28 Aug 2018

Is social capital declining? Is society a waste land or just different?

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You may have read about the decline of social capital that has been bandied about in academic literature and political rhetoric. While this echoes the concerns of many people about modern society, much of the interest in this topic comes from Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone.

In his book, Putnam argued that the United States has undergone an unprecedented collapse in civic, social, associational, and political life (social capital) since the 1960s, with serious negative consequences. The book associates the myriad of social ills plaguing United States cities to the decline in associational membership in organizations such as lodge halls, Boy Scout troops, churches, and bowling leagues.

However, Putnam adopted a very narrow perspective of social capital, so while the discussion is both interesting and illuminating, it is of little value to our current understanding of social capital and whether it is in decline.

Moving past Putnam’s theory – is social capital in decline?

The answer to this question is probably no, but it depends on how you define social capital. The bigger problem is how to measure social capital, and without a suitably rigorous measure, there can be no way for us to empirically determine whether social capital is declining.

Social capital includes multiple factors that interact in complex ways each contributing to positive or negative social capital differently depending on context. There is multidirectional causality and feedback loops that further complicate analysis.

So, while people may be going to church less or bowling alone, there are a myriad of other ways in which people may be developing and maintaining social networks, accessing to social support, and utilising social resources.

Across the three commonly recognised dimensions of social capital, structural, cognitive, and relational, there are a wide range of factors that contribute to social capital. Many of these factors are changing, and their interrelationships create a very complex picture of changing social capital.

People today are more individualistic and narcissistic which must mean there is less social capital?

One often mentioned culprit for the decline of the social capital is increasing individualism and resulting narcissism. But individualistic values appear to contribute to social capital and social capital appears to be conducive to individualism.

Individualism forces individual members of society to become more dependent on each other and each other’s actions. Voluntary cooperation and partnership between individuals are only possible when people have autonomy, self-control, and a mature sense of responsibility.

So, this highlights the complex nature of social capital. We may assume that a society full of egocentric people would result in a decline in social capital. But, the opposite may be true as individuals seek out social interactions and relationships for different reasons and in different ways.

Can we make some general conclusions about the potential decline of social capital?

We should exercise caution about reaching any conclusions that involve assumptions of causality, but there are some broad societal trends that are worth noting for their potential role in declining social capital.

As you can tell, I am sitting on the fence when it comes to whether social capital is declining. I think social capital is far too broad at the community or societal level and its dimensions too complex to make any meaningful conclusions. The existing research on social capital marred by poor scholarship so provides little reliable information. There are clearly some powerful changes in society, and some of these may in some ways result in declining social capital.

Some of these changes are briefly identified below.

People are more isolated, alienated and disconnected than ever before

While research has found this to be true for many members of society, there are other members of society who have never been more connected – the always connected generation. The source of isolation are factors such as breakdown of family, decreasing household size, increased residential mobility, less interaction with neighbours, and general fear and distrust.

Women’s entry the workforce

Putnam referred to women’s entry to the workforce however while this may have contributed to a decline of neighbourhood ‘bonding’ social capital it would have facilitated the development of ‘bridging’ social capital to people in the workplace who were more likely to be from different backgrounds.

Technological transformation of leisure (e.g. television)

Technology has had a complex influence on social capital. Until the internet, technologies such as television may have contributed to more individual leisure and therefore less social interaction.

Trust in government and political participation

Trust is often cited as an important part of social capital and trust in government is clearly an important part of social capital. Some sources have cited decline in trust in government, however, trust in business and non-government institutions are also relevant.

Decline of religious affiliation and participation

Many countries have seen declining religious participation and an increase in atheism. This may relate to increasing individualism and could have complex consequences for social capital.

Fear

Many people believe that people have become more fearful as a result primarily of politics and media. Fear has an important relationship with trust – which is considered a very important part of social capital. The role of the media in instilling fear in the public is well documented. Violent acts that are a rare phenomenon (for example 1 in 100,000) are constantly visible to people making them irrationally fearful and therefore distrusting.

Different theories of social capital – Bourdieu and social capital decline

There are many different conceptualisations of social capital so while Putnam found decline, other theories of social capital may find a different outcome.

Bourdieu’s theory of social capital is based on an uneven distribution of social capital within society that enables individuals to exert power. To understand a decline in social capital from this perspective there would expect to see an overall decline individual’s ability to exert power through social relationships.

Is ‘who you know’ less important than it used to be? Is it no longer important to have ‘friends in high places’? Can one now ‘go it alone’ as effectively as having friends and an extensive network of contacts?

I don’t have any evidence that may answer these questions beyond my own observations. To me, it would seem, if anything, more important for an individual to possess social capital now than it did previously. There is now more information, more complexity, and more bureaucracy. While the nature of class has changed in many societies, the existence of powerful groups and individuals has not changed.

So, has there been a decline in social capital from the perspective of Bourdieu’s theory of social capital? It seems unlikely especially considering the tools that are now available to help people develop their social networks, such as LinkedIn and other social media platforms. The cost (time, money, effort, etc) of maintaining social relationships is now lower, but arguably the quality of those social relationships is lower. The net result would be difficult to accurately measure.

Tristan Claridge has a passion for technology, innovation and teaching. He is an academic and entrepreneur, and he uses his cross-discipline knowledge and experience to solve problems and identify opportunities. He has bachelors and masters degrees from the University of Queensland in Australia. He has qualifications in environmental science, social theory, teaching and research, and business management.

Tristan is dedicated to the application of social capital theory to organisations. His diverse experience in teaching, research, and business has given him a unique perspective on organisational social capital and the potential improvements that can be achieved in any organisation.

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