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1 - Exploring Civil Society through a Lifecourse Approach

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 March 2021

Sally Power
Affiliation:
Cardiff University
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Summary

There has been growing concern over recent decades about the future health of civil society. Robert Putnam (2001) has famously charted the decline in civil society in the US – a decline that he believes has devastating consequences for levels of trust and the future of democracy in America. Here in the UK, there have also been concerns that civil society is in a poor state. For example, there is evidence of an ongoing decline in the number of volunteers (DDCMS 2019), a continuing drop in charitable giving and a steady deterioration in trust in charities, with only a minority now believing that charities are trustworthy (CAF 2019). In terms of political engagement, there also appears to have been a decline in campaigning, even through online petitions (CAF 2019). Membership of trade unions is also at the lowest point in their history (DBEIS 2017).

These various studies not only signal an overall decline in civic engagement, they also reveal generational differences. It is generally the older generations who are more likely to vote, to volunteer and to donate to charities. Young people are the least likely to vote, to volunteer or to donate. In general, and in contrast to their elders, young people are seen to lack a sense of social obligation and civic duty (see, for instance, Stein 2013). There are fears that an already-weakened civil society looks set to enter a phase of terminal decline.

Such predictions do not take into account, though, the possibility that levels of civic and political engagement may wax and wane over the lifecourse. Much of the literature on civil society tends to assume that one can make clear distinctions between those who are active participants and those who are not. This book challenges this assumption and shows how an individual's relationship with civil society changes over time as different lifecourse phases and events both promote and hinder civil society participation. This does not mean that we can ignore broader social trends – or that there is no cause for concern. The trick, as C. Wright Mills argued so many years ago, is to link biography to structure – to explore how the wider sociohistorical landscape connects with the ‘the inner life and external career’ of individuals (1970: 11). The lifecourse approach offers one way of attempting to do this.

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Publisher: Bristol University Press
Print publication year: 2020

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