- The Dubious Link: Civic Engagement and Democratization
The study of civil society and social capital has flourished since Putnam (1993) proposed a positive relationship between civic engagement and democratic governance. The arguments of Putnam and other "neo-Tocquevilleans" have generated significant debate, and in recent years, scholars increasingly have scrutinized, challenged, and revised such claims. With the publication of his latest book, Ariel Armony joins their ranks. This well-researched, engaging work is a welcome contribution to an important area of inquiry.
A central objective of the book is to challenge the conventional wisdom linking associational life and democracy. According to the neo-Tocquevilleans, social capital—networks of trust and reciprocity—accumulates through face-to-face interactions in voluntary associations. These microsocial processes yield positive results at the macropolitical level in the form of effective governance. Armony suggests, in contrast, that civic engagement does not automatically produce generalized social trust, defined as confidence in people outside of one's immediate circle of family, friends, and group members. Rather, participants in groups may use their social capital to achieve distinctly undemocratic ends, such as discriminating against others or aggravating existing political and social inequalities. The book thus explores civil society's "dark side" and emphasizes the aspects of civic engagement that are inimical to democracy (1).
Armony argues primarily that the political, social, and economic context shapes the "nature, dispositions, and orientations" of civil society, as well as its impact on democracy (3). Civil society can reproduce, reinforce, or intensify broader patterns of social interaction, which often are characterized by exclusion and subordination. Socioeconomic (in)equality and the strength or weakness of the rule of law are the most significant contextual factors. Armony contends that inequality undermines the rule of law, which entails "predictable and restrained governmental action," a legalistic culture, and other institutional and societal features (41). Where the rule of law is weak, "positive predictability" is lacking: it is difficult for individuals to estimate sanctions for their own behavior and that of others. This deficit, in turn, hinders the development of broader networks of social trust through civic engagement. Stated briefly, when civil society is not supported by the rule of law, its democratic potential is limited.
To substantiate these arguments, Armony combines qualitative and quantitative methods. First, he draws on secondary sources to analyze civic associations in the United States of the 1950s and 1960s and in [End Page 179] Weimar Germany. For each case, he traces the effects of associational life on attitudes, goals, practices, and outcomes that are at odds with democracy. For instance, in the United States, white people formed citizens' councils to combat school desegregation in southern states and organized homeowners' movements to maintain residential segregation in northern cities. Civic engagement therefore perpetuated the exclusion of African Americans and thwarted the exercise of their citizenship rights. In Germany, an especially vibrant civil society (comprising groups of veterans, professionals, sports fans, and countless others) contributed to the demise of democracy by reinforcing social divisions and disseminating Nazi ideology. Here Armony builds on the work of Sheri Berman, who argues that the impact of "associationism" in Weimar Germany was dependent on the "wider political context" (1997, 427). Because civil society mobilized outside of—and in opposition to—existing political institutions, it helped precipitate the breakdown of democracy.
Next, the author presents an in-depth analysis of contemporary civil society in Argentina, based on original data collected during field research. Focusing on citizenship rights groups that mobilized throughout the 1990s around such issues as corruption, police brutality, citizen safety, and minority rights, Armony suggests that civil society's contribution to democratic politics "amid a weak rule of law and increasing levels of social stratification is paradoxical at best" (105). Associational life reflects the adverse social and political context in which it is embedded: growing inequality, widespread impunity, and a gap between formal laws and their implementation. Civic participation fails to breed generalized social trust, tolerance, cooperation, or other democratic dispositions and practices; therefore, groups refrain from linking up with...