« Reflections of Society within the Music Industry | Main | 9/11 Miniseries on ABC »

McAdam Talk: When participation works (and when it doesn't)

UPDATED - 9-21-2006

I went to Doug McAdam's talk today in the sociology department workshop and it was excellent: he's an engaging speaker and his work is fascinating. I'd highly encourage everyone to attend tomorrow's talk at 4:00 in room 125, Nolte Center. I also thought I'd write up a quick posting on it to further illustrate what I'm expecting from you. (I didn't see any of you there - but if you were and I missed you and you plan on writing about the talk, please go ahead: there was material for several entries! The talk tomorrow is also about a different study than today's talk.) Note that for this posting I've used the "Extended Entry" box in Movable Type so that you can just click "Continue reading..." below to see the whole entry. This is a good idea for your own posts if they end up being a little bit long. Notice I also added a "Civic Participation" category - a pretty obvious addition since we're reading/discussing Putnam - I'm surprised I hadn't thought of it earlier.

McAdam's talk was on a comparison between volunteers for two activist groups: 1) participants in "Freedom Summer," the topic of McAdam's fabulous book by the same name: white college students who, in Summer 1964, went to Mississippi to participate in the black civil rights movement. 2) participants in "Teach for America," an organization that sends freshly-graduated students to poor and underserved schools to teach in exchange for paying back a chunk of their loans. In Freedom Summer, McAdam found that the young people who went to Mississippi in 1964 had a life-changing event, and their activism in 1964 placed them on a trajectory of activism and involvement that lasted for decades (in comparison with students who applied to participate in Freedom Summer, but, for one reason or another, did not end up going). In part modelling their program off of the success McAdam described in Freedom Summer, Teach for America, by sending relatively affluent young people off to an intensive "volunteering"-type situation, aims to produce active, effective citizens by giving them a life-transforming event a la Freedom Summer. McAdam compared the two cases and found very different outcomes: graduates of TFA actually seem less likely to be involved in civic activism than those who were offered positions in TFA but declined to participate.

What's going on here? According to the conventional wisdom, volunteering ought to magically lead directly to concerned and active citizens, right? Putnam, in particular, has attracted a lot of popular and academic attention to the virtues of participation and involvement in associations. However, what separates the occassions when participation really does have these positive impacts from the times when it doesn't? Instead of just celebrating participation and volunteerism as inherent goods, let's see when it is good and perhaps even when it has bad civic effects. In this case, McAdam argues TFA lacks a few things Freedom Summer had going for it. In particular, Freedom Summer occurred at a very different time with different people. College students in 1964 had been raised in a fairly idealistic time in American history: we'd overcome the Depression, defeated Fascism and there was a real sense (which we might laugh at as naive now) that solving the worlds major problems were within our grasp. Send people with this worldview into 1964 Mississippi and you get a huge shock: the gap between expectations and reality are so great, people get really angry, but at the same time, they know they can do something about it. On the other hand, we're in a much more cynical, though perhaps realistic, age: the volunteers know what they're getting into with TFA, so the odds of the experience totally transforming how they look at the world in the way Freedom Summer did for those participants is much more slim. In fact, whereas finding a problem they couldn't just fix added to the motivation for the Freedom Summer volunteers, it's possible that having a more realistic perspective going in by TFA participants would actually make a bad experience even worse, leading to burnout ("even this doesn't seem to do any good...") rather than anger that things are worse than people think and people need to know about it. Additionally, organizationally, TFA does a good job of getting its participants to keep working within its own organization. Freedom Summer, however, was much less institutionlized: the message to departing activists was "Go to your own communities and fight all forms of injustice!" The point is that these are actually very different types of activism and civic associations and the differences matter for the effects they have. McAdam, by looking closely at comparisons between two different movements/associations, can help us understand exactly how and why participation matters, which helps us push our discussion of civic participation and associations beyond abstract assumptions about associations magically creating life-long model citizens.