Participation and Local Political Culture: Analysis of Recent Nationwide Trends in Volunteering

68 Pages Posted: 23 Oct 2017

See all articles by Mary Vansuch

Mary Vansuch

University of Chicago; District of Columbia Public Schools

Date Written: October 22, 2017


Volunteer behavior and participation can be a proxy for social capital accumulation. Using the Census’ Current Population Survey, we test two basic questions:

1. Has social capital accumulation in the form of participating in volunteer organizations increased or decreased over time? What factors influence participation?

2. How does local political culture influence participation and volunteer behavior?

We find strong evidence of an Elazar-style breakdown of US political culture in the form of volunteer work. We hypothesize that building social capital through volunteering is more strongly favored and prestigious in moralistic cultures. We find that the moralistic, agricultural Midwest resembles the traditionalistic South in traditional volunteer activities such as Religion because these regions draw their morality from traditional sources such as the Bible. However, in moralistic regions such as New England, the Pacific Northwest, and to a lesser extent the Mountainous Midwest, volunteering New Political Culture issue-specific volunteering is more common than the country as a whole. These regions maintain the strong Puritan tradition of helping others and prestige in volunteering generally, but have moved on from valuing traditional morality like religion to new issues like the environment. We still find that individualistic cultures tend not to volunteer as much, but that Alaska may be actually moralistic in nature and California more individualistic, as opposed to Elazar’s original classifications.

We find some evidence that Putnam’s diagnosis of declining civic participation may be partially correct. For every type of organization except environmental, we find that volunteering as increased over the last decade. This is true of most volunteer activities as well. However, the exception of “working with people in your neighborhood to solve a problem” is non-trivial. Participation has increased, all else equal, since the question was originally asked in 2006. “Working with people in your neighborhood” was the question best designed to parse out volunteer activities not done through any organization. An increasing in working with people in your neighborhood while formal organizational activity has decreased suggests that Putnam is correct in that formal organizational membership is declining, but Clark is also correct in that informal organization is stagnant or increasing. The social landscape is simply changing, not weakening.

Keywords: Social Capital, Volunteering, Political Culture, Sociology, Urban Sociology, Rural Sociology

Suggested Citation

Vansuch, Mary, Participation and Local Political Culture: Analysis of Recent Nationwide Trends in Volunteering (October 22, 2017). Available at SSRN: or

Mary Vansuch (Contact Author)

University of Chicago ( email )

1101 East 58th Street
Chicago, IL 60637
United States

District of Columbia Public Schools ( email )

1200 First St NW
Washington, DC 20002
United States

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