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Sociology of participation

Historically, sociologists have argued that what makes democracies effective is active citizen participation in civic affairs. They developed what was called a psycho-cultural approach to the study of political phenomena. According to the psycho-cultural approach, individual values and beliefs explain why some societies appeared more vibrant than others in creating associations and, consequently, why democracies differed in efficiency despite sharing similar institutions like universal suffrage, division of power, a political constitution, free elections, and so forth. Similarly and more recently, the work of sociologist Robert Putnam on Italian regional and local governments argued that regions in Northern Italy were better governed because of a longer tradition of civic associations compared to the regions in Southern Italy. Putnam explains the relationship between strong networks of citizen participation and positive institutional performance in terms of “social capital” — the informal networks, norms of reciprocity and trust that are fostered among individual members of the same association.

While the two studies cited above stress the importance of values and belief systems, several social scientists have more recently articulated a structural perspective to explain the importance of associations more broadly. From this perspective, social networks have emerged as a key factor in understanding modern associations. Within the literature that focuses on associations as networks, tension has emerged between two approaches. On the one hand, scholars have highlighted the role of social networks, and of friendship in particular, for explaining why people participate in associations. On the other hand, scholars have stressed the importance of identity processes in explaining the growth of associations. People join because the association provides them with a new identity and new circles of friends that they are interested in acquiring. With some notable exceptions, both approaches draw heavily from research on social movements.

The research of Sociologist Doug McAdam showed that activists who participated in the 1964 Mississippi summer camp were more likely to have friends already at the camp. McAdam analyzed the role of networks by studying the centrality of the people recruited to participate in the summer camp, further confirming the importance of pre-existing ties. On the other hand, sociologist Eugene Weber has articulated, on historical and institutional grounds, a view counter to the importance of pre-existing friendship ties for explaining participation. Weber describes the ways in which the French state facilitated the creation of a national identity among the locally identified members of the population by enabling contact among the soon-to-become “French'' individuals from the country's provinces. National universities, military service, corporations, and administrative bodies all facilitate the meeting of people from various parts of the state's territory. With contact comes the opportunity for the development of social relations, and the formation of such relations confirms one's loyalty to the nation. Membership in these institutions promotes new identities, which in turn influence participation.

While Weber's argument focuses on institutions rather than associations, a similar argument about the importance of identity has been advanced by another set of social movement scholars interested in processes of identity formation and collective action. Sociologist Deborah Minkoff, for instance, has argued that those in certain disadvantaged categories such as gays and lesbians, the elderly, and women, lacked access to the infrastructure that facilitates generation of ties between members. Mobilization of these groups creates identities that then produced social ties. Further reinforcing this argument and providing a more formalized approach to it, some sociologists have used data from online communities to show the existence of a non-network growth model for communities and, by extension, for associations. In this case individuals join because they share a common interest with the community. The new relationships individuals form with members of the association subsequently helped to promote a new identity.