“The Varieties of Civic Experience” by Michael Schudson

Table of Contents


The “civic” concept is considered to be examined by many scholars in order to identify the major positions of the modern civilization development. Michael Schudson, the author of the famous article The Varieties of Civic Experience, managed to disclose the way he understood the place of this concept in the American society. He stated that civic engagement forms could not be measured and lined up considering only one scale of worse or better “civic”, though there are some contradictions as to this point.

Main body

The American history shows different views on the civic engagement in different areas. Schudson stated that the example of the ideal citizen or a desirable one differed depending on the area and period of time. Thus, the differential citizen model was introduced. According to this new concept the ideal citizen should live regarding all the rules of the society; he is to vote for the community leaders identifying the role of their judgment. Taking into account the historical influence on the understanding of the civic concept it is important to stress that the initial position of the ideal differential man was successfully replaced by the representative of the democratic and enthusiastic society. The broad theory of Schudson covers various positions of the citizen ideal representation. According to his conclusions it is impossible to refer one particular model of the citizen to the whole class of the social development. For example, in 1820s the political parties happened to be centralized in the life of citizens. Nominating conventions involved people into various political processes, especially on elections events. Nevertheless with every passing year the accepted model of the party-centered atmosphere was replaced by the independent commercial press. To be completely aware of the latest news and informed of everything appeared to be the principle feature of the ideal citizen of the 1920s.

The theory expressed by Schudson became the background for the discussions as to the understanding of the civic concept. Thus, Bart Simpson rejects the offered type of an ideal citizen; he sticks to the point that the image of generally accepted ideal citizen should be based on the principles of the liberation movements, that it considering all the standard norms, common law and rights of the society. This picture would allow to see one common fixed picture of the citizen model at any time of historical development. The standardization of the concept underlines the independent position as to the political principles and cultural instability of the particular social group. (Schudson, 2006).

To see and assess the Schudson’s study of the civic aspect it is necessary to compare it with the position of the citizen representation provided by Robert Putnam. This scholar is considered to be one of the brightest representatives of the civic study exploring the state of the civic engagement at present time and drawing the picture of the ideal one that would dominate in future. Putnam is merely concentrated on the issues of associational life vigor where people used to behave regarding their own views in accordance with the democratic position of the society. Robert Putnam together with Theda Skocpol stated that the foundation of the civic life in the USA was merely based on the membership in cross-class and national organizations. The political parties of the USA have always been cross-region alliance and cross class; the only aspect has varied with time: whether the society and political sphere demanded time consuming participation.

Putnam’s theory of civic concept is considered to support the opinion that the disparaging of the civic participation forms can be observed in case they are:

  • Occasional, transitional event-centered but not enduring in maintaining and mobilizing public participation;
  • Oriented to individual and personal interests or transformation but not following the purposes of the society;
  • Convenient and cheap for the participants without the threat of the sacrifice, risk or time and energy investment;
  • More individual but not collective in various civic strategies.

Robert Putnam argued the thesis provided by Schudson; he stated that the civic concept could be supported by formal fixed norms and principles which identify the particular model of the citizens in different periods of the historical development of the USA. The principle aspect which considered being the background of the theory was identified as the one fulfilling the role of the democratic needs of the society. The democratic purpose of the civic concept covered the realization and disclosing of the true model of the US citizens in accordance with the generally accepted norms and rules of the particular social group. He stated that the mechanisms by means of which social connectedness and civic engagement produce positive influence such as low crime and economic growth were very complex and rather complicated. They require qualification and confirmation and that is why it is almost impossible to consider them to be stable and fixed in the society. Over the last few generations direct engagement of Americans in government and politics has considerably decreased though the individual participation in the political life has been improved. Religious affiliation is considered to be the most general and common associational membership in the America society. Considering the present day situation Putnam stated that nowadays the number of Americans bowling in different organized leagues has steadily increased. Nevertheless despite all the arguments provided by Putnam there are certain serious countertrends to his theoretical principles and conclusions:

  • The traditional civic organization forms provided can be easily substituted by the new organizations;
  • The political importance is considered to be the main principles of these organizations though the politics tends to change with time and new generations;
  • The next counterargument lies in the rapid growth of non profit organizations; it means that almost all the secondary organizations are non profit;
  • The assessment of civic and capital engagement is closely connected with the expansion of various sorts of support groups. (Putnam, 1993).

The concept of the civil society is considered to be the central one in modern civilization. It played a decisive role in the recent debate as to the preconditions for democratization and democracy. This concept now focuses attention on the vibrating of the civic life. In the democracies the number of citizens is constantly growing and liberal atmosphere appeared to be stimulating in the political and ideological areas. Considering the American society it should be stated that democratic disarray which can be observed in the society is closely connected with the continuing and broad civic engagement erosion having begun a century ago. Robert Putnam argued that this point should be at issue in modern society of the USA in order to reverse existing adverse trends in common social connectedness for the purpose of restoring civic trust and civic engagement. The changes happening in the American society should take into account community engagement benefits and costs. It is important to investigate the impingement of the public policy on the social capital formation. Regarding the problem the scholars took into account civic life of the middle class and the life in the small towns.

Thus, the analysis of the civic concept managed to show different views of the scholars on the issue. It is important to stress that the statement provided by Michael Schudson as to the civic engagement forms which cannot be lined up and measured considering the single scale caused a lot of debates among the scholars. As it was shown in the paper the opinions concerning the civic concept could be presented in various forms and views. (Lend, 2005).


Schudson presented a broad theory on the position of the civic engagement throughout the whole history of the USA. The evaluation of the Schuson’s facts compared with those of Putnam managed to see the influence of the primary and secondary social organizations on the formation of the citizen model. Theda Skocpol and Robert Putnam appeared to express the contradictory points to the central analyzed theory proving the idea that the only important background for the ideal formation of the civic concept is considered to be the democratization of the state and the whole society. Thus the development of the USA will always impact the position of the civil engagement in the society.


Schudson, Michael. The Varieties of Civic Experience. University of California. 2006.

Putnam, Robert. Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital. 1993.

Lend, John. Citizenship in Democracy. California Scholarship Publication. 2005.