Prof. Theda Skocpol to Give Storrs Lectures on "Civic Engagement in American Democracy"
Civic organizations have become a prominent subject of discussion in America. Scholars and media columnists debate whether Americans' participation in voluntary associations has declined, and whether group membership reflects the health of the nation. But there is widespread agreement that such participation has long been central to American democracy.
Theda Skocpol, the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard, will use the three speeches of the 2002 Storrs Lectures to "trace the origins and development of the United States as a nation where citizens join voluntary membership organizations."
In her first lecture, subtitled "How America Became Civic," Skocpol will look back to the origin of civic associations in the United States, which was concurrent with the development of the nation itself. Many of the largest associations had a structure like the federalist U.S. government, with local chapters in many communities linked through a national organization. Skocpol explains that groups such as the Elks, unions, the PTA and morality movements urged people into active citizenship and helped form communities around shared goals. Skocpol's description will be augmented by illustrations and pictures of the membership ribbon-badges that she collects as a hobby.
Since the 1960s, however, Skocpol notes that there has been a "startling change" in the nature of civic associations in the U.S.--and her second lecture ("The Recent Shift from Membership to Management") will describe this shift. Many of the older associations are in decline, while "professionally managed" advocacy organizations are growing. The members of these latter groups are often just "mailing list members," who do not meet in person. Skocpol names the Children's Defense Fund, Common Cause, and trade interest groups as examples of such organizations.
Her third lecture, "Reinventing American Civic Democracy," will consider "what this all means for the health and vitality of American democracy." Skocpol will join the debate about the meaning of civic associations in American society today. She will also "suggest what the analysis implies for the ills in American democracy and some possible solutions." But Skocpol emphasizes that she doesn't have all of the answers and hopes to invite others into the discussion.
Skocpol is a political scientist and sociologist, and she is currently president-elect of the American Political Science Association. In thinking about speaking before a Yale Law School audience, she says: "I'm sure I'll get a lot of tough questions. . . . But I like to argue, too, so I'm not worried."
The lectures are derived from Skocpol's forthcoming book, Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life (University of Oklahoma Press).