Editor's Introduction  

The World According to Theda Skocpol

Ronald M. Peters, Jr.

This issue of Extensions features the contributions of Theda Skocpol to our understanding of politics. As the ninth Julian J. Rothbaum Lecturer in Representative Government, Professor Skocpol joins a distinguished group of statesmen and scholars who have spoken from the Rothbaum lecturn (see box). The Rothbaum lecturers are an intellectually diverse group, and that diversity is reflected in the variety of topics that they have addressed. The Rothbaum Lectureship is devoted to the themes of representative government and citizen participation in public affairs. The books that have emanated from the lecture series address these themes in a variety of ways, but none more directly than will Theda Skocpol's. 

Drawing on her current study of large-scale civic associations in America, Professor Skopcol examined the origins, transformation, and future of civic engagement in a series of three lectures delivered at the University of Oklahoma in late October. Her lectures will be revised and extended for publication by the University of Oklahoma Press. 

Skocpol's research is timely with respect to the larger national and academic debate over civic engagement and levels of political participation in the United States. During the 1990s, civic organizations such as the League of Woman Voters, and other organizations such as the National Commission on Civic Renewal, have focused with concern on the perceived decline in levels of civic and political activity in America. These days a good way to measure public interest in any topic is to surf the Internet for relevant sites. Plug "civic engagement" into your browser and you will be directed to a number of web sites devoted specifically to the subject.1

Debate has raged within the scholarly community as well. Concern about levels of civic engagement has been expressed among students of social movements, political development, religion and politics, political behavior, comparative politics, and local politics. Adherents of  these various perspectives reflect a variety of ideological commitments as well. Some communitarians, for example, bemoan the loss of an earlier golden era in which neighborhoods were vital, churches involved, and local volunteer clubs active. Social movement activists recall the days of the civil rights and anti-war movements, and they see a decline in social and political engagement on the national stage. 

Perhaps the most widely discussed scholarly approach to the civic engagement debate is that of Harvard scholar Robert Putnam. Putnam's research into the development of a democratic civic culture in Italy had led him to the conclusion that a nation's "social capital" was the key variable affecting the emergence of democratic political culture. By "social capital" Putnam referred to the history and tradition of civic associations, involvement in community life, and the corresponding development of a strong civic culture. The higher a polity's social capital, the better its prospects to democratize. In examining the path of social capital in the United States, Putnam finds it on the decline. Employing the metaphor, "bowling alone," Putnam finds that more Americans are bowling even as membership in bowling leagues has dramatically declined. The rise of individualistic, as opposed to communal, patterns of activity runs through contemporary American culture. 

Putnam's research focuses mostly on local organizations, and local chapters of translocal organizations. By contrast, Skocpol's civic engagement research project focuses on 57 vast membership organizations, those enrolling at least one percent of the population of the United States at some point in their history or, in the case of gender specific organizations, one percent of the relevant gender. This focus is hardly accidental. Skocpol is known for "bringing the state back in," an argument that the state is a powerful independent variable in explaining social change and that the powerful state is necessary for social justice. If Putnam wants to focus on social capital as a necessary prerequisite for a viable democracy, Skocpol wants to argue that a just democracy requires engagement on a larger scale.

Thus, Theda Skocpol's Julian J. Rothbaum Lectures present her current research as logical extension of her previous research. Her focus on civic engagement through large, translocal associations is the application of her general world view to the hottest issue of the day. This suggests that an understanding of her posture toward the civic engagement debate must presuppose an understanding of its intellectual roots.

Towards this end, three members of the political science faculty at the University of Oklahoma joined with Professor Skocpol in a symposium from which this issue of Extensions takes its title: The World According to Theda Skocpol. Professor Robert Henry Cox provides an excellent synthesis of Theda Skocpol's contributions to the field of comparative politics. He discusses the "new institutionalism" through which she has sought to bring the state back in to comparative political analysis, her recovery of the past through the "events-historical method," her innovations in the subfield of comparative public policy, and the manner in which she has bridged the gulf that had come to divide students of American politics from their counterparts focusing on other countries and regimes. He then poses what he takes to be the most prevalent current challenge to her work: that ideas as well as institutions have causal and consequential effects on politics.

Professor Jos Raadschelders is an administrative historian who specializes in the historical development of state institutions. He applies the historical method to an interpretation of Skocpol's historical institutionalism, suggesting that it represents the fourth and most recent step in the evolution of systematic comparative research. In Raadschelders's view, Skocpol has found the middle ground between micro-analytic approaches that focus on the behavior of individuals and macro-analytic approaches that stress the behavior of groups. Skocpol sees institutions as the link between individual and group behavior. This has implications for the study of public administration which, after all, has always stressed the role of institutions in shaping political life.

Another field to which Professor Skocpol's work has made important contributions is American politics and especially its subfield of American political development. Professor Ann Marie Szymanski traces Skocpol's voyage from the "historical-institutionalist" paradigm developed in States and Social Revolutions to a reconciliation of what Szymanksi calls a "domesticated Marxism" with a Weberian social science in Protecting Soldiers and Mothers. This synthesis of intellectual traditions gives rise to a new focus on political history that situates institutions at the center of interpretation and explanation. It also contributes to the intellectual foundations of an entire new approach to the study of American politics in which political actors, events, and issues are interpreted from a developmental perspective, and political scientists are called back to the archives in order to explain what really happened (or did not happen). 

These three interpretations of Professor Skocpol's contributions to the study of politics are not without edge. Professor Cox challenges Professor Skocpol on the grounds that her "events-historical method" stresses institutions at the expense of ideas. Professor Raadschelders asks what a more specifically articulated Skocpolian theory would imply for our understanding of the administrative state, and challenges that theory to speak truth to power. Professor Szymanski identifies what she takes to be the latent ideological underpinnings of Professor Skocpol's project, thus challenging its claim to scientific objectivity. 

Of course, Professor Skocpol is fully prepared to respond to these three analyses of her work. As she can speak better for herself than I can for her, I will not attempt to summarize her statement in this space. I will suggest that this dialogue, taken together, offers a thoughtful and provocative window on the world according to Theda Skocpol.


Note

1. Of particular interest are: the La Jolla Institute at http://www.lajollainstitute.org/leadernet/civicpart.html; The League of Women Voters at http://lwv.org; and The National Commission on Civic Renewal at http://www.puaf.umd.edu/civicrenewal
 



 

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