Collective Civic Engagement

In collaboration with Doug McAdam at Stanford, this project aims to develop a new theoretical approach and novel empirical strategy for tackling fundamental questions about the nature and changing structure of civic life in the contemporary city. By integrating key strengths of the social movements and urban sociological paradigms, we recast debates on civil society by giving priority to variations across time and space in robust mechanisms of collective engagement in the form of non-routine events not initiated by the State or political professionals, but by groups motivated by a particular issue to act together in public space. Analyzing over 4,000 events in the Chicago metropolitan area from 1970 to 2000, we find that civic engagement is by far the dominant form of collective action and is durable over time. Although "sixties style" protest declines, we also uncover the growth of a largely overlooked hybrid that combines public claims-making with civic forms of behavior--what we call "blended social action." Furthermore, we show that dense social ties, group memberships, and neighborly exchange do not predict a greater propensity for collective action at the community level in the city of Chicago. The density of community nonprofit organizations matters instead, suggesting that declines in many forms of traditional social capital may not be as consequential for civic capacity as commonly thought. See Civil Society Reconsidered: The Durable Nature and Community Structure of Collective Civic Action, by Robert J. Sampson, Doug McAdam, Heather MacIndoe, and Simon Weffer. 2005. American Journal of Sociology Volume 111: 673-714. Commentary: Bowling Alone?: Civil Society May Not be in Such Bad Shape in Stanford Social Innovation Review (Summer 2006).

Another aim of the project is to argue that the disproportionate attention accorded the struggles of the sixties has created a stylized image of social movements that threatens to distort our understanding of popular contention, not only in earlier periods and in non-democratic contexts, but also in the contemporary U.S. This stylized view tends to equate movements with (a) disruptive protest in public settings, (b) loosely coordinated national struggles over political issues, (c) urban and/or campus based protest activities, and (d) claims-making by disadvantaged minorities. Drawing on nearly 1,000 protest events between 1970-2000 collected in the Chicago Chicago Civic Participation Study, we find the data do not support the common imagery of social movements. Since 1980 there has been a marked transformation of the movement form to the point where public protest is now largely peaceful, routine, suburban, local in nature, and initiated by the advantaged. We discuss the implications of these findings for the rise of a "movement society" in the U.S. and suggest directions for future research. See "There Will Be Fighting in the Streets:" The Distorting Lens of Social Movement Theory, by Doug McAdam, Robert Sampson, Simon Weffer, and Heather MacIndoe. 2005. Mobilization 10:1-18.