forget the bowling league, join a choir
So you’re looking to get some good civic experience and become a major player in community politics? Although conventional wisdom would suggest that you join a bowling league or a political activist group, a new study by Matthew Baggetta in Social Forces tells us that the ideal organization for gaining valuable civic experience may be a choral society. Choral societies, Baggetta argues, have organizational characteristics ideal for providing civic training to its members. Any good civic organization should provide its members with three kinds of opportunities: chances for interpersonal interaction (i.e., network building), governance experience (including the opportunity to represent one’s fellow members), and institutional relationships (i.e., connections to other community organizations and institutions).
When compared to other kinds of civic organizations, choral societies excel in giving members exposure to all of these opportunities. Baggetta’s evidence suggests that they give more opportunities for interpersonal interaction and building institutional relationships than political organizations. The reasons for this are that choral societies do not have professional staffs like most political organizations, they are not extremely hierarchical, they tend to collaborate with other organizations in the community, and they have frequent meetings with high intensity interaction. As far as a civic organization goes, choral societies are excellent incubators for potential community leaders.
I think Baggetta’s article is especially interesting when compared to Ed Walker’s work on privatizing civic participation. As Ed has reminded us in an excellent series of blog posts, not all civic organizations are equal. Using corporate resources to create top-down, grassroots organizations (an apparent misnomer) may even even stifle community collaboration and weaken local social capital. Unlike choral societies, corporate-sponsored civic organizations may simply provide their members too few opportunities for interpersonal interaction, governance experience, and institutional relationships. Rather than build communities, these organizations may substantially weaken them.
Reading Baggetta’s paper also reminded me of the fascinating new book by Mario Small, Unanticipated Gains: Origins of Network Inequality in Everyday Life. Small argues that “people’s social capital depends fundamentally on the organizations in which they participate routinely, and that, through multiple mechanisms, organizations can create and reproduce network advantages in ways their members may not expect or even have to work for. Some organizations are more effective than others, and others are not effective at all” (pg. 5). In other words, organizations are contexts that broker relationships by providing opportunities for interaction and creating norms that either constrain or enable the formation of lasting, meaningful relationships. Small goes on to identify what characteristics make organizations effective brokers (and here you can see some divergence from Baggetta’s conceptualization):
With respect to social ties, effective brokers are likely to exhibit, among other traits, (a) many opportunities for (b) regular and (c) long-lasting interaction, (d) minimally competitive and (e) maximally cooperative institutional environments, and both (f) internal and (g) external motivations to maintain those opportunities and sustain those environments – particularly such practices that would likely contribute to organizational survival. With respect to organizational ties, effective brokers will likely demonstrate (a) resource rich and (b) diverse organizational networks in which (c) transferring resources fulfills the objectives of multiple constituencies (pg. 21).
Like Baggetta, Small maintains that an organization effective in building civic participation/social capital need not have this as a primary purpose. Rather, these organizations are just trying to survive. As is true with both choral societies and day care centers (Mario’s focus), building contexts of cooperative, frequent interaction and interorganizational networks with resource-rich diverse ties actually helps the organizations be more effective in their primary purposes (community musical performances and providing quality child care, respectively). It’s important to recognize, however, that not all organizations, like astroturf organizations for example, rely so heavily on social interaction and interorganizational networks for their survival. For this reason, these organizations, especially inasmuch as they compete with organizations that build civic participation, may be potentially destructive to community-level social capital.
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