A Cross-National Comparison of the Internal Effects of Participation in Voluntary Organizations

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Abstract

This article draws on two recent and largely untapped sources of data to test empirically the Tocquevillian argument about the impact of involvement in civic organizations on individual attitudes and behaviors. Our analysis is based on two related studies – the European Social Survey (ESS) and the US ‘Citizenship, Involvement, Democracy’ (CID) survey – that incorporate innovative and detailed measures about respondents' involvement in voluntary associations in nineteen European countries and in the United States. These surveys provide us not only with rich individual-level data within a cross-national comparison, but they also allow us to develop and test a new measure of civic involvement that distinguishes between different levels of participation. After employing our ‘civic involvement index’ in pooled and individual country analyses, we find general support for the Tocquevillian argument. On average, those persons with greater levels of involvement in voluntary organizations also engage in more political acts, have higher life satisfaction and are by and large more trusting of others than those who do not. These findings highlight the general importance of actual involvement as opposed to nominal membership.

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