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The Meaning of Social Capital

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Social capital refers to the network of the institutions, norms and relationships that shape the quantity and quality of the social interactions in a society. For a society to advance economically and sustain development, social cohesion is critical (World Bank 1). Social capital does not only refer to the total of the institutions that support a society, but is like a glue that holds the institutions together. This paper literary analyzes how the American social capital has changed over the last decades with reference to Putnam’s social capital analysis article.

Some key concepts of social capital are explained below. Horizontal associations-this is a narrow view of social capital that perceives it as the set of horizontal associations existing between people and consist of social networks and norms that impact on community well-being and productivity. The social networks reduce the cost of doing business thus increasing productivity. It plays a role in facilitating cooperation and coordination. Vertical and horizontal associations- this a  broader understanding for both positive and negative aspects of social capital. It includes  both vertical and horizontal associations between people,  including behavior among and within organizations. The view recognizes that the horizontal ties are essential for giving the community a sense of common purpose and identity. It also acknowledges that without the ‘bridging’ ties transcendent across various social divides, such as ethnicity, religion and socio-economic status while horizontal ties may become a basis for pursuing narrow interests  and it can prohibit access to material and informational resources that would greatly assist the community such as access to credit and tips about vacant job positions (World Bank 1).

Why it is considered a good thing

There are many benefits associated with social capital. One of the benefits is that it combines several significant sociological concepts ,for instance, integration, support and social cohesion.  Social capital is important for stable liberal democracy and aid the modern economies to function efficiently as a good basis for cooperation across the sectors and power divides, and as a vital result of such cooperation. It, also is clear that social capital is crucial in societal well-being. Various aspects of it are desirable such as interpersonal trust while others may be more instrumental. Satisfaction in life, optimism, political involvement and government institutions’ perceptions all result from the basic dimension of social capital.

Social capital is also accredited with other potential benefits including facilitating higher levels  and growth in GDP (Gross Domestic Product), facilitating more efficient functioning labor markets; improvements in effectiveness of government institutions and lowering levels of crime. According to the article, American social scientists discovered that successful outcomes in cases of unemployment, urban poverty, health, control of drug abuse and crime are more likely to occur in communities that are civically engaged.  It is also a significant variable in attainment of education, community governance, public health economic problems and a vital element of production. It also affects business performance at both national and sub-national levels and is also important for problem solving.

For many reasons, life in a community ossessing substantial amounts of social capital is easier. Fist, networks of civic engagement encourage the development of social trust. Networks like these facilitate communication and coordination, amplify reputations thus allowing for the resolving of collective action dilemmas. When economic and political negotiations are integrated into strong networks of social interactions, chances are that opportunism will be reduced.

Why might it be relevant to the average American today?

Today, social capital is very important for an average American. Due to the risen insecurity levels from incidents of terrorism and drug abuse, social capital would is crucial to help solve this. Also, there are high levels of unemployment while the economic times prove to be hardest owing to the recent global economic downturn with people losing trust in the government. Putnam notes that American life as an individual and as a society has drastically changed; the way they live, where they live, what they do and what they feel has changed the dynamic of the society. The longer working hours, technological advances and increased cost of living have all contributed to the American person focusing on himself and his own family rather than his community. He argues that the person-person bond is among the most important factors for increasing a sense of trust and civic involvement among the Americans. If Americans once again join forces together in organizations and groups, they will be able to connect with one another thus the society will benefit. Restoring social capital in America will lead to the citizens regaining trust in the government.

How has American social capital declined?

There are numerous ways in how the American social capital has declined. The first indication is the greatly changed patterns of political patterns as can be seen in the declined voter turnout in American national elections over the last decades. According to Putnam, the voter turnout declined by almost a quarter in 1990 from the highpoint of the early 1960s.By 1990, tens of millions had already done away with the habitual readiness to engage in the voting process, which is considered to be the simplest yet important act of citizenship. Similarly, the trend describes the same for participation in local and state elections.

Putnam insists, however, that not only voting patterns have been affected.  Other organizations such as school affairs and public meetings have also met a decline in the number of attendees. A study by Roper organization showed that the number of Americans attending such meetings in the previous year had fallen form 22% of 1973 to 13% in 1993, (p68) which represents a fraction f more than a third decline. The same applied for the number that attended political party speeches or rallies, working for a political party and serving in a committee of a local organization.

Another area that have been affected is association and organizational membership. The most common organizational groups joined being the church in America; they are particularly popular among women. Others include school service (mostly PTA associations),literary, professional societies and sports groups. Men mostly engage in professional and veteran groups, labor unions sports and service clubs. Labor unions has provided one of the commonest organizational affiliations among workers yet its membership has continued to fall over the last four decades; the most dramatic occurreed between 1975 and 1985 (Putnam 69).

Why has it declined?

One of the reasons for the decline is empowerment of women by joining labor force. This reduced the energy and time available for building social capital. Mobility- residential stability increases civic engagement while re-potting disrupts the root system. Demographic transformations such as fewer marriages, lower wages, lesser children and more divorce have taken place since the 1960s. Technological advances have individualized and privatized Americans’ use of leisure time thus interfering opportunities for social capital construction.

Where does "bowling" fit into this?

Putnam notes that concerning bowling, Americans have lost interest in competing against each other in the local leagues though the game has a very big following. Instead, they are bowling alone. He argues that the networks that brought people together to bowl is a good representation of lost social capital.

Putnam identifies some countertrends and solutions - what are they?

Some of the countertrends identified by Putnam are: new vibrant organization have been formed, replacing the traditional forms of civic organizations. One of them is the AARP that increased its membership by more than 30 million by 1993 becoming the second largest private organization globally (Putnam 70). However, their association is only in writing for most members and very few attend meetings. The bond between any members is weak and therefore do not enjoy the benefits of social capital. Secondly,  there is a rising number of non-profit organizations and their prominence. This is known as third sector such as Mayo clinic and Oxfam. This implies that most secondary associations fall in the category of non-profits but most non-profits are not secondary. The third countertrend is the expansion of various types of support groups. Forty percent of Americans are involved in at least a small group that gives support for the participants (Putnam71) where most of the groups are religiously affiliated. 

What are some of the critiques of Putnam's analysis?

According to Ladd, as quoted by Perry (215), America has not declined in social capital. Contrary to Putman’s opinion, Ladd says that the succeeding generations have had a chance to get more than their predecessors. For instance, Ladd argued that there are rising levels of volunteering and charitable giving. Norris and other writers questioned the indictment on the TV as a cause of decline in social capital. Most of them said that TV does not affect; time is what affects social capital.

This article was written before Sept. 11, 2001. Do you think it has the same relevance

Though the article was written in Sept.11, 2001, it has the same relevance to the issues facing Americans today. This is because the issues facing Americans back then have only become worse if not same. This can be witnessed by the ever-increasing rates of mistrust with the government. Though the participation in national elections was seen to rise in the most recent general election, it was only motivated by the hurt people had with the previous leaders. Also, Americans have considerably disassociated themselves with church and employee affiliated unions greatly. I personally agree with Putnam about all the issues he raised in this article.

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