Politics Essays – Making Democracy Work

Making Democracy WorkA Review of Robert Putnam’s Making Democracy Work

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Since its publication in 1993, Robert Putnam’s Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy has been hailed for changing the way academics and policy-makers approach the relationship between politics and society. Putnam accomplishes this feat not so much with his compelling arguments, but with the innovative methodology he employs.

Much attention has already been given to the way Putnam combines quantitative and qualitative data in his research; he amalgamates numerical data on Italian institutional performance and civic culture, with the path-dependent historical legacy that predates it. Similarly, much attention has also been focused on the introduction of social capital as a new variable worthy of social scientists’ consideration. Since these topics have already been exhausted in reviews as well as other literature connected to Putnam’s book, this essay will attempt to go a different route.

This essay will primarily argue that Putnam has successfully managed to combine both a structure and agency-centered approach into a cohesive research design project. Firstly, the structural approach is inherent in Putnam’s study due to the fact that he is attempting to analyze why Italian regions with the same political structure perform differently. Secondly, using network analysis, Putnam’s social capital and civic culture variables will be understood as being related to agency – and of affecting institutional performance. Finally, the overall strengths and weakness that arise from combining the two approaches in a research design project will be highlighted. Overall, despite several unavoidable limitations, in Making Democracy Work Putnam shows that using a combined structuration approach is capable of harvesting a fuller understanding of a particular issue – in this case, Italian institutional performance.

The Study and the Setting:

In 1970 the highly centralized Italian government set-up identical regional governmental institutions in each of the country’s twenty regions. The experiment offered Robert Putnam and his colleagues a unique opportunity to analyze institutional performance over time, and what precisely makes government work in a setting where national factors and institutional design are held constant.

Despite the fact that all the Italian regions got identical institutions, the performance of these institutions varied widely across Italy. The discrepancy between the regions – particularly between the North and the South – led Putnam to believe that “social context and history profoundly condition the effectiveness of institutions” (Putnam, 182). Therefore, in the causal argument that Putnam puts forth in order to explain what affects institutional performance, institutions are framed as both an independent and dependent variable. So to speak, even though institutions do shape politics, institutions themselves are shaped by social context and history. For this reason, Putnam considers yet another independent variable in his complex causal relationship – civic culture.

Putnam’s Methodology:

Before analyzing how structure and agency unite, and the way in which civic culture is measured in Making Democracy Work, it is worthwhile to take a look at the broader – and overarching – methodological backdrop on the grounds of which Robert Putnam’s study takes root.

The setting for the study, as alluded to above, offered Robert Putnam and his colleagues the opportunity to embark on a twenty year voyage of inquiry; their choice of vessel, a sub-national comparison. Certainly with the case of Italian institutional performance a sub-national paired comparison is sure to prove more illuminating than a cross-national comparison because one can hold-constant for national context. That being said, it is necessary to note that often when one considers cultural, historical, economic and/or socioeconomic conditions, there will invariably be cases where greater variation exists within countries than does between them (Snyder, 96).

The experience of Italy provides a unique backdrop for Putnam to study institutional performance because many factors are held constant, relatively speaking. Aside from holding institutional design constant, Italy is a far less diverse country than say India or even Russia with regards to language, religion, ethnicity, class and caste. Though it might prove hard for Putnam’s methods to travel beyond a Western context and be directly applied, it should not be held against him or discredit his book by any means.

Just because the arguments might have difficulty traveling (and we should note that Putnam’s arguments in Making Democracy Work are the underpinnings of his second book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of the American Community) does not mean that they should be judged negatively. After all, this is the precise purpose of a sub-national paired comparison – to develop theories or generalizations that one is unable to make through cross-national paired comparisons due to all the intervening variables that cannot be held constant.

Furthermore, Making Democracy Work does not qualify merely as a sub-national paired comparison. Putnam really tests his arguments against a broad spectrum. In so doing, he avoids the common problem of selection bias, and – derivatively – of false dichotomies. Putnam does not pick and choose the regions he incorporates in his study. Making Democracy Work is extensive in that it includes and considers all of the regions in Italy equally, and weighs them up against the same credo (where information permits).

In each region Putnam interprets quantitative data on institutional performance and then analyzes it alongside quantitative data regarding its civic culture. He then pushes the envelope by reaching far-beyond direct causal inference and into history. The historical qualitative data that Putnam accumulates, allows him, ostensibly, to isolate the main factor that leads to variance in institutional performance in Northern and Southern Italy – social capital.

Making Democracy Work benefits from diverse measurements – the indicators used are wide-ranging, innovative, impressive, and provide for a superior demonstration of Putnam’s arguments. In fact, it is the combination of both the quantitative and qualitative data that earn Robert Putnam and Making Democracy Work the recognition of being simultaneously both a large-N and small-N sub-national comparison.

Structural Forces:

Having laid out the methodological framework that Putnam has developed it is now possible to focus on the structuration approach that he incorporates. The explanation of institutional performance – the dependent variable – is contingent to a certain degree on a structural analysis.

While all the regions in Italy are constrained by the same national structural force – the highly centralized government, the regions are also constrained by their own historical legacies and the structures that have emerged from the past. In this sense, according to Putnam, the history of the North has cultivated an arena/structure much more conducive to proper institutional performance than has the South.

Putnam chooses twelve indicators as evidence of institutional performance, or “good government”. These indicators include: Cabinet stability, budget promptness, statistical and information services, reform legislation, legislative innovation, day care centers, family clinics, industrial policy instruments, agricultural spending capacity, local health unit expenditures, housing and urban development and bureaucratic responsiveness.

Far from agency-centered, the conditions of these indicators are all determined by the structure in which they are situated. Essentially, the greater the influence of the structure, the more predictable the political behaviour is likely to be. Following Putnam’s path-dependent argument that historical legacies shape the structural forces (which come to light from such indicators), it is important to then consider the nature of the historical legacies themselves. In Putnam’s view the historical legacies worth exploring are those of civic culture.

Analyzing the Affects Agency:

The affects of agency on Italian institutional performance is not analyzed explicitly in Making Democracy Work. Putnam does not look at individual leaders, regional representatives, or even influential citizens in any of Italy’s diverse regions – contemporarily nor historically. However, implicit in his definition of civic culture, as the “norms of reciprocity and networks of civic engagement” (Putnam, 167) is an understanding of agency nonetheless. If agency is based on the actions and decisions of a single person, it must also be based on the interactions and collective wills of many people.

A horizontal-network analysis is an ideal approach to take when trying to understand the affects of agency in regional patterns of behavior. From a nominalist point of view the researcher must use a conceptual framework to define the boundaries of the network – or who/what is and is not included in the research agenda.

For his part, Putnam proposes four indicators in which one can find evidence of a civic culture; these indicators include participation in voluntary associations, newspaper readership, referenda turnout, and personalized preference voting (or lack thereof). Even though groups like football clubs are internally heterogeneous and diverse, network analysis helps Putnam to disentangle the inherent complexity and to highlight the important aspects of functioning as a group.

To the point of emphasis, the fact that Putnam also correlates these “objective” measures with more opinion-based survey indicators of civic culture goes to show that Putnam is committed to incorporating the role of agency in his research design. Essentially, he moves from a nominalist to a more realist network analysis by focusing on the individuals. More specifically, Putnam shows that network boundaries are established based on the subjective perspectives of the network actors themselves. For this reason, the data in his research is based to large degree on surveys, questionnaires and interviews.

The difference between the North and the South of Italy therefore, can be expressed in the different types of networks they produce. Putnam considers all of the following: the different types of networks that exist, the organization of the networks, and the individuals within the networks. Relating to the different types of networks, Putnam notices that the density of networks in the North is much greater than in the South.

Not only do more social groups exist in the North, but membership in them is greater and the pattern of ties between the members is stronger. With regards to the networks’ organization, in the North there is a higher frequency of interaction, and a larger amount of emotional investment within the network. Lastly, as far as individuals are concerned, Putnam looks at subjective measures like trust, solidarity, personal closeness and ideological proximity to ultimately discern that in Northern Italy individuals are more likely to enter horizontal-networks and develop a more cohesive civic culture that fosters responsive government and higher institutional performance.

Strengths and Weakness of Structuration:

In a sense, Putnam has combined a structural and agency approach into a single research design. The structuration approach has several strength and weaknesses worth highlighting, particularly with reference to Making Democracy Work. Perhaps the major benefit of combining the analysis of structure and agency in the case of Italian institutional performance is that Putnam is able to recognize and demonstrate the interplay between the two.

Putnam shows how structures and agents are co-determining and mutually implicating. When assessing the causal relationship between civic culture and Italian institutional performance the case is made that the two entities are defined by their internal relationship, such that the two entities derive their meaning by their relationship and have no meaning or basis without the other. People produce the structure, and the structure in turn reproduces the people. So to speak, agents and structures are ontologically equal in Making Democracy Work.

Inherit in this methodological approach’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. One of the major problems with operationalizing the structuration approach is that it is often difficult to design a research strategy that can draw valid causal inferences. As with the case of Making Democracy Work, the difficulty in making inferences is determining whether something is a cause or an effect – there has to be a starting point for an analysis.

One inevitably has to choose a bottom-up or top-down approach treating either agent or structure as ontologically primitive. Robert Putnam, by discerning them ontologically equal has failed to choose a starting point for analysis. Instead of a parsimonious and simple linear causal relationship, Putnam points to vicious and virtuous circles that have led to contrasting, path dependent social equlibria (Putnam, 180). Good or bad institutional performance will further continue a history of good or bad civic culture. More so, the correlation between civic associations and social capital that Putnam professes is also circular:

While to think purely in terms of linear causation is to do injustice to the overall interconnectedness of the variables, the danger of thinking in terms of equilibria is that you develop a ‘chicken or egg’ scenario. One begins to beg the question of where in history it is right to draw the line when studying Italian civic culture?

Indeed, Putnam’s historical record has become the focus of considerable criticism from scholars. Sidney Tarrow, in “Making Social Science Work across Time and Space”, contends that social scientists go to history with a theory to prove, and do not objectively derive viable generalizations from history. History requires picking and choosing; one must even choose where in history to draw the line before beginning a study. However, if a line can always be drawn back farther one must ask whether cases can really be isolable and independent at all.

For example, can the case not be made that because the North of Italy colonized the South, that the problems of the South are really the problems of the North? Some critics say that it is unfair for Putnam to displace the problem of poor institutional performance on the South and not to consider the possibility of contamination.

However, Putnam can hardly be criticized for this – everything can be understood as ex post facto something else. Irrespective of whether Putnam is right or wrong on where in history he draws his line, Making Democracy Work should be hailed for its attempt to – regardless of its actual success at – combining quantitative and qualitative data, and structure and agency, in creating a complex causal relationship.


In Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy, Robert Putnam has successfully managed to unite both a large-N and small-N sub-national comparison into a single model of inquiry. Equally as impressive, he has successfully managed to combine both a structure and agency-centered approach into a cohesive research design project. Putnam uses a structural approach to analyze his dependent variable – political institutions, and an agency-centered approach to analyze an independent variable that has an affect on the development of political institutions and their efficacy – civic culture.

In so doing, Putnam manages to turn political institutions into an independent variable too, highlighting the interconnectedness of the two variables. Due to this interconnected circular nature of Putnam’s argument, Putnam’s study of Italian institutional performance, though both descriptive and predictive, lacks convincing prescriptive capabilities. Nevertheless, despite its prescriptive shortcomings, Putnam shows that using a combined structuration approach is capable of harvesting a fuller understanding of a particular issue – in this case, Italian institutional performance.

Works Cited

Putnam, Robert D. Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).

Snyder, Richard. “Scaling Down: The Subnational Comparative Method,” Studies in Comparative International Development 26:1 (Spring 2001), pp. 93-110.

Works Consulted

Dwainpayan, Bhattacharyya, et al. (eds.) Interrogating Social Capital: The Indian Experience. (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2004).

Furlong, Paul. “Review of: Robert Putnam’s Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy,” International Affairs 70 (January 1994), pp. 172.

Kwon, Hyeong-Ki. “Associations, Civic Norms, and Democracy: Revisiting the Italian Case,” Theory and Society 33 (2004), pp. 135-166.

Levi, Margaret. “Social and Unsocial Capital: A Review Essay of Robert Putnam’s Making Democracy Work,” Politics and Society24 (March 1996), pp. 45-55.

Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000).

Sabetti, Filippo. “Path Dependency and Civic Culture: Some Lessons from Italy About Interpreting Social Experiments,” Politics and Society 24 (March 1996), pp. 19-44.

Tarrow, Sidney. “Making Social Science Work Across Space and Time: A Critical Reflection on Robert Putnam’s Making Democracy Work,” American Political Science Review 90 (June 1996), pp. 389-397.