How Associations Teach the American Way

By: Joe Rominiecki

Associations make better citizens by broadening members' horizons.

In 1840's Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville lauded associations' role in leading citizens to be more engaged in democracy. Other scholars have argued, however, that associations merely attract people already inclined toward civic participation. So which is it? In a recent paper, a sociologist at Indiana University asks, why not both?

"People are always choosing to join an organization for some reasons. If, as a part of that, they encounter some of these other things that they didn't choose for, well, those things could be changing people at the same time," says Matthew Baggetta, Ph.D., an assistant professor at IU's School of Public and Environmental Affairs and Philanthropic Studies.

Baggetta identifies four features of associations that can attract members and develop them as citizens: what an association does, how it works, its group culture, and its "incidental social contexts." After joining, members can engage more deeply in the features that originally appealed to them or become involved in other features. Baggetta calls this "intensification" and "extension."

Those new experiences "have the potential to bump you in a new direction, because you're not anticipating your experience with them when you show up," Baggetta says.

Associations that skillfully work to engage their members more deeply and beyond their primary interests exemplify Tocqueville's "schools of democracy" ideal. Developing better citizens is good for associations—an engaged member is a loyal member—and it's good for society, too.

"That's the kind of thing that increases the number of people who might participate in an election and get their voice heard," Baggetta says. "And, of course, in a democracy, more voices means more accurate representation, and that's what everybody's ­hoping for."

Joe Rominiecki is a senior editor at Associations Now in Washington, DC. Email: [email protected]

Joe Rominiecki

Joe Rominiecki is a contributing editor to Associations Now.