Democracy strengthened when citizens belong to some types of voluntary associations, study says

May 29, 2002

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Americans have always been known as joiners, actively taking part in civic clubs, bowling leagues and parent-teacher organizations. Sociologists and political scientists have long thought this active civic life helps build and maintain democracy.

But a new study of associations around the world suggests that the types of clubs to which citizens belong is a key factor in whether they have a positive influence on democracy.

The study found that organizations that have strong ties to the outside community are good for democracy, while those that are isolated don't help.

"Clubs and associations that are walled off from the rest of society don't promote democracy," said Pamela Paxton, assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State University. "A strong democracy needs organizations whose members are inter-connected, who are a part of the larger community."

The study, the first to look at how groups affect democracy in countries around the world, appears in the current issue of the American Sociological Review.

In her study, Paxton used a well-accepted measure of democracy that rates levels of democracy in nations on a scale of 0 to 100. She then compared levels of democracy with data on clubs and associations in each country.

She used two different data sets to examine clubs and associations. One is the International Yearbook of Associations 1990-91, which lists international nongovernmental organizations - everything from Alcoholic Anonymous to Rotary Clubs International -- operating in countries around the world.

The other is the World Values Survey, which asked citizens in 48 countries to list their membership in voluntary associations. It also asked people how much they trust other people in their country, which Paxton said is also an important predictor of democracy.

With the World Values Survey, Paxton was able to measure how connected each countries' clubs and associations were to their communities at large. She did this by calculating for each club or association the proportion of members who also belong to other associations. In addition, she calculated the average number of associations to which the members of each club belonged.

Clubs whose members tend to belong to other organizations are more integrated into the overall community, Paxton said. When people belong to more than one club or organization, they bring fresh perspectives.

"In almost any group there are going to be discussions about politics or what's happening in the community," Paxton said. "When you have members who are connected to other groups everyone hears more sides of a story - members can counteract extremist positions. This is good for democracy."

Paxton found that some types of groups tend to be more connected than others, meaning their members are most likely to belong to other organizations. She found that environmental groups, human rights groups, and peace groups tended to be the most connected.

These types of groups were healthiest for democracy, and countries with more of these groups also tended to score higher on measures of democracy, Paxton said.

Trade unions, religious groups and sports and recreation groups were the least connected to other groups, the study showed. Paxton said there is no way to tell from the study why members of these organizations tend to be less likely to belong to other groups.

In other results, Paxton found that the levels of trust people had in their neighbors played a key role in healthy democracies, and also affected the impact associations had in society.

"At low levels of trust, increases in association memberships have a negative impact on democracy," she said. This suggests that when people don't trust each other, they also tend to belong to insular, isolated groups that don't participate in society and don't contribute to democracy.

Paxton also found a reciprocal relationship between democracy and group membership. Not only did group membership have an impact on democracy, but the level of democracy also affected the number of voluntary associations in the country. Specifically, more democratic countries tended to promote the development of more clubs and associations.

The findings of this study suggest that international funding agencies should be careful of what organizations they support in developing democracies, according to Paxton.

"Many international agencies are committed to the view that supporting local groups and organizations will positively impact the growth of democracy," she said. "These findings support this view, but also caution that they need to focus their efforts on groups that truly foster democracy."
The study was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Contact: Pamela Paxton, (614) 688-8266; Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457;

Ohio State University

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