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Putnam on social capital – democratic or civic perspective

Robert David Putnam (1941-) is an American political scientist most famous for his influential 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 argued that social capital plays a vital role in the functioning of societies and has significant implications for various outcomes, including economic development, political participation, and overall social well-being.

Contribution to social capital theory

Putnam is generally credited with popularizing the term social capital. Putnam’s work on social capital has stimulated extensive research and debate, exploring its implications for various domains of society, including education, public health, economic development, and political participation. Putnam’s research has significantly influenced academic research and public policy, sparking discussions on the importance of social capital for democratic societies and community wellbeing. His work has also explored issues of diversity, inequality, and the role of social networks in shaping social and political outcomes. Putnam has received numerous accolades and awards throughout his career for his contributions to political science and social theory. He continues to be an active researcher, writer, and speaker, contributing to ongoing conversations about social capital, civic engagement, and the challenges facing modern societies.

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, which treats social capital as a private good, with Coleman’s theory of social capital positioned between these perspectives. 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 leading stock characterising 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 followed 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 comparable across cities, regions and even countries.

The definition of social capital given by Putnam focuses on the features of social organisation, with examples of networks, norms and trust provided to illustrate. This definition clearly positions social capital as the property of the collective since the ‘capital’ relates to social organisation, which influences individual action rather than the properties of the individual that determine their action.

Criticisms of Putnam’s approach to social capital

Putnam’s theory of social capital has received both praise and criticism from scholars and researchers. Some of the key criticisms related to fundamental conceptual and methodological flaws in the way social capital is defined and measured. Perhaps the most problematic aspect of this theory is the drastic over-simplification of complex and interrelated processes to a single or small set of factors, for example, 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. However, it is important to note that, despite its conceptual shortcomings, this approach to social capital has allowed for macro-level analysis that has revealed fascinating and compelling trends in modern societies.

A common critique of this approach is the lack of conceptual and operational clarity. Critics argue that Putnam’s theory does not provide precise definitions or measurement techniques for social capital, making comparing and replicating studies difficult. The ambiguity surrounding the concept has led to challenges in measuring and quantifying social capital, limiting its empirical applicability.

The application of Putnam’s theory of social capital tends to overlook power dynamics and structural inequalities within society. Critics argue that social capital can be unequally distributed, with marginalised groups facing barriers to access and participation. The theory’s emphasis on community-level social capital may neglect the disparities and power imbalances that exist within and between communities. There can be a tendency to universalise findings across populations. Further, Putnam’s theory has been criticised for downplaying the role of conflict and dissent in social capital formation. Social capital is not always harmonious and can involve competing interests, diverse viewpoints, and social divisions. By emphasising cooperation and trust, the theory may overlook the importance of healthy disagreement and social mobilisation.

Some critics argue that Putnam’s theory does not establish a clear causal relationship between social capital and positive outcomes. While numerous studies have found associations between social capital and desirable outcomes, establishing a cause-and-effect relationship is challenging. By defining social capital as positive, i.e. facilitating cooperation, positive outcomes are true by definition, creating a tautology. There are also concerns about the potential exclusionary effects of social capital. While social capital can foster cooperation and solidarity within a group, it may also create social boundaries and exclusionary practices towards outsiders. This can lead to the exclusion of marginalised individuals or reinforce existing social divisions.

While popularising the concept of social capital, many followers of Putnam’s work have confounded theoretical and methodological rigour to such an extent that some scholars have described it as “vulgar scholarship” (see Ben Fine). I think that Putnam’s work is interesting and descriptive but offers little theoretical and methodological framework for deep explanations and understandings.

Putnam’s key publications on social capital

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

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

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

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

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

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

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