam is by far the most vocal of all scholars in the ‘decline of social capital’ choir, he certainly is not the only author describing an erosion of traditional societal relations.
B.J.Pol.S. 35, 149–167 Copyright ©2004 Cambridge University Press
DOI: 10.1017/S0007123405000074 Printed in the United Kingdom
Review Article: Inaccurate, Exceptional, One-Sided
or Irrelevant? The Debate about the Alleged Decline
of Social Capital and Civic Engagement in Western
Societies
DIETLIND STOLLE AND MARC HOOGHE*
In his 1790 address to the Acade´mie Franc¸aise in Paris, Condorcet noted that every new
generation has a tendency to accuse itself of being less civic-minded than previous
cohorts.
1
Two centuries later, this argument has once again regained front-page status. The
debate is currently focused on the question of whether or not social capital and civic
engagement are declining in Western societies. In his academic best-seller Bowling Alone,
Robert Putnam argues that younger age cohorts, socialized in the prosperous economic
conditions of the 1960s and onwards, are less inclined to engage in community life and
in politics, and also less likely to trust their fellow citizens.
2
By contrast, the ‘long civic
generation’, born roughly between 1910 and 1940, is portrayed as much more motivated
in these respects. They readily volunteer in community projects, read newspapers and take
on more social responsibilities.
3
In this view, a process of generational replacement is
responsible for a steady decline of social capital and civic engagement in American society.
As the long civic generation is replaced by younger age cohorts, the social capital stock
of American communities slowly diminishes. The indicators used to substantiate this claim
are numerous and diverse: measures for voter turnout, attendance of club meetings,
generalized trust, the number of common family dinners, the number of card games played
together, and even respect for traffic rules. All of these attitudes and behaviours, it is
argued, depict a significant downward trend.
Although Putnam is by far the most vocal of all scholars in the ‘decline of social capital’
choir, he certainly is not the only author describing an erosion of traditional societal
relations. Almost two decades ago, Robert Bellah and his team warned that more
individualistic motivations are threatening the traditional social bonds in American
society.
4
Robert Lane, among others, finds that this decline in social cohesion is not just
a phenomenon of American society, but can be seen as a manifestation of a general process
of disenchantment in Western societies: ‘The haunting spirit is manifold: … increasing
distrust of each other and of political and other institutions, declining belief that the lot
*Department of Political Science, McGill University; and Department of Political Science, Catholic University
Leuven, respectively. Both authors contributed equally to this article. They wish to thank the members of the ECPR
1st General Conference panel on ‘Social Capital in Comparative Perspective’ in Canterbury, as well as Henry
Milner, Eric Uslaner, Matthew Wright and the anonymous reviewers for their useful comments and suggestions
to a previous version of this article.
1Elisabeth Badinter and Robert Badinter, Condorcet, 1743–1794 (Paris: Fayard, 1989).
2Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and
Schuster, 2000).
3Putnam, Bowling Alone, pp. 247ff.
4Robert Bellah et al.,Habits of the Heart (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).
150 STOLLE AND HOOGHE
of the average man is getting better, a tragic erosion of family solidarity and community
integration …’
5
These arguments have encountered fierce academic opposition. The Bowling Alone
thesis has been variously characterized as plainly wrong, pessimistic or traditional. A
number of authors have claimed that Putnam idolizes the vanished hierarchical world of
the 1950s, in which most women were home-makers and therefore had more time on their
hands to engage in various civic duties. Others depict the decline thesis as pure nostalgia,
a manifestation of the longing for a civic and engaged era that has clearly ended. Putnam’s
sweeping statements have stirred re-interpretations of the available evidence on civic
participation and social cohesion, in addition to a multiplicity of new research efforts. As
with many hotly debated phenomena in political science, these have come in multiple or
even contradictory versions.
While some social scientists have claimed that the numbers do not show the erosion of
social capital,
6
others portray the decline of civic engagement as another manifestation of
American exceptionalism. Still other authors have taken the argument a step further; while
they accept the claim that traditional forms of cohesion and participation are losing ground,
they emphasize that newer forms of participation and interaction, all too easily dismissed
in the work of Putnam and others, can replace traditional forms. Yet another body of
researchers largely accepts the evidence substantiating the decline thesis, but they do not,
unlike Putnam, perceive this as being a threat to the viability of democratic political
systems. Conversely, they argue that processes of postmodernization have produced a
cohort of critical citizens who embrace democratic values, such as autonomy,
self-expression and support for democracy.
7
These disparate empirical and normative assaults against the decline thesis have
engendered a kind of trench warfare, with fiercely opposing sides bogged down in the mud
of an antagonistic duel about the vitality of democratic political culture in Western
societies. Thus far, most of these challenges have been lumped together, and have been
treated as interchangeable arguments in a comprehensive conflict between modernists and
postmodernists. The ‘modernists’ are accused of remaining hooked on the traditional forms
of sociability and political behaviour characteristic of the 1950s and 1960s, while the
‘postmodernists’ are more sanguine about the opportunities and possibilities being created
by current trends in political behaviour. While the ‘modernists’ seem to perceive the rise
of a new generation of ‘critical citizens’ as a threat to democratic stability, the
‘postmodernists’ see them as an indication of the maturity of our political systems.
It would be a mistake, however, to reduce this debate to a binary distinction between
‘good’ and ‘bad’. In this review article, we discern and critique four different arguments
formulated against the Bowling Alone thesis. This differentiation allows us to build a solid
research agenda, aimed at addressing each of the disputed questions. In developing this
programme, our aim is to move the discussion away from the current situation of
antagonistic and sterile trench warfare.
The ground covered in this debate is both extremely broad and vaguely bounded, in that
it runs the gamut of participatory and behavioural indicators. For example, we often find
5Robert Lane, The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press,
2000).
6Everett C. Ladd, ‘The Data Just Don’t Show Erosion of America’s “Social Capital”’, The Public Perspective
(June 1996), 5–22.
7Ronald Inglehart, Modernization and Postmodernization (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997).
Review Article: The Alleged Decline of Social Capital in Western Societies 151
that indicators of social interaction, networks, trust between citizens, civic engagement and
sometimes even political participation are thrown into the debate together. Such a
kitchen-sink approach to the social capital concept has been criticized by adherents of the
more stringent network perspective,
8
as well as by others who had hoped that Putnam’s
original contribution
9
would help to distinguish important aspects of political culture.
10
We
will not go into that discussion here, and, in order to give a comprehensive review of the
debate, we will follow the usage of most contemporary social capital studies that take the
inclusive approach.
11
In the remainder of this article, we first give an overview of the decline thesis, followed
by a review of the four different types of arguments and evidence formulated against it.
In the final section, we show the limits of these critiques and build a research agenda aimed
at testing the grounds more thoroughly for each one of these positions.
WORRIES ABOUT SOCIAL CAPITAL AND PARTICIPATION
Concerns about the erosion of traditional social ties and institutions have always been a
centre of attention in the social sciences. As early as the nineteenth century, authors like
To¨nnies, Durkheim and Weber wondered how social order and cohesion could be
maintained given the political and economic modernization of Western societies. Since the
1980s, philosophical debates between liberals and communitarians seem to have fostered
a revived interest in the maintenance of social cohesion among political and social
scientists. If vibrant communities are indeed essential for individual and collective
development and well-being, as communitarian theory proclaims,
12
it becomes all the more
crucial to know whether such communities are still thriving in Western societies. In
response to this communitarian agenda, researchers have increasingly turned their
attention towards the study of various aspects of social cohesion, social interaction and the
vitality of democracy.
One of the first and most seminal books in this respect was Habits of the Heart, which
demonstrated how the rise of a new, more utilitarian kind of individualism has the tendency
to destroy traditional forms of interaction in the United States based on co-operation and
close-knit social ties within small communities. These old ‘habits of the heart’, Bellah and
his associates argue, are rapidly being replaced by more fluid and sporadic ways of
socializing based on self-interest and individual preferences.
13
8Nan Lin, Social Capital: A Theory of Social Structure and Action (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
2001).
9Robert Putnam, Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton
University Press, 1993).
10 David Laitin, ‘Political Culture at 30’, American Political Science Review, 89 (1995), 168–73.
11 In this article, do not wish to focus directly on acts of political participation: we only include items such as
voter turnout and party membership if they have been used as an argument in the social capital and civic
engagement debate. It is not the aim of this review article to offer a review of the burgeoning literature on party
change, voter turnout and party membership. On these topics, we can refer to recent work by Peter Mair (Party
System Change (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997)), Martin Wattenberg (Where Have All the Voters Gone?
(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002)) and Mark Franklin (The Dynamics of Voter Turnout in
Established Democracies Since 1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)).
12 Amitai Etzioni, The Spirit of Community (New York: Crown, 1993); Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self
(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989); Michael Walzer, ‘The Communitarian Critique of
Liberalism’, Political Theory, 18 (1990), 6–23.
13 Bellah et al.,Habits of the Heart.
152 STOLLE AND HOOGHE
The most systematic account of the potential erosion of social and civic life, however,
can be found in the work of Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam.
14
According to
Putnam, the loss of confidence and degradation of social ties has pervaded all aspects of
society. Not only do Americans participate less actively in all kinds of voluntary
associations, but they also refrain from typical political involvement, such as membership
in political parties. Drawing on commercial life-style surveys, Putnam finds a negative
trend even with regard to various forms of social interactions involving face-to-face contact
beyond formally organized engagements; indeed, even the frequencies of traditional
common meals at the family dinner table, visits to friends and neighbours, card games with
friends, and social dinners at restaurants have all been the victims of this trend.
Putnam argues that this loss of civic engagement and social interaction is not only
troublesome with regard to social cohesion, but also in terms of its political consequences.
15
Since Almond and Verba, it has been generally assumed that a thriving civic culture
contributes to the stability of democratic political systems.
16
In an earlier publication on
civic culture in Italy, Putnam demonstrated that regions depicting the highest density of
voluntary associations also tend to be those whose regional governments and institutions
perform most strongly; the argument is essentially that institutional performance should
be seen as a consequence of regional civic engagement among the population.
17
Therefore,
Putnam’s conclusion that engagement is declining in the United States implies that this
downward trend could threaten the long-term stability of American democracy. The
underlying message is quite clear: the loss of community in American society will
eventually destabilize democratic civic culture, which in turn will have negative
consequences for the performance of American political institutions and the viability of
democracy itself.
In the Putnam volumes, a great deal of attention is devoted to the study of voluntary
associations, and indeed the level of associational membership has become a standard
litmus test for the health of a society’s social capital.
18
Authors inspired by the
communitarian philosophy consider them important for two main reasons.
19
First, their
socialization function implies that they train the members’ into a more civically-oriented
mindset, which in turn leaves them better disposed towards co-operation, trust and
reciprocity. The available evidence on the occurrence of this effect, however, is at best
14 Robert Putnam, ‘Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital’, Journal of Democracy, 6 (1995),
65–78; Putnam, Bowling Alone; Robert Putnam, ed., Democracies in Flux: The Evolution of Social Capital in
Contemporary Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002); Susan Pharr and Robert Putnam, eds, Disaffected
Democracies (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000); Robert Putnam and Lewis Feldstein, Better
Together: Restoring the American Community (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003).
15 Putnam, Bowling Alone.
16 Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba, The Civic Culture (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1963);
Lawrence Harrison and Samuel Huntington, eds, Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress (New
York: Basic Books, 2000).
17 Putnam, Making Democracy Work.
18 It should be noted that Putnam and Goss have recently qualified this claim: ‘Early research on social capital
concentrated on formal associations for reasons of methodological convenience so it is worth emphasising here
that associations constitute merely one form of social capital’ (Robert Putnam and Kristin Goss, ‘Introduction’,
in Putnam, ed., Democracies in Flux, pp. 3–19, at p. 10). Since 1993, however, quite some research has been
focused on voluntary associations, drawing its inspiration directly from Making Democracy Work.
19 Mark Warren, Democracy and Association (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001).
Review Article: The Alleged Decline of Social Capital in Western Societies 153
rather mixed.
20
Secondly, associations matter because of the external link they provide
between citizens and the state – they offer vital (if, for the most part, indirect) access for
citizens wanting to influence state and governmental affairs. Intermediary organizations
aggregate individual interests, and thus contribute to processes of complexity-reduction
and gate-keeping that are necessary for a political system to function effectively. A decline
in associational life implies, therefore, that both of these functions are being threatened.
Especially with regard to the political domain, an impressive array of empirical evidence
has been marshalled to substantiate the claims about the decline of institutional trust and
civic engagement. Since the 1960s Americans have been losing trust in their government
and in government institutions, a trend that has been documented for most liberal
democracies.
21
In addition, various conventional forms of political participation have lost
much of their appeal. Political parties have traditionally served as a connection mechanism
between citizens and the political system, but in a number of countries the party system
is confronted with a rapid decline of party identification. Not only are membership figures
dwindling,
22
especially among young people,
23
but in addition citizens seem to rely less
on ideological clues provided by political parties to establish their own political and world
views; as a consequence, voter volatility is on the rise.
24
Partly as a result of diminishing
trust in government and the weakening of party identification, voter turnout has also
followed a downward spiral. This phenomenon is not limited to the United States, but has
indeed been shown to be prevalent in other Western societies.
25
In sum, studies supporting the decline thesis not only describe and document the erosion
of traditional integration mechanisms; they also interpret this evolution as a fundamental
threat to the survival of healthy communities and democratic political systems. As stated
at the outset, this kind of literature has been met with fierce opposition, the different facets
of which will be revisited and examined in the remainder of this review article.
20 Dietlind Stolle, ‘Getting to Trust: An Analysis of the Importance of Institutions, Families, Personal
Experiences and Group Membership’, in Paul Dekker and Eric Uslaner, eds, Politics in Everyday Life: Social
Capital and Participation (London: Routledge, 2001), pp. 118–33; Eric Uslaner, The Moral Foundations of Trust
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Marc Hooghe and Dietlind Stolle, eds, Generating Social
Capital: Civil Society and Institutions in Comparative Perspective (New York: Palgrave, 2003).
21 Seymour M. Lipset and William Schneider, The Confidence Gap (New York: Free Press, 1983); Joseph Nye,
Philip Zelikow and David King, eds, Why People Don’t Trust Government (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University
Press, 1997); M. Kent Jennings, ‘Political Trust and the Roots of Devolution’, in Valerie Braithwaite and Margaret
Levi, eds, Trust and Governance (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1998), pp. 218–44; Pharr and Putnam,
eds., Disaffected Democracies.
22 Peter Mair and Ingrid van Biezen, ‘Party Membership in Twenty European Democracies, 1980–2000’, Party
Politics, 7 (2001), 5–22.
23 Marc Hooghe, Dietlind Stolle and Patrick Stouthuysen, ‘Head Start in Politics: The Recruitment Function
of Youth Organizations of Political Parties in Belgium (Flanders)’, Party Politics, 10 (2004), 193–212.
24 Martin Wattenberg, The Decline of American Political Parties (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press,
1996); Hermann Schmitt and So¨ ren Holmberg, ‘Political Parties in Decline?’ in Hans-Dieter Klingemann and
Dieter Fuchs, eds, Citizens and the State (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 95–133; Russell Dalton
and Martin Wattenberg, eds, Parties without Partisans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).
25 Norman Nie, Sidney Verba and John Petrocik, The Changing American Voter (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press, 1979); Ruy Teixeira, The Disappearing American Voter (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings
Institution, 1992); Robert Jackman and Ross Miller, ‘Voter Turnout in the Industrial Democracies during the
1980s’, Comparative Political Studies, 27 (1995), 467–92; Arend Lijphart, ‘Unequal Participation: Democracy’s
Unresolved Dilemma’, American Political Science Review, 91 (1997), 1–14; Putnam, ed., Democracies in Flux.
154 STOLLE AND HOOGHE
TRENCH-WARFARE REVISITED
Four distinct modes of criticism have emerged to counter the decline thesis. First, one group
of authors rejects it on empirical grounds. Their claim is that authors supporting the
Bowling Alone thesis did not get their numbers right and therefore do not offer an adequate
description of real trends in contemporary American society.
26
Proposing a careful
reconsideration of time-series data for the United States, these critics argue that there are
no grounds for pessimistic concern about participation levels and social cohesion.
A second group of critics accepts the decline thesis with the reservation that it is merely
another example of American exceptionalism. They claim that in other Western societies,
social capital and civic engagement are not declining to the same extent as in the United
States.
27
This particular criticism calls for wide-ranging comparative research on
meaningful indicators of social capital and civic engagement.
The third critique accepts that traditional social and civic participation have declined,
but accuses the decline thesis of conceptual one-sidedness, in that it fails to pay attention
to the simultaneous rise of new forms of participation and interaction that fulfil the same
functions with regard to socialization and interest mediation.
28
This view is echoed by
feminist scholars who argue that the participation indicators being used in most of the
research focus too exclusively on formal participation acts, thus neglecting more informal
forms of connectedness and participation that are traditionally preferred by women.
29
This
kind of criticism entails a fundamental challenge for survey and other quantitative research,
as new instruments will have to be developed to capture these informal and network-based
interactions before their social importance and prevalence can be effectively assessed.
Finally, a fourth group of authors accepts the decline thesis, but disputes its normative
consequences. The decline of traditional participation formats is seen as largely irrelevant
for the future of democratic systems. The radical version of this argument avers that
democracies can prosper even in the absence of conventional widespread mass
participation, as highly educated postmaterialist citizens have other means at their disposal
to get their voices heard in political decision making.
30
This thesis calls for a different test
altogether: in the absence of mass-based interest mediation organizations, how can we
ensure that governments and political systems are accessible to citizen influence?
The disentangling of these distinct counterarguments to the Bowling Alone thesis is
absolutely essential if we are to arrive at scientifically-tested findings about the
26 Michael Schudson, ‘What if Civic Life Didn’t Die?’ The American Prospect (March, 1996), 17–28; Everett
C. Ladd, The Ladd Report (New York: The Free Press, 1999); Pamela Paxton, ‘Is Social Capital Declining in the
United States?’ American Journal of Sociology, 105 (1999), 88–127; Robert Wuthnow, ‘The United States:
Bridging the Privileged and the Marginalized?’ in Putnam, ed., Democracies in Flux, pp. 59–101.
27 Peter Hall, ‘Social Capital in Britain’, British Journal of Political Science, 29 (1999), 417–61; Nonna Mayer,
‘Democracy in France: Do Associations Matter?’ in Hooghe and Stolle, eds, Generating Social Capital, pp. 43–66;
Pippa Norris, Democratic Phoenix: Reinventing Political Activism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
2002); Oscar Gabriel et al.,Sozialkapital und Demokratie (Vienna: Universita¨ tsverlag, 2002); Lars Torpe, ‘Social
Capital in Denmark: A Deviant Case?’ Scandinavian Political Studies, 26 (2003), 27–48.
28 Ulrich Beck, The Reinvention of Politics (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1997); Paul Lichterman, The Search
for Political Community (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); Manuel Castells, The Rise of the
Network Society (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997); Nina Eliasoph, Avoiding Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1998).
29 Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris, Rising Tide: Gender Equality and Cultural Change around the World
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
30 Inglehart, Modernization and Postmodernization; Ronald Inglehart and Wayne Baker, ‘Modernization,
Cultural Change, and the Persistence of Traditional Values’, American Sociological Review, 65 (2000), 19–51.
Review Article: The Alleged Decline of Social Capital in Western Societies 155
actual evolution of social capital and civic engagement in the United States and other
democratic societies. We examine each of the arguments and their evidence in turn.
‘THE NUMBERS DON’T MATCH …’
The first argument against communitarian pessimism is largely empirical: it is stated that
the available data simply do not support the conclusion that engagement and cohesion are
on the decline in the United States. A number of authors question the validity of the data
used by Putnam and other authors, in addition to their method of analysis.
31
Building upon
a careful analysis of the General Social Survey for the period 1975–94, both Paxton and
Wuthnow argue that not all social capital and civic engagement indicators seem to be
declining simultaneously. Their conclusion is that generalized trust has been eroding
significantly throughout this period, but the same declivity cannot be observed with respect
to associational membership, or even trust in institutions. While in 1975 respondents in
the General Social Survey reported on average 1.77 group memberships, this was still 1.61
in the 1994 Survey, and the trend line does not show any obvious or significant decline.
32
Even the reports of declines in voter turnout, generally considered to be one of the best
documented downward trends,
33
have come under attack. McDonald and Popkin argue that
the apparent decline in turnout figures can be mainly attributed to the way this percentage
is routinely calculated. The US Bureau of the Census calculates turnout by comparing the
number of cast votes with the total number of residents in the voting age population.
However, this figure also includes those who are ineligible to vote, such as non-citizens,
felons and the mentally incompetent, and it fails to include US citizens living abroad. For
example, the percentage of non-citizens among the voting-age population has risen steadily
from 2 per cent in 1966 to 8 per cent in 2000. In other words, the ineligible population
has been growing faster than the eligible population, ‘which gives rise to the perception
that voter participation is declining’
34
even when this is not the case.
One oft-mentioned criticism of Putnam’s empirical analyses is that they are founded on
the assumption that rising education levels will lead to an increase in participation. In
Bowling Alone, Putnam repeatedly expresses his surprise about the fact that baby boomers,
despite their higher average education level, are not more knowledgeable about politics
or more active in civic life.
35
Clearly, the supposition is that a rise in education will be
associated with a boost in participation levels. Some authors, however, have argued that
this expectation is not warranted. While it might be true that at the individual level
education is strongly associated with participation and political interest, we cannot assume
that the same relation holds at the aggregate level. Nie, Junn and Stehlik-Barry argue that
education is not just instrumental in stimulating cognitive skills and what they call
‘democratic enlightenment’:
For political engagement, formal education works as a sorting mechanism, assigning ranks on
the basis of the citizen’s relative educational attainment. Relative education is not the absolute
31 Schudson, ‘What if Civic Life Didn’t Die?’; Ladd, The Ladd Report; Paxton, ‘Is Social Capital Declining
in the United States?’; Michael McDonald and Samuel Popkin, ‘The Myth of the Vanishing Voter’, American
Political Science Review, 95 (2001), 963–74; Wuthnow, ‘The United States’.
32 Ladd, The Ladd Report.
33 Teixeira, The Disappearing American Voter.
34 McDonald and Popkin, ‘The Myth of the Vanishing Voter,’ p. 963.
35 Putnam, Bowling Alone. pp. 35, 254, 257.
156 STOLLE AND HOOGHE
number of years attained but the amount of education attained compared to those against whom
the citizen competes … Aggregate levels of education can change, but the number and rank
of seats in the political theatre are fixed, suggesting some type of sorting model rather than
a simple additive model …
36
Their analysis of the General Social Survey 1972–94 dataset shows that while education
does indeed have a positive impact on civic engagement at the individual level, in aggregate
terms the rise in the average education level wipes out this effect. Incorporating this insight
is important, because even stable trends will be a cause of disappointment if we expect
participation levels to rise as a result of the education boom.
37
These kinds of empirical criticisms obviously call for a careful re-examination and
re-interpretation of American time-series data. However, an important issue in such an
analysis is that fewer and fewer citizens agree to participate in national or cross-national
surveys.
38
In the US National Elections Studies (NES), for example, the response rate
declined from 80 per cent in the 1960s to about 60 per cent in the year 2000,
39
which by
itself might serve as an indication for a civic decline. Most importantly, declining response
rates seriously threaten the validity of time-series data and analysis. As far as the decline
thesis is concerned, lower response rates will most likely lead to an overestimation of
participation in the most recent surveys, as civic engagement in the real world and
co-operation in participating in a survey are strongly related. Therefore, one can assume
that in contemporary surveys participation is overestimated more strongly than in surveys
of a previous era, and this can be used as an argument to strengthen the decline thesis. In
short, the issue of declining responses in surveys has to be integrated into a statistical
re-evaluation of social capital and civic engagement time-series trends.
At the same time, the finding that not all social capital indicators seem to be diminishing
in the same way raises a theoretical problem. All too often it is assumed that social capital
functions as a stable conglomerate of behaviours (participation, engagement, civic ties,
sociability, etc.) and attitudes (generalized trust, adherence to democratic norms, tolerance,
norms of reciprocity, etc.). This assumption leads to the expectation that all social capital
indicators evolve simultaneously and in the same manner; if participation declines,
so will generalised trust, and vice versa. Clearly, this is not the case, as for some indicators
the evidence showing decline is much more solid than for others.
40
For example, it seems
widely accepted that political trust is declining in the United States, although opinions
differ on the possible causes of this phenomenon.
41
For other social capital and civic
engagement indicators, however, there are far fewer signs of a downward trend. This
36 Norman Nie, Jane Junn and Keith Stehlik-Barry, Education and Democratic Citizenship in America
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), pp. 6, 100.
37 This argument, too, however, only leads to new questions. While it might be true that there is a ‘natural limit’
to the number of leading jobs within associational life, the same does not hold for the rank-and-file members. While
the number of school board directors in a community might be limited, the number of bowling leagues in principle
can grow idefinitely. So while a rise in aggregate education levels will not necessarily boost all forms of
participation, it should have a positive effect on at least some of them.
38 Wim De Heer, ‘International Response Trends: Results of an International Survey’, Journal of Official
Statistics, 15 (1999), 129–42.
39 NES (2003). http://www.umich.edu/ nes/studyres/datainfo/dataqual.htm
40 Paxton, ‘Is Social Capital Declining in the United States?’ p. 121; Norris, Democratic Phoenix; Mayer,
‘Democracy in France: Do Associations Matter?’
41 Nye, Zelikow and King, eds, Why People Don’t Trust Government; Valerie Braithwaite and Margaret Levi,
eds, Trust and Governance (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1998).
Review Article: The Alleged Decline of Social Capital in Western Societies 157
observation implies that the composition of the social capital complex is not invariant;
some components might in fact be declining more rapidly than others.
42
This suggests that
the various measurements used for social capital, such as civic attitudes and behaviours
of various sorts, are not necessarily depicting one social capital syndrome. Social capital,
in other words, does not come in a one-size-fits-all format.
43
Ultimately then, this critique
challenges the theoretical formulation of the social capital concept. Even if we stick to a
comprehensive definition, one that includes various aspects of social interactions, civic
attitudes and engagement, it seems plausible to admit that all these components do not
necessarily form a syndrome.
44
Strong variations in its numerous aspects are possible
across time and across societies.
AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM?
A second critique invoked against the Bowling Alone thesis is that an erosion of civic life
may indeed be taking place in the United States, but that this phenomenon should be seen
as another manifestation of American exceptionalism. The same trend cannot, the
argument goes, be observed in other Western societies. At least for the moment, we do
not have any conclusive evidence that participation levels in general are indeed declining
in Western Europe as well as the United States.
45
Only for some specific and rather
traditional forms of participation has a general declining trend been documented. In Europe
too, for example, political parties and trade unions have lost members in recent decades.
46
With the notable exception of the Scandinavian countries, voter turnout also shows a
downward trend in most industrialized countries.
47
It should be remembered, however, that
this decline has largely been a departure from the all-time high that was recorded in the
1950s and the 1960s;
48
even so, the trend is significantly downward. Most blatant, perhaps,
is the strong evidence for systematic decline of political trust in most European countries,
with notable exceptions in Germany and the Netherlands.
49
While in the mid-1990s
scholars still expressed doubts about a general decline of political trust,
50
there is more
42 Putnam and Goss, ‘Introduction’, in Putnam, ed., Democracies in Flux,p.11.
43 Joep de Hart and Paul Dekker, ‘A Tale of Two Cities: Local Patterns of Social Capital’, in Hooghe and Stolle,
eds, Generating Social Capital, pp. 153–70.
44 Dietlind Stolle and Marc Hooghe, ‘Conflicting Approaches to the Study of Social Capital: Competing
Explanations for Causes and Effects of Social Capital’, Ethical Perspectives, 10 (2003), 22–45.
45 Hooghe, Marc, ‘Why Should We Be Bowling Alone? Cross-Sectional Results from a Belgian Survey on
Civic Participation’, Voluntas, 14 (2003), 41–59.
46 Mair and van Biezen, ‘Party Membership in Twenty European Democracies, 1980–2000’; Bernhard
Ebbinghaus and Jelle Visser, ‘When Institutions Matter: Union Growth and Decline in Western Europe,
1950–1995’, European Sociological Review, 15 (1999), 135–58; Putnam, ed., Democracies in Flux.
47 Dalton and Wattenberg, eds, Parties without Partisans; Mark Gray and Miki Caul, ‘Declining Voter Turnout
in Advanced Democracies’, Comparative Political Studies, 33 (2000), 1091–121; Peter Mair, ‘In the Aggregate:
Mass Electoral Behaviour in Western Europe, 1950–2000’, in Hans Keman, ed., Comparative Democratic Politics
(London: Sage, 2002), pp. 122–41.
48 Norris, Democratic Phoenix.
49 Inglehart, Modernization and Postmodernization; Ola Listhaug, ‘The Dynamics of Trust in Politicians’, in
Hans-Dieter Klingemann and Dieter Fuchs, eds, Citizens and the State (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995),
pp. 261–97; Pippa Norris, ed., Critical Citizens: Global Support for Democratic Government (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1999).
50 Klingemann and Fuchs, eds, Citizens and the State.
158 STOLLE AND HOOGHE
certainty by the end of the decade.
51
Overall, European societies are plagued, as the United
States is, by political disenchantment, increasing cynicism and political alienation.
With regard to forms of participation that are not expressly political, however, results
are far less convincing.
52
The enormous amount of evidence assembled for the Beliefs in
Government project, for example, did not support the pessimistic conclusions in this respect
for West European countries.
53
In line with this evaluation, no evidence has been found
of downward trends in non-political membership and civic participation figures, or for that
matter generalized trust across European societies.
54
Nor do the various country studies
assembled in Democracies in Flux offer any support for a clear pattern of decline in
non-political associational membership in European countries. Faced with this evidence,
even Putnam has recently acknowledged: ‘At the most general level, our investigation has
found no general and simultaneous decline in social capital throughout the industrial/post-
industrial world over the last generation.’
55
Thesefindings do not imply that there is no reason for concern in West European societies.
It is entirely plausible that Europe will be confronted with the same structural process of
social change and its consequences as that witnessed in the United States, but with a certain
time lag. In the Netherlands, for example, participation has dwindled among younger and
well-educated cohorts.
56
Similar observations have been made in Canada; even though
voter turnout has been stable for most age cohorts, the youngest generation in Canada clearly
lags behind.
57
For the time being, however, we do not have sufficient information to
determine whether these younger age groups are simply somewhat slower in picking up
a participatory habit (because of extended education, for example), or whether their
abstention will continue once they move on to adulthood. Nevertheless, the fact that young
people seem to refrain from political activity could be an important finding. Previous studies
have shown that those who begin participating in elections immediately upon reaching
voting age retain this habit even many years later.
58
Research suggests that the specific
character of one’s first experienced elections is particularly important for their further
electoral involvement.
59
These findings are in line with the well-established mechanism
that early life experiences play an important role in shaping adult political behaviour.
60
51 Hans-Dieter Klingemann, ‘Mapping Political Support in the 1990s’, in Pippa Norris, ed., Critical Citizens,
pp. 31–56.
52 Richard Topf, ‘Beyond Electoral Participation’, in Klingemann and Fuchs, eds, Citizens and the State,
pp. 52–91; Paul Dekker and Andries van den Broek, ‘Civil Society in Comparative Perspective: Involvement in
Voluntary Associations in North America and Western Europe’, Voluntas, 9 (1998), 11–38; Hall, ‘Social Capital
in Britain’; Robert Putnam, ‘Conclusion’, in Putnam, ed., Democracies in Flux, pp. 393–415; Marc Hooghe, ‘Value
Congruence and Convergence within Voluntary Associations’, Political Behavior, 25 (2003), 151–75.
53 Klingemann and Fuchs, eds, Citizens and the State.
54 Gabriel et al.,Sozialkapital und Demokratie.
55 Putnam, ‘Conclusion’, in Putnam, ed., Democracies in Flux, p. 410.
56 Paul Dekker and Joep de Hart, ‘Het sociaal kapitaal van de Nederlandse kiezer’, in Marc Hooghe, ed., Sociaal
kapitaal en democratie (Leuven: Acco, 2000), pp. 83–112; Jacques Thomassen, Cees Aarts and Henk van der Kolk,
eds, Politieke veranderingen in Nederland, 1971–1998 (The Hague: SDU, 2000).
57 Andre´ Blais, Elisabeth Gidengil, Richard Nadeau and Neil Nevitte, ‘Generational Change and the Decline
of Political Participation: The Case of Voter Turnout in Canada’ (paper presented at the McGill Workshop
‘Citizenship on Trial: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Political Socialization of Adolescents’, June 2002).
58 Eric Plutzer, ‘Becoming a Habitual Voter: Inertia, Resources, and Growth in Young Adulthood’, American
Political Science Review, 96 (2002), 41–56.
59 Franklin, The Dynamics of Voter Turnout in Established Democracies since 1945.
60 M. Kent Jennings and Laura Stoker, ‘Generational Change, Life Cycle Processes and Social Capital’ (paper
presented at the McGill Workshop ‘Citizenship on Trial: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Political Socialization
of Adolescents’, June 2002).
Review Article: The Alleged Decline of Social Capital in Western Societies 159
The ‘exceptionalism’ argument calls for a comparative longitudinal research project
across societies. A major challenge for this kind of research, however, is the almost
insurmountable lack of long-term empirical sources. Time-series data are either not
directly comparable to each other and/or to the US data sources, or they go back only a
few years, leaving researchers unable to formulate any definite conclusions. Although
various research efforts are under way to gather comparable and reliable data for a number
of European countries (the Civic Involvement and Democracy project (CID), for example,
as well as the European Social Survey (ESS)), for the foreseeable future the empirical
ground for this debate will remain much weaker in Europe than it is in the United States.
However, we have to conclude that this second criticism adds some essential information
to the general picture; not all forms of participation seem to be in decline throughout
Western democracies. Whereas most democratic countries struggle with a decline in
conventional political participation, such as voting, party membership and even political
trust, social relations are not threatened to the same extent. This finding limits the
generalization of the Bowling Alone thesis beyond the United States and at the same time
elucidates new insights about the sources of the downward slope. If not all Western
democracies exhibit such similar trends, universal Western experiences such as economic
wealth cannot solve the puzzle of the decline.
EMERGING SUBSTITUTES?
The third argument against communitarian pessimism does not question the figures and
trends described in the erosion literature. These authors acknowledge the fact that
traditional participation and integration mechanisms, such as parties and trade unions, may
indeed wear out in Western societies. The fundamental line of critique here is that the
communitarian authors put forward a one-sided description of social trends as a result of
their exclusive focus on the disappearance of traditional mechanisms. Meanwhile, the
communitarians are said to be neglectful of emerging participation styles and methods that
are rapidly replacing the old ones.
61
The willingness to participate in politics and societal
affairs is still as strong as it was a few decades ago, critics argue, but this will no longer
translate into membership of traditional political organizations.
62
Rather, citizens today,
especially younger generations, prefer participating in non-hierarchical and informal
networks, in addition to a variety of life-style related sporadic mobilization efforts.
Membership in informal local parental groups, the tendency to consume politically,
membership in advocacy networks, the regular signing and forwarding of e-mail petitions,
and the spontaneous organization of protests and rallies are just a few examples of this
phenomenon.
63
The problem with this argument is that systematic evidence on the new
forms of involvement has yet to be collected, and thus studies in this field are often
anecdotal in nature (though two studies discussed below do tackle this issue empirically).
Structured ideologies seem less important as a mobilizing agent in these new forms of
protest and participation, and in a number of instances their role is replaced by more
61 Peter Gundelach, ‘Social Transformation and New Forms of Voluntary Associations’, Social Science
Information, 23 (1984), 1049–81.
62 Eliasoph, Avoiding Politics; Lichterman, The Search for Political Community.
63 Lesley Hustinx and Frans Lammertyn, ‘Collective and Reflexive Styles of Volunteering: A Sociological
Modernization Perspective’, Voluntas, 14 (2003), 167–87.
160 STOLLE AND HOOGHE
emotional or personal motivations.
64
One could refer here to the protest rallies following
the school shooting in Dunblane (Scotland), the violent protests that emerged against
paedophiles in Britain, and the silent marches against various incidents of street violence
in the Netherlands. These rallies were not organized by established organizations or elite
actors, but rather they emerged spontaneously as a kind of emotional reaction in response
to perceived threats against society. Nevertheless, they have proven themselves to be
politically effective, resulting, for example, in stricter weapon laws in the United Kingdom.
The theoretical or anecdotal discussion of new action and participation repertoires has
also been supported by an empirical agenda. A rather famous example of this kind of
empirical criticism involves the way Putnam used declining membership figures of the
national American PTA (Parents Teachers Association) to support his claim that parental
involvement in the education of their children is on the wane. E. C. Ladd, as well as Crawford
and Levitt, draw attention to the fact that a large number of local PTA chapters are no longer
affiliated with the national umbrella organization, which would explain the downturn of
national PTA membership figures.
65
To some extent this can be seen as a simple empirical
argument: national membership records of the PTA umbrella organization no longer serve
as a valid indicator for the total number of American parents actively involved in the school
education of their children. However, we also observe here the emergence of a new and
more loosely structured form of involvement. As Ladd demonstrates, a preliminary analysis
of various forms of parents’ involvement in two selected American states shows that their
engagement goes beyond the traditional PTA. Instead, parents become involved in more
localized, looser and more fluid parent organizations that are not captured in classic PTA
membership statistics. These new groups tend to be more issue-oriented, and they devote
less attention to state level or national policy issues.
66
Although we are confronted with a large diversity in these new participation mechanisms,
they have common characteristics with regard to: (1) their structure; (2) the substantive
issues they address; (3) the ways in which they mobilize; and (4) the style of involvement
by individual members. First, these new forms of participation abandon traditional (that
is to say formal and bureaucratic) organizational structures in favour of horizontal and more
flexible ones. Loose connections, in other words, are rapidly replacing static bureau-
cracies.
67
Instead of collaborating in formal umbrella structures, these grassroots
associations opt for co-operation in flexible and horizontal networks that are better adapted
to the needs of information-driven societies.
68
This kind of network structure can also be
found in various global organizations and mobilization efforts, which rely on loose contacts
and electronic communication to co-ordinate their actions for reform in trade regimes,
labour practices, human rights or environmental quality.
69
64 Jeff Goodwin, James Jasper and Francesca Polletta, eds, Passionate Politics: Emotions and Social
Movements (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).
65 Ladd, The Ladd Report, pp. 31–43; Susan Crawford and Peggy Levitt, ‘Social Change and Civic Engagement:
the Case of the PTA’, in Theda Skocpol and Morris Fiorina, eds, Civic Engagement in American Democracy
(Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1999), pp. 249–96.
66 Crawford and Levitt, ‘Social Change and Civic Engagement’, p. 283.
67 Robert Wuthnow, Loose Connections: Joining Together in America’s Fragmented Communities (Cam-
bridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1998).
68 Castells, The Rise of the Network Society.
69 W. Lance Bennett, ‘Branded Political Communication: Lifestyle Politics, Logo Campaigns, and the Rise of
Global Citizenship’, in Michelle Micheletti, Andreas Føllesdal and Dietlind Stolle, eds, Politics, Products and
Markets (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Press, 2004), pp. 101–26; Margaret Levi and David Olson, ‘The Battle
in Seattle’, Politics and Society, 28 (2000), 309–29.
Review Article: The Alleged Decline of Social Capital in Western Societies 161
Secondly, in general these new initiatives are also less concerned with institutional
affairs, such as party politics, which brings them into sharp contrast with more traditional
political organizations. Life-style elements are being politicized and although the actors
no longer label their action as being expressly ‘political’, these preoccupations do lead to
political mobilization.
70
These new forms of participation clearly break the traditional
boundaries between the public and the private sphere; some authors have heralded this
transition as the advent of ‘subpolitics’, where daily life decisions take on a strong political
meaning.
71
Micheletti, for example, describes how women in Sweden, largely motivated
by private concerns, started to fight food prices and became increasingly involved in
political discussions and further political protests.
72
In other words, spheres traditionally
perceived as private, such as food consumption, have the potential to become a platform
for political mobilization. Eliasoph, by the same token, documents how housewives avoid
becoming entangled in large ideological debates about politics or the environment, but
instead prefer actions ‘close to home’, such as those involving consumer behaviour or
household waste.
73
Participation in a recycling project can contribute to a feeling of
connection with large-scale environmental issues, without requiring any formal member-
ships or ideological identification.
Thirdly, these new forms of participation tend to mobilize in a very characteristic way.
On the one hand, they rely on apparently spontaneous and irregular mobilization. The
signing of petitions, or participation in protests and consumer boycotts all seem based on
spontaneity, irregularity, easy exit and the possibility of shifting in and shifting out. This
is certainly the case with new, more emotion-driven forms of protest and mobilization. In
October 1996 some 300,000 people (3 per cent of Belgium’s total population) participated
in a protest rally against the inertia of their nation’s police force in the face of abductions
and killings of young children; two years later, the organizing committee was out of
business as its membership had all but evaporated.
74
On the other hand, the rise of various cheque-book organizations implies that passive
members will become more important than has been the case in traditional mass-member-
ship organizations. Cheque-book activism does not rely on intensive and regular
face-to-face contact between members, and the organizational model of these organiza-
tions no longer stresses voluntary participation in local chapters. Cheque-book member-
ship organizations operate mostly on a national scale, with a professional staff relying on
print and electronic media to stay in touch with their members.
75
Such memberships, too,
allow for easy exit and spontaneous irregular involvement, which renders this type of
70 W. Lance Bennett, ‘The UnCivic Culture: Communication, Identity, and the Rise of Lifestyle Politics’,
Political Science and Politics, 31 (1998), 741–61; Bennett, ‘Branded Political Communication: Lifestyle Politics,
Logo Campaigns, and the Rise of Global Citizenship’; Eliasoph, Avoiding Politics.
71 Beck, The Reinvention of Politics.
72 Michelle Micheletti, ‘Why More Women? Issues of Gender and Political Consumerism’, in Michelle
Micheletti, Andreas Føllesdal and Dietlind Stolle, eds, Politics, Products, and Markets (New Brunswick, N.J.:
Transaction Press, 2004), pp. 245–64.
73 Eliasoph, Avoiding Politics.
74 Marc Hooghe and Gita Deneckere, ‘La Marche Blanche en Belgique (octobre 1996), une mouvement de
masse spectaculaire mais e´ phe´me`re’, Le Mouvement Social, 202 (2003), 153–64.
75 Dag Wollebæk and Per Selle, ‘The Importance of Passive Membership for Social Capital Formation’, in
Hooghe and Stolle, eds, Generating Social Capital, pp. 67–88.
162 STOLLE AND HOOGHE
network much more vulnerable to sudden fluctuations in its membership base and thus its
income.
76
Fourthly and finally, new forms of participation are potentially less collective and
group-oriented in character. This is the case even though they might be triggered by larger
societal concerns (such as global injustice), organized and supported by advocacy
networks and other loose organizations, and also have aggregate consequences (a change
of corporate practices, for example). Despite all this the actual act of participation is often
individualized in character, whether this involves the decision to forward a selected e-mail
as did Jonah Peretti, who subsequently triggered a world-wide response to Nike’s footwear
production practices,
77
or whether it involves the decision to purchase a certain product
for ethical reasons.
78
Such individualized acts do not necessarily lead to group interaction
or face-to-face meetings of the kind we typically encounter in unions, voluntary groups,
regular council meetings and so forth. Passive memberships in cheque-book organizations
are relatively individualized acts as well. This leads to a certain paradox: while this form
of protest and participation can be seen as an example of co-ordinated collective action,
most participants simply perform this act alone, at home before a computer screen, or in
a supermarket.
The argument that formal and fixed membership structures are being replaced by more
informal interaction repertoires is strongly reflected in the gender literature as well.
Scholars working on gender relations have argued that most of the current social capital
research is misguided because it looks in the wrong places for sources of social cohesion.
By focusing almost exclusively on the decline of formal organizations, the communitarian
authors fail to acknowledge the fact that there are many other ways for people to participate
and express political and social involvement.
79
These critics would argue that networks
and social engagement can be found in daily social interactions,
80
namely at the
workplace,
81
in schools and neighbourhoods,
82
or in caring networks such as baby-sitting
circles and other informal child-care networks.
83
Women, in general, tend to prefer more egalitarian networks, which are reflected in some
examples of ‘feminist organizations’.
84
Lowndes’s point in particular urges us to
reconsider how informal and small-scale care networks actually contribute to the
maintenance of social cohesion within a society. A typical example would be young
mothers in the suburbs jointly bringing their children to and picking them up from school.
These kinds of arrangements are mostly informal and ad hoc, and they are therefore usually
76 Theda Skocpol, Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life
(Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003).
77 Jonah Peretti and Michelle Micheletti, ‘The Nike Sweatshop Email: Political Consumerism, Internet, and
Culture Jamming’, in Micheletti, Føllesdal and Stolle, eds, Politics, Products, and Markets, pp. 127–44.
78 Micheletti, Føllesdal and Stolle, eds, Politics, Products, and Markets.
79 Martha Ackelsberg, ‘Broadening the Study of Women’s Participation’, in Susan Carroll, ed., Women and
American Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 214–36.
80 Paul Dekker and Ric Uslaner, eds, Social Capital and Everyday Life (London: Routledge, 2001).
81 Diana Mutz and Jeffrey Mondak, ‘Democracy at Work: Contributions of the Workplace Toward a Public
Sphere’ (paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, Chicago, 1998).
82 Kenneth Newton, ‘Social Capital and Democracy in Modern Europe’, in Jan van Deth et al., eds, Social
Capital and European Democracy (London: Routledge 1999), pp. 2–24.
83 Vivien Lowndes, ‘Women and Social Capital: A Comment on Hall’s “Social Capital in Britain” ’, British
Journal of Political Science, 30 (2000), 533–7.
84 Myra M. Ferree and Patricia Martin, eds, Feminist Organizations (Philadelphia: Temple University Press,
1995).
Review Article: The Alleged Decline of Social Capital in Western Societies 163
not registered in survey research on participation. Nevertheless, they are likely to
contribute significantly to the maintenance of social cohesion and social interaction and
the advancement of quality of life within these suburbs, as well as to the learning of civic
skills and generalized values.
To summarize, this third camp of critics urges us to broaden our view of what is relevant
political and social participation. The critique maintains that we might have missed recent
developments in forms of participation that are not easily observed, counted or measured.
These forms of participation are more fluid, sporadic and less organized, and consequently
they will be much harder to detect accurately in survey research. In addition, we might have
looked in the wrong places all along, because many individuals (and women in particular)
have been regularly involved in unobserved social interactions that have wider societal
consequences.
‘SO WHAT?’
The fourth argument against communitarian pessimism is the most fundamental, and, from
a theoretical point of view, also the most interesting. These authors accept the data
substantiating the decline thesis, but dispute the normative consequences that have been
attributed to it by communitarian scholars. Namely, they claim that a decline in
participation and face-to-face interaction does not necessarily have negative effects for
social or political stability and democracy overall. Though it is possible that formal
participation mechanisms and traditional political organizations were necessary during the
development phase of mass democracies, within contemporary societies they have lost
much of their relevance. These authors argue that the decline of trust in government and
in politics should not be seen as a threat to political stability, but rather as an indication
of the fact that these systems have reached adulthood, and have therefore learned to live
with the scrutiny of critical citizens.
85
Inglehart summarizes this point of view succinctly
in his title: ‘Postmodernization erodes respect for authority, but increases support for
democracy’.
86
The data indeed show that younger age cohorts, which Putnam views as the partial
‘culprit’ for the overall decline of civic participation, are also most strongly attached to
democratic values. Especially in Inglehart’s work, the decline of traditional political
integration is conceptualized as part of a global and structural transformation of value
patterns in Western societies; there has been, he claims, a move away from survival values
like obedience and trust in hierarchies and towards more self-expressive and post-
materialist values such as tolerance, freedom and individual fulfilment. Support for
freedom of expression, in addition to tolerance for ethnic or sexual minorities is found to
be stronger and more widespread among the younger age cohorts, and not the members
of the ‘long civic generation’. Therefore, the rising critical attitude of more recent cohorts
towards the political system should not be seen as a threat to the stability of democratic
regimes. In sum, in Inglehart’s view, younger cohorts understandably develop distrust in
traditional political and hierarchical institutions. However, their deep belief in democracy,
85 Inglehart, Modernization and Postmodernization; Chris Welzel, Ronald Inglehart and Hans-Dieter
Klingemann, ‘The Theory of Human Development’, European Journal of Political Research, 42 (2003), 341–80;
Norris, ed., Critical Citizens; Norris, Democratic Phoenix.
86 Ronald Inglehart, ‘Postmodernization Erodes Respect for Authority, but Increases Support for Democracy’,
in Pippa Norris, ed., Critical Citizens (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 236–56.
164 STOLLE AND HOOGHE
as well as their political actions (such as protest actions and new modes of organizations)
makes those generations democratic in a new way.
With the claim that traditional groups and organizations are obsolete and should make
room for new citizenship concepts, Inglehart has opened a Pandora’s box of research on
social and political engagement and social capital. The implicit assumption of most
political scientists is that democracies rely on routine and mass participation of the
population. If citizens turn away from political parties, or refrain from participating in
elections, it is typically assumed that something is deeply wrong with the democratic
character of that society. Within Inglehart’s postmodernization framework, however, these
forms of participation take on a traditional and even atavistic character, and therefore
become meaningless indicators for democratic health. If participation becomes a more
reflexive act, the youngest and most highly-educated cohorts can decide not to join political
parties, without necessarily indicating their alienation from the political system.
The value pattern described by Inglehart therefore is perfectly compatible with what
Schudson has labelled the ‘monitoring citizen’.
87
This concept of citizenship suggests that
most people will not be involved in politics as a day-to-day routine. Rather they monitor
the political system from a distance, relying heavily on the information provided by the
mass media. The act of monitoring does not threaten the feeling of political efficacy, as
citizens do and will participate and exert pressure on governments or other political actors
if and when the need arises. Conventional forms of political participation therefore lose
their routine character, but this does not imply that citizens lose their ability to influence
political decision making. In this view, declining levels of participation should not cause
any concern about the future viability of democratic systems, as they are merely reflecting
a transition from routine participation to a more reflexive and monitoring form of political
involvement.
A SOCIAL CAPITAL RESEARCH AGENDA
What are the implications of these four counter-positions to the Bowling Alone thesis? Do
we arrive at any definite answers if we accumulate their insights? Ironically, at first sight
the various arguments seem to contradict each other; some critics vehemently question the
evidence pointing to a decline, whereas others accept it but perceive different
consequences. As yet, hard-nosed empirical evidence is scarce and many causal
relationships are still left unexplored. Each of these four avenues of criticism opens a
research agenda that should demonstrate how we can get closer to a definite answer about
whether social capital and civic engagement are declining or just transforming, and about
the consequences of this evolution.
The first argument, which patently denies that a decline is in fact taking place, calls for
the continuation and replication of already existing time-series. Following research by
Theda Skocpol,
88
we might also think about ways to incorporate historical evidence in the
debate in order to establish a clear picture of the actual civic behaviour of previous
generations. While for most survey-oriented political scientists the world seems to have
been created in 1948, at the advent of the National Elections Studies, historical material
allows us to build longer time-series. In this way, the changes we have witnessed during
87 Michael Schudson, The Good Citizen (New York: The Free Press, 1998).
88 Theda Skocpol, ‘How Americans Became Civic’, in Theda Skocpol and Morris Fiorina, eds, Civic
Engagement in American Democracy (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1999), pp. 27–80; Skocpol,
Diminished Democracy.
Review Article: The Alleged Decline of Social Capital in Western Societies 165
the past four decades can be put into historical perspective. The 1960s were indeed an era
of unprecedented civic activism that involved neighbourhood engagement and member-
ships of various political and non-political associations, which might imply that the current
decline stands for a return to ‘normal’ levels of participation.
The second argument leaves us with a difficult task: outside the United States, few
long-term and reliable time-series are available. True, voter turnout, party and union
memberships are well documented, but most informal forms of social interaction are not.
However, from the first and second critiques it is clear that not all social capital indicators
evolve simultaneously, and maybe not even in the same direction. The available evidence,
therefore, should not be used to espouse a universal model of longitudinal social and
political involvement. Clearly, developments of political trust do not directly translate into
insights in time-patterns of generalized trust. Similarly, the fact that social interaction
patterns seem to change in the United States should not be used for predictions of this
evolution in other Western societies. Various research efforts are now under way in
Western Europe to establish social capital benchmark studies, but long-term results, by
their very nature, emerge only slowly. In the meantime, national longitudinal surveys and
local over-time comparisons, as well as unexplored data sources, can be exploited for the
analysis of national or even regional trends.
A possible solution to arrive at research results more quickly might be found in the
cross-national analysis of younger generations compared to their older counterparts. So
far, generational analysis has hinted at the fact that in Europe too, younger generations
refrain from certain types of traditional participation, but this evidence remains to be
confirmed throughout a variety of cultures. Comparing generations with respect to
frequency and type of involvement is a good first step; if strong differences are observed
in this respect between young and older age cohorts at a similar age, this might mean that
we are witnessing a process of generational replacement with regard to patterns of civic
engagement. It is possible to undertake such analyses even in the absence of long
time-series data. Multi-generational designs in combination with studies that surveyed
young generations decades ago are the best data sources for this important test.
89
The third counter-hypothesis to the decline thesis calls for the development of new
survey questions and instruments that adequately measure the occurrence and the
magnitude of new forms of political and social participation. Politicized life-style
elements, such as forms of political consumerism, political or ethical dress codes and online
political chat-rooms, should be taken into account in this kind of research. A number of
case studies demonstrate that these new participation forms are indeed making an
appearance, but this approach does not inform us about their overall prevalence, or about
the extent to which these findings can be generalized. As Offe and Fuchs observe: ‘There
is a remarkable lack of data on the less formal types of associative activity.’
90
Clearly, taking the third counter-argument seriously implies the necessity of moving
from case studies towards the use of cross-national survey data, a step which has not been
89 To some extent, this leads to a new problem. If young age groups prove to be less involved than their
counterparts were a few decades ago, this does not necessarily mean they will remain less engaged throughout
their life cycle. Because of extended education, and a higher average age for first marriage and parenthood, we
have to take the possibility into account that young people simply start later with their engagement careers. We
would call this phenomenon delayed life-cycle effects.
90 Claus Offe and Susanne Fuchs, ‘A Decline of Social Capital? The German Case’, in Putnam, ed.,
Democracies in Flux, pp. 189–243, p. 243.
166 STOLLE AND HOOGHE
taken thus far.
91
Inevitably, these new forms of citizens’ involvement will be difficult to
measure because of their fluid, spontaneous and unstructured character.
92
The development
of new survey instruments is again an essential prerequisite towards determining what
these new forms of participation mean in an individual’s life, and whether or not they take
on a political character. How can we distinguish privately motivated acts without wider
societal consequences from acts that are intended to have, or may have, a political
meaning? To what extent can private motivation serve as a mobilizing force for public or
societal acts? These kinds of questions will have to be addressed in any future survey
research on political involvement that takes life-style politics into consideration.
Let us clarify this point with an example. Over the past decades a flourishing
commercially-organized gay subculture has emerged in metropolitan areas such as San
Francisco, London and Amsterdam. Gay and lesbian magazines, shops and travel agencies
are an important constitutive element of this culture. However, while some authors
consider these commercial ventures as a public and even politically inspired manifestation
of gay and lesbian identity, for others it is just a form of individual consumer preference,
without any political consequences.
93
To determine whether such forms of interaction can
still be seen as manifestations of civic engagement, it is essential to know both the intention
and the motivations of the actor involved. For example, booking an occasional trip with
a gay travel agency because it costs less could not be defined as political participation,
whereas deliberately doing so to support the gay and lesbian movements could be
considered as a political act which has wider societal consequences.
94
In sum, the
motivation and regularity of the new political acts should be included in our attempts to
measure these forms of involvement.
While the previous three counter-arguments presented against the decline thesis
confronted us with the need for better and richer survey and other data, the fourth challenge
goes a step further. It is by now well established that younger and better-educated age
cohorts indeed adhere to a more postmodern value pattern; they are more critical with
regard to authority and institutions, but they strongly support democratic values.
95
Therefore it seems safe to conclude that traditional associations and participatory
mechanisms are not irreplaceable with regard to their socialization function; democratic
value patterns can be established and maintained, even without formal memberships with
voluntary associations or political parties. In other words, one of the worries of
communitarians can be soothed, in that the internal function of voluntary associations and
other types of organizations can be replaced by other socialization agents.
91 However, see Jørgen Goul Andersen and Mette Tobiasen, Politisk forbrug og politiske forbrugere.
Globalisering og politik i hverdagslivet (Aarhus: Magtudredningen, 2001); Jørgen Goul Andersen and Mette
Tobiasen, ‘Who are These Political Consumers Anyway? Survey Evidence from Denmark’, in Micheletti,
Føllesdal and Stolle, eds, Politics, Products, and Markets, pp. 203–22; Dietlind Stolle, Marc Hooghe and Michelle
Micheletti, ‘Political Consumerism – A New Phenomenon of Political Participation? An Exploratory Study in
Canada, Belgium and Sweden’ (paper presented at the ECPR Joint Sessions in Edinburgh, 2003).
92 Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim, Individualization: Institutionalized Individualism and its Social
and Political Consequences (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 2002), p. 19.
93 Barry Adam, Jan Willem Duyvendak and Andre´ Krouwel, eds, The Global Emergence of Gay and Lesbian
Politics (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999).
94 However, we should also add here that so-called private motivations might influence voting or the
participation in political campaigns, etc. The discussion shows that conventional public–private divides might no
longer be important markers for political engagement.
95 Inglehart, Modernization and Postmodernization.
Review Article: The Alleged Decline of Social Capital in Western Societies 167
There are fewer indications, however, that a functional equivalent might exist for the
external function of intermediary associations. The fourth argument, therefore, leads us
to suggest further research at the macro level, and a re-invigoration of the old governability
debate.
96
Young age cohorts might be ‘critical citizens’,
97
yet the question has not been
addressed as to whether democratic political systems are able to function when faced with
large numbers of such citizens. Political systems depend on routine and diffuse forms of
support, and we cannot be certain whether the better-informed citizens of today and
tomorrow will actually provide this kind of support. Furthermore, traditional intermediary
organizations like trade unions or political parties, which are losing members in most
Western societies, have historically been highly effective instruments both in aggregating
interests of voters and members, and in introducing these interests into the political
decision-making process.
98
Whether new forms of participation preferred by younger age
cohorts are just as effective in fulfilling this instrumental function has yet to be examined
in depth. Although various examples of new forms of political and social involvement
demonstrate their success, it is still open for debate as to whether these new action
repertoires enable citizens to influence political decision making efficiently. Political
systems might fall below the threshold of ‘democracy’, if the collective pressures of
citizens on decision making are exerted only sporadically and without a stable
organizational force. One of the main problems in this respect is that within parliamentary
democracies, decision making is inevitably a long-term process, one that respects extensive
procedural and consultative mechanisms. If mobilization campaigns become short-lived
events, their impact could be dampened before any real changes are brought about. How
are long-term institutionalized decision-making processes affected given the absence of
an ingrained organizational structure that aggregates citizens’ opinion? That question has
not even been addressed by most authors who write about postmodernization.
A radical solution to this question would be to propose that citizens do not have to
interact with the political system per se; rather, national states are gradually losing power
to multinational organizations and economic actors. New forms of political participation
such as global movements, e-mail networks or acts of political consumerism enable
citizens to put pressure directly on international organizations or multinational corpora-
tions.
99
In other words, while voting in local or national elections is not an effective strategy
to adopt when the aim is to influence decisions on world trade or child labour, participating
in protests actions at meetings of the World Trade Organization or in consumer boycotts
might be a much more effective way to force change in a globalized world.
100
Such a radical
solution, however, implies not just that the traditional participation repertoire has become
obsolete, but that the importance of the state itself has diminished. Although it is clear that
the influence of supranational and economic actors has increased over time, many domestic
decisions regarding social policy, education, social services and security are still taken in
national and regional parliaments. In sum, the challenge for this fourth attack on the decline
argument is to demonstrate that critical citizens are sufficiently connected to the political
system, despite the fact that politics itself has become a moving target.
96 Michael Crozier, Samuel Huntington and Joji Watanuki, The Crisis of Democracy (New York: New York
University Press, 1975).
97 Norris, ed., Critical Citizens.
98 Frank Baumgartner and Beth Leech, Basic Interests (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998).
99 Peter Singer, One World: The Ethics of Globalization (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002);
Margaret Levi and April Linton, ‘Fair Trade: A Cup at a Time?’ Politics and Society, 31 (2003), 407–32.
100 Micheletti, Føllesdal and Stolle, eds, Politics, Products, and Markets.
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The White March in Belgium (October 1996) : a spectacular, but ephemeral mass movement. The paper presents an analysis of the origins and determinants of the spectacular mobilisation in the summer of 1996, together with a provisory balance of the effects of the White March on the functioning of the Belgian political system. The White March was exceptional and unique. This position was due not only to the origins – the Dutroux affair, situated essentially beyond politics – but also to certain specific characteristics of Belgian political culture. As a result of mediatisation, the Dutroux affair discharged itself into a wave of protest never seen before. The energy of revolt was channeled into a dignified White March with a pronounced political significance, whereas the organisation emanated from a bunch of recently created local committees and was set up in 13 days. The March didn’t fail to impress the political elite. The paper shows how the readiness of government to make political concessions was closely related to the perception that public order was being menaced. Nevertheless, barely a year after its « birth », the political role of the « white movement » was finished. The political significance of the White March was thus very limited to its time. While the prerevolutionary atmosphere the white movement momentarily succeeded to create did assure an undeniable political impact, the movement didn’t lead into durable organisations, new sociabilities or new identities.