Jason Kaufman and Steven Tepper, Groups or Gatherings? Sources of Political Engagement in 19th Century American Cities, International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations
There is broad agreement that citizen participation is critical for successful democracy. Recently, scholars have linked such political participation with the notion of social capital—community-level resources, such as trust, norms, and networks, that foster collective action. Much uncertainty remains regarding the sources of social capital, however. Here we examine two different features of community life that are believed to nurture social capital, and political participation in turn: public venues where relative strangers can meet anonymously, socialize, and share information and opinions (i.e., venues for informal interaction); and venues for organized exchange between familiars, such as voluntary organizations and social clubs. Using quantitative data from America’s largest cities at the end of the 19th century, we examine the relationship between both supposed sources of social capital and respective rates of voter participation. We find little support for the role of informal interaction in fostering an active and engaged citizenry. We do, however, find evidence that citizen participation was related to some types of associationalism (or organized exchange). In particular, associations that fostered high levels of mutual interdependence among members seemed the most strongly linked to higher levels of political participation.
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