Inside Iowa State
Oct. 4, 1996
Rice's research: Our civic duties
by Steve Sullivan
Perhaps it was fate that brought Tom Rice back to Iowa State. Or maybe it was his sense of civic duty.
Whatever the reason, this 1979 Iowa State graduate is back as an assistant professor of political science. And, as he did while working toward his undergraduate degree, Rice still is studying politics. His academic research focuses on voting behavior and issues related to civic-mindedness in American society.
Rice, formerly political science department chair at the University of Vermont, returned to Ames this summer when his wife Ann was named chief financial officer at Mary Greeley Medical Center. Soon after giving up his position at UV, Rice discovered the political science department had an opening. He got the job, continuing the Rice family tradition at ISU.
Rice's Iowa State lineage dates back to his grandparents, Charles and Lola Stephens Rice. Rice's grandmother earned her chemistry degree from Iowa State in 1905, then went on to become one of the first women chemistry instructors in the nation. She met Charles in a chemistry class she taught. He was an adult student pursuing a veterinary medicine degree.
Charles and Lola had three children, among them Rice's father John, an ISU graduate who teaches architecture in the College of Design. Rice's brother Dan is an ISU residential life coordinator. Rice's Iowa State connections continue with aunts, cousins and others.
"It's great to teach at an institution that is so important to my family and, at the same time, contribute to life in Iowa. I never really left Iowa and felt a deep commitment to the state," Rice said.
Rice returns to Iowa State with an extensive research record in voting behavior, election forecasting and his most recent work, the relationship between civic culture and government performance.
"Civic culture is not easy to define," admitted Rice. "Essentially, people in a civic society work for the public good. They trust each other and treat each other as equals. They get involved in civic affairs and public policy. They vote. They pay attention to the issues of the community and they don't always put personal interests above the interests of the community."
Rice and Alexander Sumberg, a former University of Vermont undergraduate student, were inspired by the work of Harvard University professor Robert Putnam, who created a model to measure the relationship between civic culture and government performance in Italy.
Rice and Sumberg applied the methodology to the United States. Their study will be published later this year in Publius: The Journal of Federalism.
"The study clearly shows the relationship between how civic a society is and the performance of government in that society," Rice said. "We need to cultivate activities, institutions and programs that will enhance 'civicness.' We shouldn't abandon civic education."
To determine a state's civic culture, the researchers measured four characteristics using the following data:
- Civic engagement: Newspaper circulation, number of books per capita in public libraries, and number of community improvement and philanthropic groups per capita.
- Political equality: Percentages of male public school teachers and female state legislators, income distribution and civil rights groups per capita among non-white population.
- Solidarity, trust and tolerance: Crime rate, the number of lawyers per capita and student loan default rates.
- Social structures of cooperation: A composite index of 26 non-profit groups.
The study found that northern tier states -- including Vermont, Massachusetts, Wyoming, Maine, North Dakota, New Hampshire, Montana and Iowa -- rated high on a civic culture index. Many southern states -- including Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina and Georgia -- were lower on the scale.
The researchers then examined government performance for each state by measuring policy liberalism, policy innovation and administrative effectiveness.
The study found that, in general, states with high civic culture rates had high government performance ratings.
Rice notes that civic culture does not follow any specific liberal or conservative political ideology.
"You can be a civic person and want to extend help to people, but through the private sector rather than government," Rice said. "Iowa, for example, rates high in civic culture but not as high in government performance, in part, because of how the state responds to social problems.
"Iowa is relatively conservative and most people probably believe that many problems can be solved outside of government. That may be the ultimate in civicness -- trying to solve problems locally."
Rice currently is using data from Sigma, the ISU sociology department's study of 99 rural Iowa communities, to examine the civic culture in the state. He also is studying the connections between religion and civic culture.
Rice and another University of Virginia colleague recently completed a study of how the civic cultures of European immigrants persist in their contemporary descendants. The study will be published next year in The Journal of Politics.
"Immigrants to this country brought with them certain levels of civicness and that civicness lives today in their great, great, great grandchildren," Rice said. "Some cultures are clearly higher in civicness both here and abroad. Danes are the most civic in Europe right now and American people of Danish descent are the most civic here. We're finding that many of us carry fingerprints of our ancestral cultures."
Research on civic culture has become a hot topic among social scientists, partly because of the opening of Eastern Europe.
"In civic societies, the democratic process works more successfully and is more durable, which raises a lot of questions about how you transport a democracy to a place like Eastern Europe," Rice said.
"You don't create a democracy by throwing money at a country. Capitalist economies and healthy democracies flow from civicness. You have to get to the core attitudes, values and beliefs of the people."
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