LOOKING AT SOCIAL CAPITAL VIA THE RESEARCH OF ROBERT PUTNAM

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1 LOOKING AT SOCIAL CAPITAL VIA THE RESEARCH OF ROBERT PUTNAM by Mark K. Smith The notion of social capital is a useful way of entering into debates about civil society and it is central to the arguments of Robert Putnam and others who want to reclaim public life. It is also now being used by the World Bank with regard to economic and societal development and by management experts as a way of thinking about organizational development. We examine its nature - and some of the issues surrounding its use. The notion of social capital first appeared in Lyda Judson Hanifan's discussions of rural school community centers (Hanifan 1916, 1920). He used the term to describe 'those tangible substances [that] count for most in the daily lives of people' (1916: 130). Hanifan was particularly concerned with the cultivation of good will, fellowship, sympathy and social intercourse among those that 'make up a social unit'. However, it has taken some time for the term to come into widespread usage. Most recently, it has been the work of Robert D. Putnam that has launched social capital as a focus for research and policy discussion. It has also been picked up by the World Bank as a useful organizing idea. It is argued that 'increasing evidence shows that social cohesion is critical for societies to prosper economically and for development to be sustainable'. Defining social capital Whereas physical capital refers to physical objects and human capital refers to the properties of individuals, social capital refers to connections among individuals social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them. In that sense social capital is closely related to what some have called civic virtue. The difference is that social capital calls attention to the fact that civic virtue is most powerful when embedded in a sense network of reciprocal social relations. A society of many virtuous but isolated individuals is not necessarily rich in social capital. In addition, social capital refers to the institutions, relationships, and norms that shape the quality and quantity of a society's social interactions. Social capital is not just the sum of the institutions which underpin a society it is the glue that holds them together. The basic premise is that positive interaction enables people to build communities, to commit themselves to each other, and to knit the social fabric. A sense of belonging and the concrete experience of social networks (and the relationships of trust and tolerance that can be involved) can, it is argued, bring great benefits to people. Trust between individuals thus becomes trust between strangers and trust of a broad fabric of social institutions; ultimately, it becomes a shared set of values, virtues, and expectations within society as a whole. Without this interaction, on the other hand, trust decays; at a certain point, this decay begins to manifest itself in serious social problems. The concept of social capital contends that building or rebuilding community and trust requires face- to- face encounters. There is considerable evidence that communities with a good 'stock' of social capital are more likely to benefit from lower crime figures, better health, higher educational achievement, and better economic

2 growth. But there can also be a significant downside. Groups and organizations with high social capital have the means (and sometimes the motive) to work to exclude and subordinate others. The dimensions of social capital Those concerned with social capital have looked to the density of social networks that people are involved in; the extent to which they are engaged with others in informal, social activities; and their membership of groups and associations. Their big worry is that in the USA, for example, there has been a significant decline in the active membership of associations (like PTAs, football teams and community groups) and a corresponding increase in individualized leisure activities (most especially watching television and many forms of Internet use). For example, there has been drop in the number of people involved in league (team) bowling and a growth in individual bowling (hence the title of Putnam s (2000) book Bowling Alone). The result is that social capital is weakened. They are also concerned with an additional dimension of social capital whether it is bonding (or exclusive) and/or bridging (or inclusive). The former (bonding) may be more inward looking and have a tendency to reinforce exclusive identities and homogeneous groups. The latter (bridging) may be more outward- looking and encompass people across different social divides Bonding capital is good for undergirding specific reciprocity and mobilizing solidarity, while bridging networks, by contrast, are better for linkage to external assets and for information diffusion. Moreover, bridging social capital can generate broader identities and reciprocity, whereas bonding social capital bolsters our narrower selves. Bonding social capital constitutes a kind of sociological superglue, whereas bridging social capital provides a sociological WD- 40 (a lubricant for hardware/machines). These are not either/or categories to which social networks can neatly assigned but more- or- less dimensions along which we can compare different forms of social capital More on why social capital is important First, social capital allows citizens to resolve collective problems more easily People often might be better off if they cooperate, with each doing her share. But each individual benefits more by shirking their responsibility, hoping that others will do the work for her. Resolving this dilemma is best served by an institutional mechanism with the power to ensure compliance with the collectively desirable behavior. Social norms and the networks that enforce them provide such a mechanism. Second, social capital greases the wheels that allow communities to advance smoothly. Where people are trusting and trustworthy, and where they are subject to repeated interactions with fellow citizens, everyday business and social transactions are less costly. A third way is which social capital improves our lot is by widening our awareness of the many ways in which our fates are linked. People who have active and trusting connections to others whether family members, friends, or fellow bowlers develop or maintain character traits that are good for the rest of society. Joiners become more tolerant, less cynical, and more empathetic to the misfortunes of others. When people lack connection to others, they are unable to test the veracity of their own views, whether

3 in the give or take of casual conversation or in more formal deliberation. Without such an opportunity, people are more likely to be swayed by their worse impulses. The networks that constitute social capital also serve as conduits for the flow of helpful information that facilitates achieving our goals. Social capital also operates through psychological and biological processes to improve individual s lives. Mounting evidence suggests that people whose lives are rich in social capital cope better with traumas and fight illness more effectively. Community connectedness is not just about warm fuzzy tales of civic triumph. In measurable and well- documented ways, social capital makes an enormous difference to our lives. Bowling Alone: The collapse and revival of American community Putnam demonstrates that on a range of indicators of civic engagement including voting, political participation, newspaper readership, and participation in local associations there were serious grounds for concern. It appears that America s social capital is in decline. First in the realm of civic engagement and social connectedness he was able to demonstrate that there had been a fundamental shift in: 1) Political and civic engagement: Voting, political knowledge, political trust, and grassroots political activism are all down. Americans sign 30 per cent fewer petitions and are 40 per cent less likely to join a consumer boycott, as compared to just a decade or two ago. The declines are equally visible in non- political community life: membership and activity in all sorts of local clubs and civic and religious organizations have been falling at an accelerating pace. In the mid- 1970s the average American attended some club meeting every month, currently that rate of attendance had been cut by nearly 60 per cent. Also in decline are informal social ties. In 1975 the average American entertained friends at home 15 times per year; the equivalent figure is now barely half that. Virtually all leisure activities that involve doing something with someone else, from playing volleyball to playing chamber music, are declining. 2) Trust. Although Americans are more tolerant of one another than were previous generations, they trust one another less. Survey data provide one measure of the growth of dishonesty and distrust, but there are other indicators. For example, employment opportunities for police, lawyers, and security personnel were stagnant for most of this century e.g., America had fewer lawyers per capita in 1970 than in But in the decades since 1970 these occupations have boomed, as people have increasingly turned to the courts and the police. Possible reasons for this decline 1) Residential mobility had actually been declining for the last half of the century. Time pressure, especially on two- career families, could only be a marginal candidate. 2) Changes in family structure (i.e. with more and more people living alone), are a possible element as conventional avenues to civic involvement are not well- designed for single and childless people.

4 3) Suburban sprawl has fractured the spatial integrity of people s. They travel much further to work, shop and enjoy leisure opportunities. As a result there is less time available (and less inclination) to become involved in groups. Suburban sprawl is a very significant contributor. 4) Certain forms of electronic entertainment, such as television, has profoundly privatized leisure time, for time spent in this way is a direct drain upon involvement in groups and social capital building activities. It may contribute up to 40 per cent of the decline in involvement in groups. 5) Generational change (this came out as a very significant factor). A "long civic generation," born in the first third of the twentieth century, is now passing from the American scene. Their children and grandchildren are much less engaged in most forms of community life. For example, the growth in volunteering over the last ten years is due almost entirely to increased volunteering by retirees from the long civic generation' ( Francis Fukuyama raises some useful questions around the Putnam thesis and the late Everett C. Ladd was very critical of the approach disputing the interpretation much of the evidence in Putnam's original article. Ladd's argument was that American civic life was not so much in decline but rather 'churning'. Some organizations had lost members, but others had sprung up in their place. He believed that 'the individualism at the heart of the country's conception of citizenship gave Americans no alternative but to cooperate with one another' This being so, ebbs and flows in organizational membership should be seen as stemming not from any broad disaffection with civic groups or public life per se but from uncertainty about how best to work together during changing times. The very concern sparked by Putnam's lament was itself, Ladd suggested, a sign of America's still abundant supply of social capital. However, Ladd was writing prior to the marshaling of evidence in Bowling Alone. In many respects, Ladd's central thesis is undermined by the data assembled by Putnam. The concrete benefits associated with social capital Putnam marshals an impressive amount of material to demonstrate that: Child development is powerfully shaped by social capital. Trust, networks, and norms of reciprocity within a child s family, school, peer group, and larger community have far reaching effects on their opportunities and choices, and hence on their behavior and development In high social- capital areas public spaces are cleaner, people are friendlier, and the streets are safer. Traditional neighborhood risk factors such as high poverty and residential mobility are not as significant as most people assume. Places have higher crime rates in large part because people don t participate in community organizations, don t supervise younger people, and aren t linked through networks of friends. A growing body of research suggests that where trust and social networks flourish, individuals, firms, neighborhoods, and even nations prosper economically. Social capital can help to mitigate the insidious effects of socioeconomic disadvantage.

5 There appears to be a strong relationship between the possession of social capital and better health. As a rough rule of thumb, if you belong to no groups but decide to join one, you cut your risk of dying over the next year in half. If you smoke and belong to no groups, it s a toss- up statistically whether you should stop smoking or start joining. Regular club attendance, volunteering, entertaining, or church attendance is the happiness equivalent of getting a college degree or more than doubling your income. Civic connections rival marriage and affluence as predictors of life happiness (ibid.: 333). The World Bank has also brought together a range of statistics to make the case for the social and economic benefits of social capital. For example they argue that there is evidence that schools are more effective when parents and local citizens are actively involved. 'Teachers are more committed, students achieve higher test scores, and better use is made of school facilities in those communities where parents and citizens take an active interest in children s educational well- being'. From the material marshaled by Putnam we can see that the simple act of joining and being regularly involved in organized groups has a very significant impact on individual health and well- being. Working so that people may join groups whether they are organized around enthusiasms and interests, social activity, or economic and political aims can make a considerable contribution in itself. Encouraging the development of associational life can also make a significant difference to the experience of being in different communities. Robert Putnam has done us a great service, and while aspects of his argument will no doubt be disputed over the coming years, his central message is surely true. Interaction enables people to build communities, to commit themselves to each other, and to knit the social fabric.

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