It has been conventional to conceptualize civic life through one of two core images: the citizen as lone individualist or the citizen as joiner. Drawing on analyses of the historical development of the public sphere, we propose an alternative analytical framework for civic engagement based on small group interaction. By embracing this micro-level approach, we contribute to the debate on civil society in three ways. By emphasizing local interaction contexts—the microfoundations of civil society—we treat small groups as a cause, context, and consequence of civic engagement. First, through framing and motivating, groups encourage individuals to participate in public discourse and civic projects. Second, they provide the place and support for that involvement. Third, civic engagement feeds back into the creation of additional groups. A small-groups perspective suggests how civil society can thrive even if formal and institutional associations decline. Instead of indicating a decline in civil society, a proliferation of small groups represents a healthy development in democratic societies, creating cross-cutting networks of affiliation.
- small groups; bowling alone; civil society; culture; economic and political sociology