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am 8. November 1998
Putnam's thesis on the importance of social capital in engendering the successful functioning of democracy is an intriguing idea that merits serious reflection in our context today. His study of the community-organizations in Italy, and their effects on the effective workings of democracy on a regional and national level, highlight the importance of civic organizations and their ability to inculcate in their members a sense of civic duty - which consequently leads to a vibrant democracy. This book is perhaps especially fitting in the American context today in light of declining interest in politics, diminishing belief in the efficacy of governing institutions in solving problems, and the general ethos of apathy and frustration felt around the nation in the realm of democracy (something that the most recent election's low voter turnout indicated). Although the study is interesting, the idea is perhaps a little less useful in the pragmatic sense; one could run into the question of a chicken-and-egg scenario where there is a debate between which came first: vibrant democracy or civic organizations. Regardless, the book is one of the best in its subject area and a recommended read for any student interested in such issues.
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Which came first, responsive government or civic participation? Much like the chicken and the egg, this has been a question with no end of debate. However, some new ammunition for the civil society camp may be found in Dr. Robert Putnam's research on Italian civic origins. Over the last two decades, Dr. Putnam has been collecting data on this issue from the various regional governments throughout Italy. The central question behind his research has been what are the conditions for creating strong, effective, responsive, and representative institutions in a democracy? Extremely well written, Putnam's work takes the reader logically through the research process and into the conclusion: that a region's level of civic engagement has a direct relationship to effective democratic institutions. Beginning with an overview of the research, Dr. Putnam tells us that there exists a definite difference between performance in the northern regions as compared to the southern regions. Using heightened chorale and soccer club association as a litmus test of social capital, Putnam argues that good government must first be preceded by a foundation of trust towards one's neighbor. Putnam's analysis takes the reader through three broad modes of explaining institutional performance: institutional design, socioeconomic factors, and finally sociocultural factors. The former, institutional design, we find should be discounted from the start as all of Italy was provided the same governmental backdrop. As for socioeconomic affects, Putnam points out that the southern regions, those with the least responsive institutions, were actually more industrialized and better developed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries than their northern counterparts! Why then such a disparity in performance if the two leading arguments for predicting performance are demonstrated not to hold true? As one might have guessed, sociocultural factors are to blame. The argument being that social background is linked with public policy decisions. The way a society holds its values defines how institutions are developed. For the northern regions, medieval communes and guilds from the 11th century provide a "fabric of organized collective action for mutual benefit" that is lacking in the south. Putnam argues that these foundations of community spirit are the basis for northern Italy's heightened level of social capital. The south, having a separate history, never developed such community spirit, and instead relies on individual action for the fruit of one's own labor. One then can only conclude that the seeds of civil society in any culture were planted long ago. So why read the book? Putnam's conclusions actually have bearing on today's discussion of civil society in America. As in northern Italy during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, America appears to have a declining level of social capital. But does decline equate to elimination of social capital? Clearly northern Italy seems to be social capital rich when compared with other regions. So then America, like northern Italy, can come out of its slump. When will we know? Putnam states that it would be impossible to measure northern Italian social capital at 1100 ad from the perspective of 1120 ad. So to will it be impossible for us to judge America of the 1980's and 90's from the perspective of 1998. The result, we will just have to wait and see. Good news for civic researchers of the next millenium!
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am 28. Juni 1997
This book was probably the smoothest and most interesting political science text I've read this year. Putnam ties democratic theories together clearly, making Italian regional government seem exciting. The reader will also appreciate the underlying commentary on democracy and civic participation in a global sense, particularily in the United States
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