's Comparative Politics/How Do Cultural Patterns Influence Institutions?

NOTE: In this subsection there are 3 readings, a look at political institutions from a historic perspective, a look at civil society's definition, causes and functions, and finally a look at how contemporary organizations use our understanding of culture, social organizations and leadership (political institutions) to enhance engagement.

Political Institutions and Their Historical Dynamics


Mikael Sandberg1,2*, Per Lundberg1

1 Theoretical Population Ecology and Evolution Group, Department of Biology, Lund University, Lund, Sweden, 2 School of Social and Health Sciences, Halmstad University, Halmstad, Sweden



Traditionally, political scientists define political institutions deductively. This approach may prevent from discovery of existing institutions beyond the definitions. Here, a principal component analysis was used for an inductive extraction of dimensions in Polity IV data on the political institutions of all nations in the world the last two centuries. Three dimensions of institutions were revealed: core institutions of democracy, oligarchy, and despotism. We show that, historically and on a world scale, the dominance of the core institutions of despotism has first been replaced by a dominance of the core institutions of oligarchy, which in turn is now being followed by an increasing dominance by the core institutions of democracy. Nations do not take steps from despotic, to oligarchic and then to democratic institutions, however. Rather, nations hosting the core democracy institutions have succeeded in historically avoiding both the core institutions of despotism and those of oligarchy. On the other hand, some nations have not been influenced by any of these dimensions, while new institutional combinations are increasingly influencing others. We show that the extracted institutional dimensions do not correspond to the Polity scores for autocracy, “anocracy” and democracy, suggesting that changes in regime types occur at one level, while institutional dynamics work on another. Political regime types in that sense seem “canalized”, i.e., underlying institutional architectures can and do vary, but to a considerable extent independently of regime types and their transitions. The inductive approach adds to the deductive regime type studies in that it produces results in line with modern studies of cultural evolution and memetic institutionalism in which institutions are the units of observation, not the nations that acts as host for them.



Traditionally, political institutions are defined deductively in political science. Already Aristotle deductively distinguished between democracy, oligarchy and tyranny on the basis of his taxonomy of constitutions [1]. Such distinctions are still common. For example, the major institutions of democracy, ‘parliamentarism’ and ‘presidentialism’, are defined in term of who appoints the government according to the constitution. Similarly, ‘democracy’, in modern political theory, has been defined as “that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people's vote” [2], or a political system “responsive to all citizens” [3]. These definitions are not results of prior empirical tests, experiments or investigation of all observed institutions, but are classifications developed on the basis of common knowledge, logic and conceptual distinctions. One problem with this conceptually rather than empirically driven approach is that one can never be sure that these man-made classifications of institutions—or other conceptually defined phenomena—correspond to actually existing conditions. A serious consequence of this approach is that institutions that have not been conceptually defined cannot be detected. If natural sciences had followed the research principles of political science, no discoveries beyond a priori conceptualization could have been made.

One can argue that institutions, just like genes, are particulate units. An institution, just like a gene, exists or not. Further, one could argue that the possible combinations of non-existing and existing institutions at any time and social space are beyond quantitative limits; any political or social unit may have an infinite number of combinations of institutions and the lack of them. In analogy with Dawkins' expression, “however many ways there may be of being alive, it is certain that there are vastly more ways of being dead, or rather not alive” [4], one task for the political or social scientist should be to detect exactly what combinations of existing and non-existing institutions there actually are in each political system over time. For example, rule of law, or the lack of rule of law, can be combined with parliamentarism or the lack of parliamentarism (such as presidentialism), in turn combined with various types of elections systems. However, considering the number of institutions, nation-states and years of their existence, this task is a challenge for an industry of political scientist. The idea in this study is therefore to limit the endeavor to the investigation of already existing institutional data for an inductive exploration and analysis. What key dimensions among institutional variants at nation-state level can be found using already existing data? How have these institutional dimensions evolved over time? What nation-states have these institutions been able to “invade” and for what periods in time? What can we learn from this exploration of institutional data inductively in relation to traditional deductive approaches? In particular, how do these inductively extracted institutions relate to the regime types understood and defined deductively?

In the definitions of ‘institutions’, as well as in the approaches to studying them, political science has been greatly influenced by institutional economics (such as [5], [6]–[8], for an overview see [9]). In particular, North's understanding of institutions as “rules of the game” or more specifically the “humanly devised constraints that structure political, economic and social interaction” [6] has been hugely influential. Ostrom has applied a similar concept of institutions in various studies of the commons (exploitation of common local resources) in ways that come closer to a political economics of political science [10]. Traditional subfields of political science, however, have made historically fewer contributions to institutional theory (see however [11], [12]–[14]), despite the ancient traditions from Aristotle. Instead, deductively motivated empirical analyses of institutions are more common in political science; in particular studies of what is first defined as democracy and then explained in terms of ‘requisites’, determinants and diffusion patterns ([15]–[45] to name of few studies in this field). Interestingly, compared with the numerous studies of democracy and its correlates, much less research has focused on non-democratic regime-types. This is unfortunate, since the potential for democracy's survival depends on the regime-type it succeeds. In particular Dahl [4] and Linz and Stepan [28] acknowledge this understanding of historical dynamics in their analysis of fundamental pathways toward a consolidated democracy.

Materials and Methods


If institutional economics is richer in theory, institutional political science is richer in data. In particular, the Polity IV data set is interesting since it covers all nation-states with a population of more than 500,000 inhabitants for all years starting from 1800 [27], [39], [46]–[49]. The Polity IV data set includes a number of institutional (ordinal scale) variables. These variables have typically been used for measuring the degree of autocracy and democracy as well as the institutional steps between the two (“anocracy”). As described in their Polity IV codebook [47], the autocracy value subtracted from the democracy value gives the “Polity score” from -10 (strongly autocratic) to 10 (strongly democratic). The variables are the product of the conceptual work of Eckstein and Gurr [49] and though it is thus a list of institutions defined deductively, the resulting variable list of institutions is the result of pragmatic operationalization (see especially [47], p. 16). Polity IV is the most impressive data set of political institutions from an explorative point of view. The rational in this study can be formulated as “it is more likely you find the key the more lampposts there are”, and it can be economical to search there before investing in further illumination.

The institutions that the Polity IV data set measures are, first, three variables of executive recruitment: (1) regulation of chief executive recruitment, (2) competitiveness of executive recruitment, and (3) openness of executive recruitment; second, one variable on the independence of executive authority: (4) executive constraints (decision rules); and, third, two variables on political competition and opposition: (5) regulation of participation, and (6) competitiveness of participation. Since these six variables are ordinal scales, each of their values can be transformed into separate variables. In this case, we end up with 30 institutions with values 0 if they do not occur in a country a particular year, or 1 if they do (see Appendix S1). These 30 variables of political institutions are strongly correlated and it is obviously the case the there is a significant redundancy among them. In addition, they suffer from group-wise singularity, since they are created from original variables in which the values are mutually exclusive. What we need is therefore a technique to find the most important, uncorrelated dimensions behind the values of these variables, i.e. to reduce the number of variables into key dimensions and at the same time splitting up their group-wise singularities. This is why a principal component analysis (PCA) with strict selection criteria is used. PCA is a procedure for reducing the number of variables in both cross section and time series data in cases where no causation is assumed between the variables. PCA reduces the number of variables into a set of principal components that are uncorrelated and account for most of the variance. Each principal component is a linear combination of the original variables so it is often possible to ascribe meaning to what the components represent, in this case an “institutional dimension” (correlated institutions that differ from other dimensions of correlated institutions). PCA is similar to factor analysis, but has the advantage that it does not rely, as opposed to factor analysis, on any assumption of underlying causal structure [50], [51]. In this case the analysis has been based on the Polity IV original data set, covering the years 1800–2007. The procedure has been the following.

Polity data was first transformed into the 30 dummy variables as described above and in the Appendix S1. The 30 variables were included in an initial principal component analysis, using varimax (orthogonal) rotation on a covariance matrix. Applying a number of selection criteria in repeated PCAs, the number of valid variables was reduced for arriving at a robust solution and avoiding singularity. Variable finally selected were only those that: (1) gave a solution with commonalities ≥0.50, (2) high loading (≥0.50) on only one component, (3) made possible the reproduction of acceptable levels of commonalities and the same components in repeated analyses with randomly selected halves of the sample, (4) had values ≥0.50 in the diagonal table of anti-image correlations, (5) had a value ≥0.50 on the Kaiser-Meyer-Olkin measure of sampling adequacy, (6) had a significant value (<.000) on the Bartlett test of sphericity, and (7) a value ≥0.70 on Chronbach's alpha for the extracted variables of each principle factor (alpha = 0.716, 0.878 and 0.681 for the three dimensions, indicating a somewhat weaker reliability of the third component, based on the two core institutions of despotism, should they be used as a scale, something which is not the case in this study). Only seven of the 30 original variables passed these tests. In three cases were two values from the original variables kept, thus indicating that the problem of singularity had been avoided to a great extent. In addition, component loadings found to be ≥3.0 were excluded as outliers (642 of 15520, or 4,2%), as recommended by the SPSS documentation.



The principal component analysis on Polity IV data 1800–2007 reveal three components which together explain more than 83 percent of the total variance of the seven variables that passed the tests listed above (table 1).

The first dimension: core institutions of democracy


In the first dimension we find the following institutions (values on Polity IV variables): (1) Regulation of Participation: regulated, (2) Competitiveness of Participation: competitive, and (3) Executive Constraints: parity or subordination.

Regulated and competitive participation and subordination of the executive is at heart of democracy. The three institutions are part of an institutional dimension to which democracies belong. Regulated participation indicates that there are binding rules for when and how political preferences are expressed. Both one-party states and Western democracies exhibit regulated participation but they do so in different ways. Marshall and Jaggers state that ”regulated” implies that [47]:

relatively stable and enduring political group regularly compete for political influence and positions with little use of coercion. No significant groups, issues, or types of conventional political action are regularly excluded from the political process.

The next variable in the analysis supports this conclusion. Second highest ranking on this first dimension is given competitiveness of participation. Marshall and Jaggers state that this value indicates “stable and enduring, secular political groups which regularly compete for political influence at the national level” [47]. Under the third institution parity and subordination in executive constraints, accountability groups “have effective authority equal to or greater than the executive in most areas of activity”, such as “a legislature, ruling party, or council of nobles initiates much or most important legislation” (p. 25).

Nations with all three core institutions of democracy may or may not be democratic as defined by the Polity score, for which 6 is considered the threshold value for being democracy, as recommended on the Polity IV home page. Several countries are defined as democracies in Polity score terms without having acquired the three core democracy institutions, such as Albania, democratic since 2002, Argentina, democratic in 1973–75 and since 1983, and Armenia, democratic in 1991–94. In fact there are 118 countries that have at least one year been democratic, while only 43 countries have ever fulfilled the criteria of having all the three institutions of the core democracy dimension. On the other hand, the 43 countries with the core democracy institutions in place are not always considered democratic in terms of the Polity score the same years. The reason is that the Polity score is the sum of both institutionalized democracy and (the negative value of) institutionalized autocracy. A value over 6 can therefore be based on a very high value of democracy and a low (negative) value of autocracy.

In some cases, the Polity score definition of democracy and acquisition of the three core institutions of democracy coincide. Australia, for example, has the three core democratic institutions from 1901- and indeed more than 6 on the Polity score from the same year. Austria, on the other hand, had the core democracy institutions from 1946-, while being democratic in the sense of having more than 6 on the Polity score already in 1920–32. Belgium had the three core institutions in 1919–38 and in 1944–2006, while its Polity score is above six already from 1843. Canada had the core democracy institutions from 1921, but was democracy already from 1888. Chile had gained the three core democratic institutions from 2006, but was considered democratic in Polity score terms between 1964 and 1972, and from 1989. As Chile's case illustrates, a society can be considered democracy without having all critical democratic institutions in place, and one might hypothesize that the nations lacking the core democratic institutions are more likely to become victims of reversals into non-democratic regime types than those that have them. On the other hand, democracy may also lead to the subsequent introduction of the lacking core democratic institutions that may consolidate democracy. In fact, in all cases, except Egypt 1922–27, nations are considered democratic in Polity score terms the same year or prior to gaining the three core democracy institutions. Democracy as regime type obviously may “breed” or innovate its own consolidating institutions, if they are not at hand initially (see Appendix S2). Figure 1 describes the historical dynamics of this dimension in terms of how many nations acquired each of the three core institutions of democracy.

If we instead look at the historic evolution of the core democracy dimension of institutions, the US as first polity gains the core three institutions in 1845, but in 1849–1871, in connection with the Civil War, fails to fulfill these criteria. Switzerland from 1848 is the only country with an unbroken sequence of years with the required values on the three dimension variables until the present day. In 1857, as third nation acquiring the core democracy variable values, we find New Zealand. In 1880, Greece, as fourth country, meets the criteria. In 1890, Costa Rica becomes the fifth polity of the democracy dimension, and in 1898 Norway becomes the sixth. By 1927, we have 17 nations of that dimension: Australia, Belgium, Canada, Costa Rica, Denmark, Egypt, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. In connection with the World War II, the number decreased to eight. From the 1950s, with the exception for some of the years in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, the increase of nations with the three institutions of the democracy dimension is monotonic. In 2006, the number of nations having the three core democracy institutions is 35 (figure 1).

The second dimension: oligarchy


The second component given by the principal component analysis in table 1 is called ‘oligarchic’ due to the factional or sectarian institutions involved: Competitiveness of Participation: factional and Regulation of Participation: sectarian. The variables of the factional or sectarian institutions focus on participation and regulation of participation. The factional aspect of competition in participation is defined by Marshall and Jaggers as polities “with parochial or ethnic-based political factions that regularly compete for political influence in order to promote particularist agendas and favor group members to the detriment of common, secular, or cross-cutting agendas” [47]. Factional competitiveness is thus typical to divided societies that have not created sufficient institutions for democracy. The second variable, regulation of participation: sectarian, imply that political demands are characterized by “incompatible interests and intransigent posturing among multiple identity groups and oscillate more or less regularly between intense factionalism and government favoritism” [47]. The term ‘oligarchic’ in this case implies the institutions where one identity group favors group members in central allocations and restrict competing group's activities and when significant portions of the population historically have been excluded from access to power.

In 2000, Algeria, Angola, Burundi, Chad, Estonia, Ethiopia, Guinea, Iran, Ivory Coast, Kazakhstan, Liberia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Togo, Tunisia, Turkey, Yemen, and Zimbabwe (19 nations) had positive values on the two variables in the faction/sectarian (oligarchic) dimension. The dimension's all time high was in 1886–1889, when 29 countries had both core oligarchy institutions. Historical dynamics are described in Figure 2.

The third dimension: despotism


In the third principal component variable we find the variable values Executive Constraints: unlimited authority and Openness of Executive Recruitment: closed.

An inspection of the two variables of this third dimension of principal component reveals that we deal here with societies in which there “are no regular limitations on the executive's actions”, such as [47]:

1. Constitutional restrictions on executive action are ignored.

2.Constitution is frequently revised or suspended at the executive's initiative.

3. There is no legislative assembly, or there is one but it is called and dismissed at the executive's pleasure.

4.The executive appoints a majority of members of any accountability group and can remove them at will.

5.The legislature cannot initiate legislation or veto or suspend acts of the executive.

6.Rule by decree is repeatedly used.

Such regimes are strongly correlated with polities in which executive recruitment is closed [47]:

1.Chief executives are determined by hereditary succession, e.g. kings, emperors, beys, emirs, etc. who assume executive powers by right of descent.

2.Executive recruitment is closed to everyone who is not a member of the hegemonic party/faction that controls the government. For these reasons it is natural to call the dimension ‘despotism’ in modern terminology, corresponding to the otherwise tempting Aristotelian term ‘tyranny’. Nations exhibiting the positive values on the variables of this dimension at least one year since the mid 1990s are only three: Bhutan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. In the periods 1816–17 and 1824–1830, however, there were 22 nations with the two core despotic institutions. Historical dynamics of this dimension is given in Figure 3.



As mentioned, there were 642 outliers in the material, constituting the 4.2 percent of the 15520 country-year cases with higher loading than the 3.0 recommended as ceiling by SPSS documentation for the saved component loadings. Typically, these countries did not combine despotic unlimited authority in executive recruitment with the expected closed executive recruitment of the despotic dimension. Since the late 1920s, a substantial number of these political systems instead combined despotic unlimited authority in executive recruitment with a factional regulation of participation. They thus exhibited other combinations of institutions than those of the major dimensions.

Comparative dynamics of institutional dimensions


The three institutional dimensions have interesting historical dynamics, as is obvious from the figure 4, in which percentages of country cases with all the core institutions of despotism, oligarchy and democracy are given. In the last two centuries, the despotism dimension decreases from over 70 percent of all nations in 1800 to less than 5 percent in 2000.

The oligarchic dimension increases in the mid 1800s, with a peak around 1885, and then declines to around five percent in the 1980s, with two recoils around 1950 and 2000. The democracy dimension is slowly increasing with wave-like steps ahead in the beginning of the last century, in the early twenties, thirties and fifties, but recoiling into a rift around the Second World War. From the three dimensions one can hypothesize a substitution in the sense that oligarchic institutions succeed the despotic, and the democracy dimension replaces the oligarchic. This hypothesis does not find support in evidence at nation-state level, however (see Table 2 and Appendix S2). On the contrary, the nations having the core three democratic institutions tend previously to have had neither the core despotic nor the core oligarchic institutions. For instance, only Austria, Belgium, Chile, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Uruguay (12 nations) have both had oligarchic and democratic core institutions, while 22 nations have had the three core democratic but never the core oligarchic institutions. Only eight of the 43 nations that ever have gained the core democratic institutions have also previously had core despotic institutions; Austria, Denmark, Egypt, Japan, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden. These facts suggest a path-dependency among political institutions in the sense that an oligarchic or despotic past seems to be an impediment to later acquisition of the core democracy institutions. Indeed, an OLS regression of the sum of values of the core despotism and oligarchy institutions on the sum of values on the democratic dimension explains only 0.076 of the variance (R squared), but the standardized regression coefficient of the oligarchy dimension is −0.21*** as compared with −0.18*** for the despotism dimension, indicating that oligarchy has slightly more negative influence than despotism on acquisitions of the core democracy institutions.

Interestingly, the “market saturation” is decreasing, that is, a much lower share of the world's nations are exhibiting any of the dimensions in the 20th than in the 19th century. In the 1800s, more than three fourths of the nations belonged to the despotism dimension, and nearly the rest the oligarchic. As the oligarchic dimension expands in the world system, at the cost of despotism, some countries are lost and not yet influenced by the core democracy institutions. The tide is lowest during World War II: together the despotism, oligarchy and democracy dimension influence less than half of the nations. After the war, the core democracy institutions gain momentum and around the end of the 1900th century, its “market share” is more than 20 percent. Together with oligarchic and despotism institutions, around a third of the nation-states are influenced. The rest of the 160 nations have none of these dimensions in full. So, as democratic institutions substitute the oligarchic and the despotism dimensions, there is an increasing share of country cases with idiosyncratic institutional set ups, indicating an increasing institutional diversity. Not only are there many countries that are not influenced by any dimension in full. Some nations are instead affected by more than one dimension and other institutions than those included in the three major dimensions. The situation is quantified in table 2 and described in country case detail in Appendix S2.

As we can notice in table 2, there are 539 country and year cases with both the despotism and oligarchy dimensions present. In addition, they all have one of the three institutions of the democratic dimension. Even among countries with a maximum value on the democracy dimension, there are 6 country and year cases (Egypt 1922–1927) with one of the despotism institutions. So, nation-states may host several institutional dimensions depending on the exact composition of constituent institutions.

Comparing deductive and inductive definitions


One should keep in mind that the evolution of the institutional dimensions occurs across nations with varying degree of democracy and autocracy as defined by the Polity score [47]. In figure 5, we see that institutions from the democracy dimension dominate only in the Polity score 10 value (strong democracy), while the despotism dimension is found in the −10 score (strong autocracy) and occasionally in the −10 to −6 scores. The oligarchy dimension is frequent in the −6 to 7 revised Polity score, but not systematically, indicating a weak correlation between these dimensions and the deductively constructed Polity score (Pearson's r: 0.721** with the democracy dimension, −0.016 with the oligarchy dimension and −0.617** with the despotism dimension). Only the inductively extracted core institutional democracy and despotism dimensions are strongly related to the revised Polity score, which in turn is created from two Polity IV variables—the autocracy value subtracted from the democracy value. Normally, as described on the Polity IV home page, countries with a Polity score +6 to +10 are deductively defined “democratic”. Results here show that this deductive regime classification does not correspond to inductively extracted core institutional dimensions. In particular, the deductive regime type classification is void of oligarchy as regime type, despite the fact that, at institutional level, there is one core oligarchic institutional dimension extractable in the material.

The figure 5 clearly shows how deductive versus inductive approaches to institutional analysis produce quite different results. Clearly, the deductive and inductive approaches to classification produce answers to different questions. The deductive approach answers the question to what degree the nations' regime types fulfill the requirements we define as democracy versus autocracy (or “anocracy”, as suggested by Polity IV). But the core democracy, oligarchy and despotism dimensions do not fit neatly into the deductive autocracy-anocracy-democracy scale of the Polity score. In particular, the core oligarchy dimension is scattered in several Polity score values and years. The deductive scale and the inductive dimension obviously cut data quite differently. The inductive approach instead produces information about major dynamics historically at institutional level. For instance, we are informed that nations may simultaneously be hosts of core institutions of different political dimensions. The two approaches thus produce knowledge from the regime versus the institutional perspectives. The deductive approach reveals historical degree of nation-state democracy as we conceptualize it in one case. The inductive approach gives insights into dimension of political institutions as they evolve over time across all regime types in all nations. This fact implies that the results of this study do not necessarily contradict results of recent studies of dynamics in transitions between autocracy and democracy [43], but that units, levels and perspectives of analysis are different. The inductively found variable values of the three institutional dimensions open up for a new approach to studies of the underlying institutional dynamics of the political regimes as we know them. Rather than only considering each nation each year a democracy, “anocracy” or autocracy with a specific Polity score and specific institutions at hand, we discover that institutions exhibit dynamics below and in interaction with changes at the regime type level. In some cases, core institutions of more than one regime-type invade regimes; in others there is a lack of any of the core institutions in a regime. We therefore conclude that the political meso-scale (the political institutional level) and the macro-scale (regime types) partly have decoupled dynamics and that the derivation of regime type from institutions is not always straightforward. The increase of the democratic regime type over time does imply that a certain set of institutions also becomes more widespread, but not unambiguously so. A smaller fraction of the world's polities cannot easily be categorized as any given regime type. The reason for this increase in institutional diversity calls for an evolutionary understanding of how the meso- and macros-scales of political culture are interacting.



Traditionally, political scientists define democracy as well as other political institutions conceptually and deductively. Attempts are made to fit polities and nations into pre-defined categories and classes. This approach may prevent from discovery of actually existing institutions or dimensions of institution that are outside of the scope of the definitions. Here, a principal component analysis was used as a tool for inductive extraction of institutional dimensions in the Polity IV data. Three dimensions were revealed, based on seven institutional variables that passed a strict series of test for a principal component analysis. The three recovered dimensions correspond to intuitively sensible categories, but now being the result of posterior classification. The overall time dynamics of those dimensions are the core institutions of the regime types democracy, oligarchy and despotism. The despotism dimension was historically succeeded by the oligarchic dimension, which in turn was followed by the democratic. Curiously, this result is congruent with Aristotle's classic distinctions between the three ‘deviant’ (unjust) constitutions of city-states: democracy, oligarchy and ‘tyranny’ (!). We also show that some country cases are influenced by none of these, some only by one dimension, while a few have had institutions from two or three of these core institutional variables. Nation-states' regimes do not typically take steps from core institutions of despotism, to oligarchy, and finally to democracy, however. In fact, core institutions of despotism and oligarchy of a regime impede the later acquisition of core democratic institutions, even if there are a number of exceptions to this rule. Our conclusion is therefore that, instead of only considering each nation each year a democracy or autocracy with a specific Polity score, we should also study how institutional dimensions and institutions evolve historically across nations' regime types. Our results are in line with modern studies of cultural evolution and evolutionary (memetic) institutionalism [43], [54]–[56], where institutions are considered the units of observation, not the nations or polities that act as host for them. Results here add to these new areas of research in suggesting that the relationship between the meso-scale dimensions of political institutions and the macro-scale regime types may be considered analogous to the biological distinction between genotypes and phenotypes. In biology, many quantitative traits are genetically canalized [52], [53], i.e., insensitive to the exact genetic architecture underlying the trait development. Small to moderate genetic changes are invisible at the trait level. In the same vein, political regime types can apparently also be canalized; the underlying institutional architecture can vary; sometime quite considerably, yet the regime type prevails. To understand the interactions between the dynamics of the political institutions and the transitions of regime-types is a critical challenge for a modern, evolutionary political science.

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CIVIL SOCIETY: Definitions, Causes, and Functions


by GUO Gang

Department of Political Science

University of Rochester

May 1998



Recent years has seen a proliferation of the literature about civil society. One way to look at it is as a revitalization of the concept of civil society. In the long tradition of thoughts since the Enlightenment political philosophers (especially Montesquieu), Hegel, and Tocqueville, this concept has been kept alive for centuries. After World War II, in retrospection of this greatest bloodbath the world has ever known, scholars employed this concept in the investigation into the reasons why some democracies survived the Great Depression while others crumbled and gave way to Fascism. Almond and Verba’s The Civic Culture is one of the major examples in the 1960s. The revitalization of the concept of civil society in the past two decades can be at least partially attributed to the inspiration aroused by the resistance of the autonomous civil societies against the post-totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The dramatic democratic transitions in these areas and in other Third World countries during these two decades, the so-called "third wave", provided new opportunities and challenges to the study of civil society.

In this paper I try to outline this tradition and revitalization of the concept of civil society. Inevitably there are both continuity and change between them. So my approach will be from three parallel perspectives, i.e., the definition, causes, and functions of civil society.

In Section II, I will analyze the dichotomization in the definitions of civil society: one is from the "civic culture" point of view, defined principally in terms of the relationship between the state and the society; the other is from the perspective of voluntary associational life. Regarding the latter mainly as the institutionalization of the former, I will proceed in this paper with special emphasis on the organized social life. Also in Section II, I will address another important question in the definitions of civil society, that is, should we include political organizations and economic organizations in the sphere of civil societies?

In Section III, I will go over the explorations that have been made about the causes of civil society. I can discern from the literature three different accounts of the causal mechanisms that generate civil society: some scholars seem to take civil society as mostly self-generating; others find the causes of civil society in economic development and material improvement; and still others think that the independent interests are the underlying driving force.

In Section IV, I will examine the most complicated and also the most controversial point about civil society: its functions. This section will be divided into three parts, dealing respectively with three of the major fields of controversy about the functions of civil society, i.e., the economic function, the society-stabilizing function, and the democratic function. The third part will also focus on the role of civil society in the "third wave" of global shift toward democracy. Last, Section V concludes with some suggestions for future avenues of research on civil society.



Early European political philosophers mainly defined civil society in the context of the relationship between the state and the society. For Hobbes and even more clearly for Locke, the state originates in, is ultimately answerable to, and is therefore identified with (but not identical to) civil society. For later philosophers, such as Montesquieu and Tocqueville, civil society stands at least partially in opposition to the state. Marxists such as Gramsci identifies civil society with realms outside the power of the state. These definitions of civil society in relational terms are also reflected in recent literatures. Fukuyama defined civil society as the realm of spontaneously created social structures separate from the state that underlie democratic political institutions (Fukuyama 1995:8). To Dunn, "[c]ivil society is broadly regarded as the domain of relationships which falls between the private realm of the family on the one hand and the state on the other"(Dunn 1996:27).

Another way to define civil society is to restrict to the associational life of it. Charles Taylor defined civil society as "a web of autonomous associations independent of the state, which bind citizens together in matters of common concern, and by their existence or actions could have an effect on public policy"(Kligman 1990:420). Schmitter defined civil society as "[a] set or system of self-organized intermediary groups"(Schmitter 1995:1). Similarly, The Concise Oxford dictionary of Politics defined civil society as "the set of intermediate associations which are neither the state nor the (extended) family; civil society therefore includes voluntary associations and firms and other corporate bodies." One of the advantages of this kind of definition is that civil society can thus be operationalized and be empirically tested on.

The latter kind of definitions is closely related with the former one. As Tester sees it, civil society is "the social relationships which involve the voluntary association and participation of individuals acting in their private capacities. In a simple and simplistic formula, civil society can be said to equal the milieu of private contractual relationships"(Tester 1992:8). We can regard the voluntary organizations as the institutionalization of the social relationships as defined by the former scholars. So for the rest of this paper I will use the term "civil society" mainly as the latter kind defines it.

However, even in this restricted form, problems remain. First, should political organizations be included as civil society? Tocqueville certainly did not think so. He offers a narrower specification of "political society", by which he means the activities of the population as it engages actively with matters of government and power. In this approach, political society is distinct from civil society, the private relationships between citizens and their myriad non-political associations(Hann 1996:5). Antonio Gramsci also made this distinction between political society and civil society(Foley and Edwards 1996:38). However, the question whether to include political associations remains mostly unanswered, which will reappear in Section IV, when I go over the functions of civil society.

Second, should we include business organizations in our discussion of civil society? In this respect, Marx follows Adam Smith in identifying civil society primarily with economic interaction through the market(Hann 1996:4), but in recent literature, Cohen and Arato distinguished civil society equally from the market and from the state(Cohen and Arato 1992:5). So the role of market in civil society is still a problem largely unresolved here. I will come back to this later in the next section.



The question, "how is civil society formed?", produces different answers. Some scholars, such as Larry Diamond, think that civil society is "self-generating"(Diamond 1994:4). This seems to scent of Rousseau, who, unlike Hobbes and Locke, addresses explicitly the course of forming civil society. Rousseau treats the formation of civil society as a process that is conscious and deliberate. Enigmatically, he relies upon a "Legislator" as a seemingly essential midwife in the birth of civil society, one who is apart from the people on whose behalf he acts and who remains outside of civil society once it is created(Harbeson et al. 1994:17).

Some later scholars take other approaches. There is a Marxist version that emphasizes the effect of inevitable progress of material improvement on the civic culture(Almond and Verba 1980:8). Nie, Powell, and Prewitt also offered another explanation on the formation of civil society. They found that "economic development alters the social structure of a nation. As nations become more economically developed, three major changes occur: ... (3)the density and complexity of economic and secondary organizations increases"(Nie et al. 1969:808). From their chart as shown below, it is clear that economic development leads to alterations in the stratification, urban, and group membership patterns.

A ------ ------> B ------ ------> C ------ -----> D

A=Economic Development

B=Alterations in the Stratification, Urban, and Group Membership Patterns

C=Changes in the Distribution of Attitudes and Cognitions

D=Increases in Political Participation

There is still another kind of explanation about the causes of civil society. As Weigle and Butterfield conclude from their study of the democratic transitions in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, "social groups would form on the basis of independently articulated interests and goals"(Weigle and Butterfield 1992:3).

What can we say about the causes of civil society from the above? It seems to me that we can at least conclude that economic factors really play a role in the formation of civil society. Even if we regard independent interests as a necessary condition for the formation of civil society, this condition will still be largely shaped by the economic development. So in my opinion economic organizations should be included in our analysis of civil society, otherwise we would be missing one of the driving forces in the creation of civil society.



Now we come to the most difficult and most controversial question: what is the function of civil society? Different people see different benefits and harms in the functions of civil society. As Rousseau simply put it, civil society engenders both "the best and the worst ... both our virtues and our vices"(Fine 1997:16).

Part I: Economic Functions


There are both pessimistic and optimistic stories about the economic functions of civil society. One of the pessimists, Mancur Olson, building on his own logic of collective action, argues that small interest groups have no incentive to work toward the common good of society and every incentive to engage in costly and inefficient "rent-seeking"—lobbying for tax breaks, colluding to restrain competition, and so on(Putnam 1993:176). Rousseau also pointed out that "[m]an are forced to caress and destroy one another at the same time" in civil society(Fine 1997:17). Worse yet, as Olson holds, in the absence of invasion or revolutionary change, the thicket of special interest groups in any society grows ever denser, choking off innovation and dampening economic growth. More and stronger groups mean less growth(Putnam 1993:176). Another pessimist is Callaghy, who fears that the "wild passions" of civil society may undercut sound economic management and economic reform(Harbeson 1994:294).

Other scholars, however, hold that civil society has the function of provoking economic growth. Analyzing Italian regional-level data from the nineteenth century to the 1980s, Putnam found that levels of civic involvement around 1900 predicted subsequent levels of economic development even better than did economic variables. Historically, he argued that norms and networks of civic engagement have fostered economic growth, not inhibited it.

Inglehart tries to reconcile these two diametrically opposed theories about the economic functions of civil society. Analyzing data from 43 societies, he concludes that relatively dense networks of associational membership seem to be conducive to economic growth in the earlier stages of development, as Putnam has argued; but (as Olson has argued) these associations can become hypertrophied and excessively powerful in advanced industrial societies, distorting policy to defend well-organized interests at the expense of overall economic growth(Inglehart 1997:228).

Part II: Stabilizing Functions


Can civil society stabilize the state? Both Tocqueville and Putnam stress the importance of networks of voluntary associations in support of a culture of trust and cooperation, which were essential to the successful functioning of democratic institutions. However, the answers to the question from other empirical test and theoretical analysis seem to be "not necessarily". In Inglehart’s multiple regression tests, although membership in voluntary associations is strongly correlated with stable democracy, this variable did not show a statistically significant impact when the effects of other variables are controlled for. Schmitter also argues that "[c]ivil society, ... can affect the consolidation and subsequent functioning of democracy in a number of negative ways". Among these he includes: "(5)most dangerously it may prove to be not one but several civil societies -- all occupying the same territory and polity, but organizing interests and passions into communities that are ethnically, linguistically or culturally distinct -- even exclusive" (Whitehead 1997:106). The analysis of the stabilizing functions reveals just the "paradox of civil society" proposed by Foley and Edwards: democracy and a strong state depend on the enforcing effects of its civil society, but such effects depend on the prior achievement of both democracy and a strong state(Foley and Edwards 1996:48).

Part III: Democratic Functions


The democratic functions of civil society seem long recognized. As Almond and Verba conclude from the examination of the survey data from five nations: the organizational member, political or not, compared with the nonmember, is likely to consider himself more competence as a citizen, to be a more active participant in politics. The member, in contrast with the nonmember, appears to approximate more closely what we have called the democratic citizen. He is competent, active, and open with his opinions(Almond and Verba 1963:320). The most striking finding is that any membership—passive membership or membership in a nonpolitical organization—has an impact on political competence, and thus on pluralism, one of the most important foundations of political democracy(Almond and Verba 1963:321).

Nie, Powell and Prewitt also investigate the democratic functions of civil society in terms of its effects on political participation. As shown in the Figure I above, as the density and complexity of economic and secondary organizations increases, greater proportions of the population find themselves in life situations that lead to increased political information, political awareness, sense of personal political efficacy, and other relevant attitudes. These attitude changes, in turn, lead to increases in political participation(Nie, Powell, and Prewitt 1969:808).

Civil society has yet another democratic function, that of facilitating democratic transitions. Montesquieu clearly believed from a theoretical perspective that civil society should function as a counterbalance to governments in order to inhibit their tyrannical tendencies; he also suggested that civil society actually did perform in this capacity (Harbeson 1994:26). This is enforced by the empirical finding by Inglehart that organizational membership does show a statistically significant linkage with changes in levels of democracy from 1990 to 1995(Inglehart 1997:193). Weigle and Butterfield’s case studies of the democratic transitions in the Eastern European countries and in the former Soviet Union also show the important role played by the civil society.



This paper tries to explore the different opinions and perspectives in the definitions, causes, and functions of civil society. Civil society can be defined in both relational and associational terms, with the latter as the institutionalization of the former. So further research can be directed at the relationship between political, economic (market), and the (strictly) civil society. Tocqueville saw specifically political associations as the "great free schools" of democracy and in practice the mother of civil association(Foley and Edwards 1996:44). As regards the causes of civil society, we may try to further specify the causal mechanisms that form civil society. More empirical tests are also needed for the theories about the functions of civil society, such as the relationship between stability, economic growth, political participation and civil society.


Almond, Gabriel A., and Sidney Verba, The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963.

Almond, Gabriel A., and Sidney Verba ed., The Civic Culture Revisited, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1980.

Cohen, J. L. and Arato, A., Civil Society and Political Theory, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992.

Diamond, Larry, "Rethinking Civil Society: Toward Democratic Consolidation", Journal of Democracy, Vol. 5, No. 3 (July 1994): 4-17.

Dunn, Elizabeth, Money, morality and modes of civil society among American Mormons, in Hann, Chris, and Elizabeth Dunn ed., Civil Society: Challenging Western Models, London: Routledge, 1996.

Fine, Robert and Shirin Rai ed., Civil Society: Democratic Perspectives, London: Frank Cass & Co. Ltd., 1997

Foley, Michael W. & Bob Edwards, "The Paradox of Civil Society", Journal of Democracy, Vol. 7, No. 3 (July 1996): 38-52.

Francis Fukuyama, "The Primacy of Culture", Journal of Democracy, Vol. 6, No. 1 (January 1995): 7-14.

Hann, Chris, and Elizabeth Dunn ed., Civil Society: Challenging Western Models, London: Routledge, 1996.

Harbeson, John W., Donald Rothchild and Naomi Chazan ed., Civil Society and the State in Africa, Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 1994.

Inglehart, Ronald, Modernization and Postmodernization: Cultural, Economic, and Political Change in 43 Societies, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Kligman, G., "Reclaiming the public: a reflection on recreating civil society in Romania", Eastern European Politics and Societies, 1990, 4(3): 393-438.

Nie, Norman H., G. Bingham Powell, Jr., and Kenneth Prewitt, "Social Structure and Political Participation: Developmental Relationships, II", The American Political Science Review, Vol. 63, Issue 3(Sep., 1969), 808-832.

Putnam, Robert D., Making Democracy Work, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Schmitter, Philippe, "On Civil Society and the Consolidation of Democracy: Ten Propositions", mimeograph, Stanford Department Of Political Science, July 1995.

Tester, K., Civil Society, London: Routledge, 1992.

Weigle, Marcia A. and Jim Butterfield, "Civil Society in Reforming Communist Regimes: The Logic of Emergence", Comparative Politics, Vol. 25, No. 1 (October 1992): 1-23.

Whitehead, Laurence, "Bowling in the Bronx: The Uncivil Interstices between Civil and Political Society", in Fine, Robert and Shirin Rai ed., Civil Society: Democratic Perspectives, London: Frank Cass & Co. Ltd., 1997.

Understanding Culture, Social Organization, and Leadership to Enhance Engagement


Contributed by Kien Lee

Edited by Bill Berkowitz

Main Section


How do culture and other factors affect the social organization of a community?

How do culture and other factors affect the leadership of a community?

What are examples of social networks and ethnic organizations that a community builder can use to learn about the social organization of a group and to identify and engage its leaders?

What are some of the common challenges that a community builder might face when working in a diverse community?

In order to work effectively in a culturally and ethnically diverse community, a community builder needs to first understand how each racial and ethnic group in that community is organized in order to support its members. It is not uncommon to hear a community leader, a funder, a political representative, or a service provider say, "We were not able to engage that group over there because they are not organized. They have no leaders. We need to organize them first." This statement is not always accurate; most groups have their own network of relationships and hierarchy of leaders that they tap into for mutual support. These networks or leaders may not be housed in a physical location or building that is obvious to people outside of the group. They may not even have a label or a title. There is an unspoken understanding in some groups about when and whom they should turn to among their members for advice, guidance, and blessing. Once a community builder understands the social organization of the group, it will become easier to identify the most appropriate leaders, help build bridges, and work across multiple groups in a diverse community.

What do we mean by "social organization?" Social organization refers to the network of relationships in a group and how they interconnect. This network of relationships helps members of a group stay connected to one another in order to maintain a sense of community within a group. The social organization of a group is influenced by culture and other factors.

Within the social organization of a group of people, there are leaders. Who are leaders? Leaders are individuals who have followers, a constituency, or simply a group of people whom they can influence. A community builder needs to know who the leaders are in a group in order to get support for his community building work.

In this section, you will learn more about the social organization and leadership of different cultural and ethnic groups. The material covered in this section focuses primarily on African Americans and immigrants for two reasons:

1.Tensions tend to occur among groups that are competing for resources that are already limited and not always accessible to them; and

2. Most of the struggles facing community builders and other individuals have been with recent immigrants whose culture, institutions, and traditions are still unfamiliar to mainstream groups.

As recent immigrant groups integrate into their new society, their social organization and leadership structures transform to become more similar to those of mainstream groups. This process could take decades and generations; all the more reason why it is important for community builders to understand the social organization and leadership structure of the new arrivals and to build on their values and strengths. While some traditional social structures may prevail, others may adapt to those of the mainstream culture.

Take a moment and think about the most recent group of newcomers to your community. Who are their leaders? Where do their members go to for help?

Think about the group you belong to. Who are the leaders? Whom do you go to for help? How is your group organized to communicate among its members?

Obviously there are too many groups in this world to include in this section. We will try to share information about as many groups as we can. While the section may not inform you about the social organization and leadership of groups other than the ones described here, we hope it will help you understand enough about the influence of culture on social organization and leadership to ask the right questions of any group.

How do culture and other factors affect the social organization of a community?


There are many definitions of culture. Culture typically refers to a set of symbols, rituals, values, and beliefs that make one group different from another. Culture is learned and shared with people who live or lived in the same social environment for a long time. Culture is captured in many, many ways—in the way members of a group greet and interact with one another, in legends and children's stories, in the way food is prepared and used, in the way people pray, and so on. Since it is difficult and not always appropriate to change someone's culture, how do you then use culture as a positive force to aid community building?

In the Chinese community


The Chinese community is the largest and the fastest growing group among Asian and Pacific Islander populations.

Keep in mind:

The Chinese form a very heterogeneous group that includes people from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and other parts of South East Asia. There are many dialects spoken among the Chinese and not all Chinese persons can understand one another's dialects. Therefore, make sure you know which Chinese dialect requires translation if you have to provide translation services.

The Chinese culture places heavy emphasis on taking care of one's family. The Chinese believe that taking care of their families is a contribution to civic welfare, because healthy families lead to a healthy society. This belief is based on Confucian values, which emphasize filial piety, or a respect for family. The concept of filial piety is instilled in Chinese children from a very young age. In other words, familial relationships form the basis for Chinese social organization and behavior.

Chinese parents place a heavy emphasis on their children and their ability to become successful. Confucian values include reaching for perfection, and perfection can be achieved through education. This is why Chinese parents invest a lot of resources in making sure that their children excel academically.

How does this value affect the way Chinese communities are organized and participate in their communities?

In Chinese communities in America and other countries, it is common to find local associations or huiguan formed by members from the same province or village in China and Taiwan. These local associations provide capital to help their members start businesses. They also perform charitable and social functions and provide protection for their members. These associations play a key role in community building efforts, particularly in Chinatowns. They are formed because of the Chinese emphasis on the importance of family; in China, you consider the people from the same province or village as your extended family. Therefore, in order to engage any Chinese community in a community building effort, it will be useful to identify and involve the leaders of these associations. How do you find out about huiguans? Look in the Chinese newspapers (if you don't read Mandarin, ask someone who does); attend Chinese events and find out who sponsored them; walk around Chinatown (if there is one in your community or city) and look at the advertisements posted in grocery stores, restaurants, and shops.

Education also becomes an issue that can be used to mobilize the Chinese community. With the heavy emphasis on academic excellence, it is more likely that you can convince Chinese parents to show up for a meeting about the quality of their children's education than for a meeting about a recreational center for the community. This means that you should look for ways to link education to the issue that you are trying to address in your community building effort.

Recent Chinese immigrants fear very much that their children or the next generation will lose touch with their culture. Hence, they do whatever they can to teach their children how to speak and write Mandarin. This desire has led to the creation of many Chinese schools in areas that have large populations of Chinese immigrants. Sometimes, these schools have their own buildings; at other times, they are conducted on the weekends in a public school. These schools can play a critical role in reaching out to the Chinese community.

In the African American community


A group's history of oppression and survival also affects the way it is organized. The networks and organizations that form to protect the rights of their members influence the way in which members of the group organize for self-help. African slaves, who were "christianized" by their European owners, used spiritual symbolism to preach freedom and to give their people hope and strength. As a result, in the African American culture, religious institutions, primarily Christian (e.g., the African Methodist Episcopal church), have functioned as mutual-aid societies, political forces, and education centers. While Christian churches are predominant among African Americans, the existence and leadership of the Nation of Islam and Muslim leaders in organizing the African American community should also be considered. Today, African American spiritual leaders are among the most influential leaders in African American communities. Therefore, in order to engage any African American community in a community building effort, it will be important to identify and involve that community's spiritual leaders.

How does this value affect the way African American communities are organized and participate in their communities?

In most African American communities, it is common to find one or more churches that are the focal point for social, economic, and political activities. Spirituality, especially Christianity, provides an effective bridge among African Americans, Latinos, and European Americans. The Allied Communities of Tarrant (ACT) in Fort Worth, Texas, is an example of using spirituality to organize a coalition among leaders from these three communities. African American Baptist ministers, European American Lutheran and Disciples of Christ ministers, as well as Latino and European American Catholic priests who were connected to one another through their spiritual interests decided to work across racial lines in order to improve the quality of life for their members. With the help of the Industrial Areas Foundations (IAF), they struggled to identify their commonalties, differences—especially related to race—power, and assets. Eventually, they established ACT and took on the issue of school reform, starting with the African American community. African American church leaders came together to develop initiatives within their own churches to empower and support parents to participate in the effort.

In the Central American community


Many Central Americans fled the poverty and oppression in their countries to seek a more secure and better life in a new place. As one person settled in the new location and saved enough money, he or she would help family members to migrate. Because of the informal and extended family networks that are part of the Central American culture, natural support systems develop to assist new arrivals.

Aside from culture, what other factors affect the social organization of Central Americans? The close proximity of Central America to the United States (compared to other continents) plays a role in the social organization of Central Americans. Regional associations that are typically named after a town, a city, or a region in Central America emerge in the immigrants' new geographic setting to provide support in cultural identification, security, and maintenance of connection with their families and friends who remained behind in Central America. These associations are usually affiliated with religious groups, soccer clubs, political parties, revolutionary movements, or social service organizations in Central America. Because of this form of social organization, the Salvadoran community in the United States has been able to raise a large amount of funds to assist earthquake and hurricane victims in their homeland.

How can you build on these forms of social organization to engage the Central American community?

Soccer is a favorite activity among Central Americans. It is not unusual to see adults and children from Central American countries playing soccer in public parks and school compounds. Central American countries are very proud of their national soccer teams. It's similar to the way football or baseball is valued in the United States, but it is more than just a game for immigrants. Soccer becomes an avenue for meeting other people from the same country or region and forming a social support network. If you are a community builder who is trying to bring various Central American groups together, try using soccer as the common ground!

The Catholic Church is also a key institution that holds members of the Central American communities together. Even in Central America, the church has played a leading role in political advocacy and organizing. In the immigrants' new country, the church continues to play this role, in addition to providing services and social support, and maintaining a line of communication between the immigrants and their families and friends in Central America. Build on the strength and influence of the church to bring credibility to your community building effort and to reach out to Central American communities.

In the Caribbean community


Migration patterns can provide important information about a group of people. Typically, most immigrants come because they already have a relative or a friend that lives in the United States. They move in with the relatives or friends who also help them find their first job. In the Caribbean culture, there is a tradition of helping the new arrivals through rotating credit associations or saving clubs, otherwise known as susus. According to this tradition, a group of people pools their money and then loans it to someone who needs it. The borrower pays back the loan over a period of time and commits to stay in the susu until the payment is complete.

How can you build on these forms of social organization to engage the Caribbean community?

If your community building effort focuses on economic development, then it is important for you to identify the person who manages the susu. You could ask a Caribbean business or a mutual aid society for Caribbean immigrants for the contact person.

What do all these organizations and institutions have in common?

They support the social organization of a community. Depending on the community's culture and the context that the community has to survive in and adapt to, they all serve different functions.

How do culture and other factors affect the leadership of a community?


The information above showed that culture and other factors (social, economic, historical, and political) have an effect on the way a community organizes itself for self-help and support. The same can be said about leadership. There are different levels and types of leaders that support the social organization of a community. Sometimes, we make the mistake of assuming that there is only one leader in a community or that a leader has to look a certain way. Just as we respect and value the cultural diversity of communities, we have to respect and value the diversity of leadership.

What qualities do you think a leader should have?

In every ethnic or cultural group there are different individuals who are regarded as leaders by members of the group. Every leader has a place and a role in his or her community. Leaders can be categorized by type (e.g., political, religious, social), by issue (e.g., health, education, economic development), by rank (e.g., president, vice president), by place (e.g., neighborhood block, county, city, state, country), by age (e.g., elderly, youth), and so on.

Let's use the same communities described before. In Chinese communities, the leader is typically the head of the family. If family refers to a grandfather, father, mother, sons and daughters, and grandchildren, then the leader is the grandfather. If family refers to the congregation of a church, the leader is the pastor. If family refers to a clan, the leader is the President of the clan's association (or hui guan).

In African American communities, the leader is typically a spiritual leader. A leader can also be someone who is successful in overcoming the barriers of institutionalized racism and provide opportunities for other African Americans to be treated equally by others in the mainstream society (e.g., a business person, an educator, or an elected official). In Central American communities, the leader is also typically a spiritual leader. It can also be the coach of a soccer team or the president of an association that links a city in Central America with one in another country.

What do all these leaders have in common?

They provide guidance, they have influence over others, others respect them, they respond to the needs of others, and they put the welfare of others above their own. Every leader serves a specific function within the social organization of a community; however, the same type of leader in one community does not necessarily have the same role in another community. For example, a spiritual leader in a Chinese community is not regarded as a political leader, as he might be in the African American community.

Keep in mind:

Groups adapt to their new surroundings. Sometimes, new organizations develop in response to the way business is done in the larger society. For example, recent immigrant groups establish nonprofits because they learned that a particular organizational structure and status is required in order to receive aid. The executive director or president of a nonprofit becomes the most visible and accessible leader. But he or she may not be the only leader for the group. So, don't stop looking after you identify the nonprofits that serve a group. There are likely to be other forms of social organization that support the group.

What did you learn from the above information and examples?

How can you, the community builder, learn about the social organization of other ethnic and cultural groups?

•Go into the process with an open mind.

•Don't assume that the same leader, organization, or institution serves the same function across groups.

•Keep in mind that the social organization and leadership of a group is influenced by its culture, history, reasons for migration, geographic proximity to its homeland, economic success, intra-group tensions, and the way it fits into the political and social context of its new and surrounding society.

•Look for the formal and informal networks.

•Interview members of a group and ask where and whom they go to for help or when they have a problem.


Among different groups, the church has different functions. For example, Korean and Chinese churches do not have strong political functions compared to Latino or African American churches. Korean churches serve their members socially by providing a structure and process for fellowship and sense of belonging, maintenance of ethnic identity and native traditions, social services, and social status. Korean pastors consider their churches as sanctuaries for their members and do not wish to burden them with messages related to political or economic issues. Instead, they focus on providing counseling and educational services to Korean families as well as clerical and lay positions for church members. Korean immigrants hold these positions in high regard.

What are examples of social networks and ethnic organizations that a community builder can use to learn about the social organization of a group, to identify and engage its leaders?


The section before emphasized the importance of learning about the social organization and leadership of various groups in a community so that you can tap into the appropriate resources and assets of each group. You understand that different organizations, institutions, and leaders play different roles in each group. Where do you start? How do you go about getting that knowledge?

Identify natural gathering points and traditions related to social gatherings. Tapping into natural gathering points and traditions related to social gatherings are excellent ways to identify and engage the local leaders and build community relationships. For example, in the Filipino community, tea time is a common practice due to historical European influence. Therefore, "tea meetings" in restaurants are useful for attracting community members to discuss issues and to ask how to involve them in community building efforts. Ethnic grocery stores also play a major role in distributing information to large numbers of people. These stores frequently have bulletin boards where notices are posted about all kinds of activities in that community. In addition, cultural celebrations draw large crowds and provide an effective avenue for outreach. Attend these gatherings. Find out who sponsored and organized them. Talk to the people who attend them. Ask them how they found out about the gatherings. Ask them who you should contact if you wanted more information about the gatherings.

Build on the informal networks of women. One way to engage a racial, ethnic, or cultural group is to tap into the informal networks of women. Go to places where women tend to go, such as the grocery store, the school their children attend, and the hair salon. Ask the parent coordinator at the school if you could speak to some of the mothers. It is likely that you will be able to identify one or more women who are respected by their peers and to whom everyone tells their problems.

Gain entry and credibility through traditional leadership structures. The approach is applicable to any group with a traditional leadership structure serving as a gatekeeper to its members. If you already understand the traditional leadership structure, use it to get support for what you are doing.

Identify and work with the "bridge generation." Young people are the ideal bridge in most communities, especially in immigrant communities, because they are raised in traditional ways but schooled in the ways of the dominant culture. Young people typically accompany their parents to the clinic, school, faith institution, and many other places. Sometimes, they translate for their non-English speaking parents. Therefore, they are likely to know where their parents go for help and who organizes the events in their community.

Ask national organizations that serve and advocate on behalf of different racial, ethnic, and cultural groups for assistance.


Mujeres Unidas y Activas, a women's organization was born when a project that brought together women from various cultures showed that the women experienced similar concerns (e.g., public health issues related to their housing conditions, domestic abuse, concern for their children's education). After the project was completed, the women felt the need to continue to meet informally for mutual support. The network eventually became an organization that is involved in addressing issues that concern women. You can contact Mujeres Unidas y Activas at (415) 621-8140.

Keep in mind:

Engaging the traditional leadership structures in some communities may perpetuate class, gender, or other differences. For example, the traditional leadership structure in Middle Eastern communities tends to be patriarchal. By choosing to engage the male leaders as a way to involve the larger community, you may be reinforcing that culture's treatment of women. Community builders must always be aware of the extent to which they might encounter and be required to address cultural traditions that reinforce inequities.

At the same time, you have to be aware that by bypassing or trying to expand the traditional power structure, you may be sacrificing credibility with the community or, at the very least, losing some of the most powerful community leaders. If you think there's a need to change some aspects of the culture in a community that is not your own, it makes much more sense to work through members of that community, rather than challenging the leaders directly. Over time, you may be able to convince them, but you have to approach them in a way that doesn't rob them of dignity or belittle customs that have been taken for granted for generations.

National organizations with special concerns have become powerful forces in linking immigrants to mainstream American institutions. Examples include the American Physicians of Indian Origin, Japanese American Citizens League, National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Education Fund, Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the National Asian Pacific Center on Aging. These organizations play a more extensive role than faith-based institutions, community centers, or cultural programs do in bridging immigrant traditions with mainstream American institutions and values. As a community builder, you might want to engage these organizations if your community building effort is focused on advocacy for a specific issue.

Take advantage of programs that serve large numbers of immigrants. English as a Second or Other Language classes (ESOL) and citizenship workshops often attract large numbers of immigrants, particularly recent newcomers, and provide another way to reach them. Many of these programs are conducted on weekends and evenings. Even though their primary intent is to teach new immigrants how to function biculturally, they can also become social support systems. If you want to talk to or engage large numbers of people, try the ESOL classes and citizenship workshops.

Take advantage of ethnic neighborhoods. In places like Chinatown, Koreatown, and Little India, there are many businesses and organizations that serve the needs of the residents. Go to these neighborhoods, walk through them, and look for community centers, mutual aid organizations, and other businesses that advertise programs or attract larger numbers of people.

How else can you find out more about a community?

•Find an informant from that community and utilize his or her contacts to guide you toward other community members and leaders.

•Spend time at places that are frequented by members of the target group and talk to people there.

•Scan the neighborhood and/or ethnic newspaper for articles about major events and activities in a community and the organizations that sponsor them.

•Contact the editor of the newspaper to ask his/her opinion about who the leaders are in a community.

•Go to the ethnic grocery or convenience stores to review the announcements about events and other activities and the organizations that sponsor them.

•Look in the phone directory or search the Internet for a list of organizations that support a communinty.

Keep in mind:

Relationship building and trust building are fundamental parts of the work, especially in cultures that may be less familiar to you and/or those that have experienced racism and other forms of oppression. Getting to know people and gaining their trust takes time, patience, and flexibility.

What are the challenges that you should be aware of and how can the challenges be overcome?


•During the relationship building and information gathering process, the informant may have expectations about being invited to be part of your community building effort. The informant may think that he or she is the most appropriate person to engage. The informant may also seize the opportunity to talk about the merits or the weaknesses of another leader in the group.

You must remember NOT to make any promises to the leader about anything until you have had the opportunity to speak to as many individuals as possible and determined the most appropriate leader to involve in the effort. Also, don't get drawn into the discussions about the merits or weaknesses of other leaders. Don't share information about what other leaders might or might not have said already. Just listen.

•There may be misperceptions in the community about which group you represent and who "owns" the community building effort. Such misperceptions would make it very difficult for you to build relationships in the community.

You have to consider several factors before you begin to engage any of the leaders in the community. How were previous community building efforts, if any, initiated in the past? Who initiated them? Was the effort effective? If not, what happened? This knowledge would help you understand the attitudes toward you and the community building you are involved in. You might also want to consider establishing an advisory group made up of leaders from different groups to help announce and plan the effort (See Chapter 29, Section 2 for tips on putting together a diverse advisory group)

•It is impossible for you, the community builder, to know everything about every group and its culture. You may be an outsider to a group.

Don't be afraid to acknowledge your ignorance. Display humility, respect the influence of each leader, and ask to be educated. You might consider starting off the conversation with a statement such as, "I know very little about your culture, but I understand that it is important to learn about it so that the community building effort I'm involved in can build on your cultural strengths and will not make assumptions about your group's needs. I really appreciate the time you are taking to talk to me and I look forward to learning from you."

•When working in a diverse community that is made up of two or more racial, ethnic, or cultural groups, it is unlikely that any one community builder will have all the linguistic skills and cultural knowledge needed to relate to all the groups. At the same time, you, the community builder may be a member of one of the groups. You must be aware of the advantages and disadvantages of working with a group of people that share your culture (e.g., a Chinese community builder working in a Chinese community). You have the advantage of already knowing the culture and the language. A disadvantage is that the informant may expect you to play favoritism because you "owe" your community.

A team made up of community builders from different racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds would allow for the ability to relate to a wide range of experiences, to speak multiple languages, and to empathize with the variety of challenges that community leaders face. It would also help to avoid some of the expectations and misperceptions about whom you represent and who would benefit from your effort. Furthermore, working in diverse community building teams set an example for the leaders of a group and across groups.

•There are usually several subgroups within an ethnic or cultural group that compete with each other because of differences in political affiliation, socioeconomic status, ancestry, or regional origins. As a community builder, you have to be careful not to create further tensions.

Maintain a neutral perspective and don't get drawn into discussions about other leaders. Reach out to as many types of leaders as possible. Explain that you are just in the information gathering stage; however, make note of the tensions so that you can be prepared to facilitate any potential conflicts in the future if those leaders happen to participate more extensively in the community building effort (See Chapter 20, Section 6 for tips on conflict resolution).

•The process of building relationships and gathering information may lead to the identification of needs in one or more groups. For example, suppose that local and informal leaders in a given group require assistance in strengthening their leadership, coalition building, or cross-cultural communication skills.

You could identify outside resources and expertise to help them or you could serve as a coach to the local group. This process itself can be a useful community building strategy.


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