Mark Smith’s paper explores the informal learning that comes from association, from the coming together in clubs, committees and associations within civil society. The French describe this as La vie associative, the life of the associations or the associative life.

The potential of this idea is given a lot of weight by Konrad Elsdon’s survey of local voluntary organisations in Britain in the early 1990s. He finds 1,300,000 organisations with 12 million participants, roughly 20 organisations for every 1,000 citizens.

These are small organisations. Half have less than 30 members, and thirty per cent number between 30 and 99. Only 15 per cent have paid staff, and 85 per cent are self-financed. Elsdon calls them small democracies since the participants take an active, responsible role in the running of the organisation.

We are talking here mainly of activities that matter to the people taking part, fishing, football, chess, dance, train-spotting, gardening...

Elsdon classifies the informal learning from such groups into five:

  • social and group: how to live with each other
  • content: how to fish, how to dance, ...
  • occupational: living together skills that make people better in the workplace
  • political: how to advocate, make things happen
  • personal: changing things that matter to each participant.

The paper then makes some grand assertions about the link between this aspect of civil society and democracy. Knowles talks about ‘the foundation stones of our democracy’ and ‘laboratories of democracy’ but the mechanism by which small associations might underpin democracy are not altogether clear.

The paper refers to the ‘give and take’ of groups who organise ‘around their enthusiasms’. The organisation of the group and the small talk outside of the enthusiasm demand compromise, consensus building, pluralism. Are people expose to these contexts less likely to be on one or other side of a culture war like Brexit? Just as primary school children learn that they are not an island, that progress means getting along with others in the class?

Robert Putnam’s research in the U.S. suggests a decline of this type of association. Putnam’s interest is in social capital, and the ability of people to resolve challenges in their life without state support. Could it also be the case that the creation of culture wars in U.S. politics, the alienation of large swathes of the population from political structures and, in some cases, the state, reflects the absence of soft skills, of informal learning that comes from un vie associative?