The Unintended Consequences of Nation-Making Institutions: People’s Houses and Civil Society Development in Turkey

By Tugba Bozcaga and Asli Cansunar

During the 19th and 20th centuries, most new countries that broke away from a major empire or gained independence from a colonial power grappled with the challenge of creating new state-sponsored national attachments and loyalties. Usually, it was the state that formed the nation, not vice versa. Indeed, many states initiated top-down campaigns to forge a nation from disparate groups that often spoke different languages, danced to songs with entirely dissimilar melodies, and ate unique traditional dishes with local ingredients. These campaigns involved expanding public education networks, encouraging (and sometimes forcing) a common language, and building physical infrastructure to promoteore accessible travel and communication. Although the exact channels through which unifying measures differed among countries, the political elites of new nations considered nation-building activities vital to ensuring political stability and unity

Turkey is no exception. With the Republic of Turkey’s proclamation in 1923, the new regime attempted to transform the ruins of the multi-ethnic and Islamist Ottoman Empire into a thoroughly modern and secular nation-state. Following most other regimes, which sought to create loyal subjects through a comprehensive nation-building program, the new government prioritised primary and popular education through primary schools, Village Institutes, and People’s Houses, to win the hearts and minds of the masses and to indoctrinate them into its ideology.

Despite their prominence in the Turkish nation-making project and the nostalgia of seculars in Turkey about the positive effects of these institutions, scholars have overlooked how they could continue to influence contemporary politics and local economy. This post is about the People’s Houses, as centres of popular education and entertainment, and their persistent effects on local politics in Turkey. What are the long-term effects of nation-making institutions on contemporary outcomes? Can statist, and indeed secular, institutions (unintentionally) fluence the development of civil society organizations? If so, do they also affect present-day politics even if they no longer exist?

The Turkish Nation-Making Project 

Following the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in World War I, the Allied Powers’ occupation and partition of the country prompted multiple local resistance by the Muslim population in Anatolia. In May of 1919, Mustafa Kemal, a former Ottoman military officer, started to draw together the disparate local groups into a unified national movement. Following numerous military victories, the Turkish resistance forces expelled Greek, British, Italian, and French armies by late 1922. The resistance parliament abolished the Ottoman Sultanate in November 1922 and negotiated a peace treaty with the Allies in July 1923. The Grand National Assembly officially proclaimed the Republic on October 29, 1923, which marked the Republican People’s Party’s (CHP) single-party rule until 1950. The announcement of the Republic was followed by a comprehensive series of top-down secularization and modernization reforms.

After 1923, Turkey was religiously more homogeneous than the pre-WWI Ottoman Empire, but the remaining Muslim population was ethnolinguistically and culturally more fractured, partly due to the Muslim Ottoman migrations from lost territories. Unsurprisingly, radical reforms generated considerable resentment and backlash among religious conservatives and non-Turkish Muslims.

Growing resistance to reforms alarmed the ruling elite about the secularizing and nationalistic reforms’ failure to take root among the people. The CHP envisioned education as the primary instrument to spread the secular nation-state project to the people. However, the Party was also aware that formal education of school-aged children alone appeared inadequate for a rapid and radical transformation of the hearts and minds of ordinary citizens.

Thus, the new regime founded the People’s Houses in 1932, a network of popular education and community centers where the state communicated and disseminated the constructed secular Turkish identity. (The image at the top of this post announces the opening ceremony of the People’s Houses (February 20, 1932): Headline: “The People Founded Their Own Houses Yesterday”.) In structuring this institution, the government benefited from the experiences of the one-party authoritarian regimes of the period, such as the Dopolavoros in Italy, the Sokols in Czechoslovakia, and Narodnye Domas in the Soviet Union.

Devrek District People’s House

By 1948, a total of 469 People’s Houses were in operation. They became the center of social and cultural life in Turkey: between 1932 and 1940, for example, houses throughout the country held more than 23,750 conferences, 12,350 seminars, and 9,050 concerts.[1] Furthermore, they screened 7,850 films and organized 970 art exhibitions. By 1944, over 1.3 million readers were registered at the People’s Houses’ libraries.[2] Houses also attached great importance to developing their own media organs, especially to publishing monthly magazines: in 1944, there were a total of 50 periodicals published and disseminated by various People’s Houses.

Locations of People’s Houses by District Population (1945)

The transition to multiparty politics in 1946 marked the beginning of a heated discussion between the CHP and the opposition, Democrat Party, about the status and the future of the People’s Houses. The Democrat Party heavily criticized the CHP for operating state-funded Houses as cultural and political propaganda institutions of the Party. Once in power, the Democrat Party passed a bill that confiscated the property of the People’s Houses. Consequently, the People’s Houses were closed down in 1951.

Civil Society Development

We suggest that the People’s Houses jumpstarted the development of civil society in Turkey. First, the modus operandi of People’s Houses should have brought democratic and organizational know-how fundamental in developing civil society organizations in the post-single-party era. In a context where the majority of the population had no social capital or experience in civil society organizations, the CHP’s elites’ top-down teachings of democratic norms and organizational skills, as outlined by the bylaws of the Houses, were fundamental in shaping the emergence and the successful administration of future political and social networks through formal arrangements. The executive board and sectional committee elections, held every two years, provided significant insights into how democratic norms work, especially in the absence of competitive national elections until 1946.

Second, the Houses placed great emphasis on debate and discussion regarding the matters of the administration and activity program. The bylaws stipulated, for example, that the executive committee of each branch would establish its annual goals at its first meeting and meet every fifteen days to review its activities. Furthermore, in a letter sent to People’s Houses across the country, Recep Peker, the Secretary-General of the CHP, encourages the House administrations to facilitate active communication. He writes, “It is one of the most fundamental responsibilities of Houses to prevent the silence, which is one of the bad outcomes of the old education system. We are here to speak and make people speak.”[3]

Recep Peker’s letter to People’s Houses encouraging communication among citizens.

Finally, the Houses periodically brought together people from different segments of society, which helped facilitate the communication of shared interests and coordination of organizational resources. Libraries and reading rooms of the Houses also served as places of gathering for the local population. Periodic meetings of the local population with shared interests meant that the critical mass needed to form groups around shared goals could be brought together with lower transaction costs.

Journals published by various People’s Houses

We used an original dataset that draws on archival data on the People’s Houses’ locations as well as an original web-scraped dataset on the present-day civic associations located across 970 districts to assess the empirical relationship between People’s Houses and present-day civil society development in Turkey. We find that a positive and robust relationship: one-unit increase in the number of People’s Houses predicts a 1.65 unit (per ten thousand residents) increase in the number of present-day associations in a district. This corresponds to a 0.2 standard deviation increase or a 12 percent rise compared to the sample mean.

We also show that this effect is not only driven by an increase in secular organizations. As the secular regime’s popular education and indoctrination headquarters, the People’s Houses may have contributed to the secularization of the community, potentially distancing them from political Islam. To measure Islamist associational mobilization, we focus on the local associations linked to one of the first major Islamist civil society organizations in Turkey, İlim Yayma Cemiyeti (IYC), founded in 1951. We also find a positive relationship between the local People’s Houses and Islamist associations (operationalized as the probability of a local Ilim Yayma Cemiyeti’s existence). A one-unit increase in the number of People’s Houses predicts a 6.6 percentage point increase in the probability that an IYC-association is present in the district.

What about the electoral impact of these institutions? We do not find any meaningful relationship between local People’s Houses and votes for Islamist/conservative parties in 1972 (Milli Selamet Partisi) or 2002 (AK Parti). These findings suggest that while the People’s Houses equipped people with organizational skills necessary to develop civil society institutions, they had no persistent impact on the political outcomes they were designed to shape, such as support for political parties with secular ideology.

Lessons and Implications 

What other broader lessons can be learned from this example? Most current work in social sciences focuses on the political consequences of civil society development. However, these studies provide little explanation and systematic evidence for subnational variations in the level of associational involvement. Our findings here suggest that historical institutions that help equip people with social capital and organizational skills are significantly persistent in shaping the levels of contemporary civic associations, even if they no longer exist. Also, we find that statist and historical institutions do not necessarily crowd out civic associations and may even foster civil society development. This is another reason, among many others, to take history and historical institutions seriously in examining subnational variations in political behavior.

Apart from contributing to research on the varying levels of social capital and civic associations, this analysis also shows that extensive nation-building efforts do not always necessarily bode well for the prospects of indoctrination of a specific ideology. Our findings suggest that the People’s Houses, institutions created to promote secular agenda, lead to increased religious activism while not affecting political attitudes. Given the prevalence of similar institutions in other contexts, such as Italy and the Soviet Union, our findings illuminate the possible persistent political (null) effects of popular indoctrination centers in settings beyond Turkey.


[1] Çavdar, Tevfik. 1983. Halkevleri. In Cumhuriyet Dönemi Türkiye Ansiklopedisi. Vol. 4 İstanbul:İletişim Yayınları pp. 878–884.

[2] Erol, Muzaffer. 2000. “Halkevi Kütüphaneleri.” Türk Kütüphaneciliği 14(4):472–479.

[3] Başbakanlık Cumhuriyet Arşivi [BCA] CHP, 1937:3/15/46


  • Tugba Bozcaga

    I am currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Middle East Initiative at Harvard University’s Kennedy School and defended my dissertation in August 2020 in the Department of Political Science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. My research interests lie in comparative political economy and political economy of development, with a substantive focus on local governance, distributive politics, social welfare, ethnic politics, and migration. I study my research questions in the Middle East context by triangulating quasi-experimental statistical designs, novel data sources, and hypotheses and research designs informed by fieldwork and archival research. My work has been awarded Best Comparative Policy Paper Award from APSA Public Policy Section, and Honorable Mention for the APSA MENA Politics Section Best Paper Award. My research has been supported by the Program on Governance and Local Development and the MIT Center for International Studies. I am a Junior Fellow at the Association for Analytic Learning about Islam and Muslim Societies (AALIMS). ​ I completed my BA in Economics at Bogaziçi University and my MA at Central European University, with a fellowship from the Open Society Foundations. Prior to coming to MIT, I worked as a public official at the Turkish state, in the design and evaluation of various civil society and local government projects and programs.

  • Asli Cansunar

    I am a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at Nuffield College and the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Oxford. I hold a Ph.D. in Political Science (2018) and an MA in Economics (2014) from Duke University. Starting in 2021, I will be an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Washington. My work lies at the intersection of comparative political economy, comparative politics, and economic history, focusing on the political consequences of economic inequality. In particular, I work on the rich’s preferences on redistributive and tax policies. I also investigate the distributive impact of these preferences. I combine formal modeling with laboratory experiments, survey experiments, geospatial analysis, and archival research. Most of my research is concentrated in advanced industrialized countries and the Middle East. My papers have been published or are forthcoming at the Journal of Politics, the Journal of Political Institutions and Political Economy, and West European Politics. Besides my research, I teach courses on inequality, political methodology, political economy of Islam, and geospatial analysis.

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