Whither Social Capital?

Whither Social Capital?

This past Friday there was yet another retirement conference, this time honoring “Mr. Social Capital,” Robert S. Putnam, who is retiring from Harvard’s Kennedy School at age 77.  I was not invited, but I know some people who attended, including my sister and brother-in-law, the latter speaking at the dinner as family, the brother of  Bob’s wife, Rosemary.  As it is, I have known Bob Putnam since before he became Robert S. “Mr. Social Capital” Putnam.  That came especially with the publication in the 1990s of his massive hit book, Bowling Alone, in which he presented massive amounts of  data and arguments about the idea of social capital.  This helped trigger an outright fad among academics and policymakers, including at the World Bank, about the importance of increasing social capital in many nations so as to supposedly improve their economic and social situations.  It also led Putnam to become one of the most frequently cited living social scientists (176,000 plus times and counting, according to Google Scholar).

According to him the idea has been floating around in and out of public discourse since it first appeared in a report on education in West Virginia a good century ago.  However, it began to pick up serious academic steam starting in the late 1980s when sociologist James Coleman began studying it and writing about it.  Putnam’s own background was mostly as an expert on Italian politics, but he picked up on the idea from Coleman in the early 1990s in a famous book he wrote on Italian democracy. For him it became a crucial factor in explaining the much  better economic and social (and political) performance of northern Italy compared to southern Italy, albeit with a deep historical background.  Whereas substantial portions of northern Italy had been independent city states with long histories of civic engagement in local ruling groups, most of southern Italy spent several centuries ruled by outside and autocratic Spain, which laid the foundation for the rise of the mafia as a countervailing power, which would come to dominate the society of the Mezzogiorno with its secrecy and lying and corruption.  For Putnam one finds lots of people engaged in civic group activities in  the North, but not in the South, and I even heard him once give a talk in which he claimed that one could explain 90% of the difference in economic growth rates among Italian regions by just looking at the percentage of their populations that belonged to civic choral groups in the 1870s.  That correlation is probably correct, even if it has almost nothing to do with causation.

There are at least two issues here that need explaining, both of them Putnam well aware of and discussing in Bowling Alone, as well as some of his more recent books and articles.  One is the basic matter of how one defines “social capital.”  As I have noted here previously, there are seep problems in defining “capital” in any of its supposed forms, with these more recent concepts such as human and social capital, much less such vagaries as “cultural capital,” potentially involve a lot of vacuous handwaving and sloganeering.  In any case, two competing definitions of it have emerged, with Putnam very much favoring and pushing one of them.  The one he favors is this matter of the amount of social or civic groups that citizens belong to and are actively involved in.  Indeed,  the takeaway from Bowling Alone was that while more people were bowling in the 1990s, they were increasingly doing so literally alone, in contrast with the 1950s and 60s when people bowled in leagues with other people, this indicating a dangerous decline in social capital responsible for numerous social ills in American societies, with commentators on both the political left and right picking up the cry of worrisome woe over this matter.  Of course this fit his story about what has happened in Italy, with his focus on widespread civic groups and activities in the North compared to the monolithic dominance of the secretive mafia in the South.

The competing concept has involved “generalized trust,” which can be argued to support better economic performance through lowering transactions costs.  In this way, lots of this kind of social capital might actually contribute to economic growth, although the other  might as well.  But some have argued (Fukuyama among others) that the civic engagement stuff only becomes important if it increases this generalized trust, thus lowering transactions costs. Furthermore, an influential paper in 1996 in  the QJE by Knack  and Keefer econometrically compared the influence of measures of both of these measures of social capital  on economic growth rates in several European nations. Their much cited result claimed no effect from the civic membership variable, but positive and significant effects from the generalized trust measures.

The other issue involves another distinction between two kinds of social capital: “bridging” versus “bonding.”  The former seems to relate to generalized trust and involves working across groups in a society, thus supposedly heightening broader social solidarity and cohesion (to use competing terms for “social capital”).  The other involves in-group solidarity and trust against outsiders.  This may help the bonded group (Jewish diamond merchants, Italian mafia members), but not those outside the group.  Indeed, the bridging looks like northern Italy while bonding looks like southern Italy again.  In any case, Putnam has written on this matter extensively.

This brings us to a further dark side issue arising from his research, the matter of inter-ethnic relations and their relation to this concept, with this matter of bridging versus bonding crucial  here.  A more or less liberal Democrat, although an official adviser to President Carter (it was after that he moved from the University of Michigan to Harvard) and an unofficial one to President Clinton, he has reported, if not with much enthusiasm or publicity, that it appears that ethnic fragmentation and diversity does not help increase social capital on any of its measures, although this is not a universal one. Nevertheless, for supporters of diversity such as he is (and I am also), this is kind of depressing news, whatever one thinks of the concept. And, big surprise, it had been picked up by enthnocentrists and nationalists of various striped around the world, including in the US among Trump supporters.  It looks like a triumph for social capital bonders rather than the more pleasing and virtuous bridgers, a victory of southern Italy and its corrupt mafia over the civic choral singers of northern Italy.  Sigh…

Barkley Rosser