24 Apr 2015

Putnam on social capital – democratic or civic perspective

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Robert David Putnam (1941-) is an American political scientist most famous for his controversial publication Bowling Alone, which argues 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. Putnam is generally credited with popularized the term social capital.

Putnam treated social capital as a public good—the amount of participatory potential, civic orientation, and trust in others available to cities, states, or nations (Putnam 1993, 2000). This contrasts with Bourdieu’s theory of social capital, with Coleman’s definition somewhere in the middle. In Putnam’s conceptualisation social capital is elevated from a feature of individuals to a feature of large population aggregates. Social capital becomes a collective trait functioning at the aggregate level.

Putnam made the argument that social capital is essentially the ‘amount’ of ‘trust’ available and is the main stock characterizing the political culture of modern societies. For Putnam (1993 p. 35; 1993) social capital refers to ‘features of social organizations, such as networks, norms and trust that facilitate action and cooperation for mutual benefit’. Putnam follows Coleman’s belief that social capital is a quality that can be a facilitator of interpersonal cooperation. In Putnam’s view, such a feature can be considered an aggregate trait to such a degree that it can become automatically comparable across cities, regions and even countries.

Putnam has been widely criticised for fundamental conceptual and methodological flaws. Perhaps most problematic is the drastic over-simplification of complex and interrelated processes to a single or small set of factors, i.e. trust as an aggregate indicator of social capital. This is further complicated by logical circularity. As a property of communities and nations rather than individuals, social capital is simultaneously a cause and an effect.

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While popularizing the concept of social capital, Putnam’s work has confounded theoretical and methodological rigor to such an extent that much of the later work on social capital has be described as vulgar scholarship. I think that Putnam’s work is interesting and descriptive however offers little in the way of theoretical and methodological framework for future study.

Putnam’s key publications on social capital

Helliwell, John F. and Robert D. Putnam. 1999. “Economic Growth and Social Capital in Italy.” Pp. 253–69 in Social Capital: A multifaceted perspective, edited by P. Dasgupta and I. Serageldin. Washington, DC: World Bank.

Putnam, RD Robert D. 1995. “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital.” Journal of Democracy 6(1):65–78. Retrieved August 30, 2017 (https://muse.jhu.edu/article/16643/summary).

Putnam, Robert. 2000. Bowling Alone. New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks.

Putnam, Robert. 2002. “Democracies in Flux: The Evolution of Social Capital in Contemporary Society.”

Putnam, Robert D. 1993. “The Prosperous Community.” The American Prospect 4(13):35–42.

Putnam, Robert D. 1999. “Civic Disengagement in Contemporary America.” Pp. 135–56 in Government and Opposition/Leonard Schapiro lecutre. London School of Economics.

Putnam, Robert D. 2000. Bowling Alone : The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Putnam, Robert D. 2001. “Social Capital: Measurement and Consequences.” Isuma: Canadian Journal of Policy Research 2(Spring 2001).

Putnam, Robert D., Robert Leonardi, and Raffaella Y. Nanetti. 1993. Making Democracy Work : Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.


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