I’ve finally got around to doing some focused reading on Putnam’s Bowling Alone (2000). For the uninitiated, this is the book that kind of made social capital an important and relevant topic of conversation in modern academic thought. Basically, Putnam suggests that, based on an analysis of a range of different kinds of social measures, like membership in clubs and associations, or television watching habits or similar measures, that US society’s civic engagement has decreased. Furthermore, he argues that this disengagement is relatively recent – ignoring the Great Depression, the first 60 years of the 20th Century saw a great increase in civic engagement – measurable in a whole range of different ways – but the last third of the 20th Century saw a rapid decrease in almost every form of civic engagement – and this decrease, although it occurred at different levels – occurred amongst all sections of society.
This is important because Putnam links this idea of civic engagement to social capital – an idea which has a long history, but really only became popular with sociologists like Coleman and Bourdieu in the 1970s and 1980s. Social capital is important because it is linked to ideas of civic virtue and social networking – all of which are valuable because they increase things like life expectancy and productivity. In addition, they are closely linked to measures of participatory democracy.
Central to the notion of social capital is the idea of generalized reciprocity.This is the idea that you do something for other people – like letting them in front of you when merging in the car – with the idea that someone – not necessarily the same person – will do the same or similar for you at some point in the future (as opposed to specific reciprocity, where you know who and how they will repay the favour). This creates a more efficient society because it facilitates things like trust and cooperation – it’s like an investment in yourself in the future.
It is important to note that social capital is not necessarily a good thing; that is, it can be good for insiders to a group, but less so for outsiders – for example, the NIMBY movement mobilises social capital to achieve aims that are good for them, but probably less so for others. In addition, social capital comes in two forms – bridging and bonding. Bridging is outward looking, whereas bonding is inward looking, or as Putnam puts it, bridging is ‘good for getting ahead, while bonding is good for getting by’.