Associations and associational involvement in Europe

Authored by: Jan W. van Deth , William A. Maloney

Routledge Handbook of European Politics

Print publication date:  January  2015
Online publication date:  December  2014

Print ISBN: 9780415626750
eBook ISBN: 9781315755830
Adobe ISBN: 9781317628361


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Democratic political systems of all shapes and sizes – cities, regions, nation-states, supranational organizations – face the simply articulated, but enduring and chronic, challenge of basing political decisions on the active engagement of citizens and citizens’ organizations. Contemporaneously, political and social disengagement is seen as a blight afflicting many advanced democracies. Beyond falling voter turnout and waning partisanship, declines in membership of numerous associations, clubs, groups and organizations – i.e. a shrinking civil society (and social capital stocks) – are seen as major aspects of a more general disengagement process. In his seminal work on the conditions for democratic government, Robert Putnam emphasized the centrality and pivotality of associationalism. Putnam famously argued that, ‘Good government in Italy is a by-product of singing groups and soccer clubs’ (Putnam 1993: 176). He subsequently extended his (civic erosion) analysis to include the US and his claims about the beneficial effects of a vibrant civil society with high levels of social capital grew exponentially. According to Putnam (2000: 290), social capital not only delivers ‘good government’, but it also, ‘makes us smarter, healthier, safer, richer, and better able to govern a just and stable democracy’. Even the most evangelical adherent of his approach would not consider it a magic bullet for all democratic ills. However, what is widely accepted is that modern democracies are dependent on an active and vibrant civil society and a healthy stock of social capital.

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