Civil Society and Social Capital

Table of Contents



Social capital is an aspiration to those who want to strengthen neither the state nor the market but something in between that is the civil society. In the beginning it was less a matter of voluntary participation but broader view of the effects of social networks. The social capital debate met with enormous interest, as ‘‘discovering’’ and describing a new resource arouses desires. Theoretically, however, a minimum of social capital should be a guarantee for democratic and economic development. It was Robert D. Putnam[1]who first held this position and he gave reasons for it in the book, Making Democracy Work, that he wrote together with Robert Leonardi and Rafaela Y. Nanetti. The decisive impulse for this debate was, however, given by an essay in the Journal of Democracy (Putnam, 1995[2]; Paxton, 1999[3]: 89).

Definitional issues:

Putnam’s (1993) analysis of democracy based on the example of Italy is seen as a milestone in democracy research (Tarrow, 1996)[4] because Putnam succeeded in combining historical, cultural, and institutional research to create an independent new approach for explaining democratic stability and economic prosperity through civic engagement. Later on several social scientists like Bourdieu, Coleman, or Loury have proposed definitions which are subsequently used.
Pierre Bourdieu differentiated between three types of capital. In addition to economic capital, according to Marx the ‘‘actual’’ capital, he recognized cultural and social capital as being responsible for the structure of inequality in a society (Bourdieu, 1986)[5]. The allocation of cultural capital is determined above all by family origin; it refers to the access and the practicing of class and stratum-specific knowledge components and skills (e.g., performing music and learning classical languages are mentioned specifically), as well as style and taste. Children from underclass milieus thus lack not only economic, but also cultural, capital. In addition they also lack the necessary social capital for breaking out of their status. According to Bourdieu social capital consists primarily of the social networks of family and relationships. The necessary contacts and connections are generally more important for achieving a rewarding position in society than economic and cultural capital. In contrast, Putnam’s definition starts at a different level: ‘‘By analogy with notions of physical capital and human capital...‘social capital’ refers to features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit’’ (Putnam, 1995: 67[6]). While social capital is assigned to a person (or family) by Bourdieu, Putnam locates it in the public sphere: ‘‘Social capital ... is ...ordinarily a public good, unlike conventional capital, which is ordinarily a private good’’ (Putnam, 1993: 170[7]). According to Putnam, Bourdieu’s three forms of capital (including his definition of social capital) can therefore all be assigned to human capital (material values and the ‘‘infrastructure’’ belong to physical capital).
Even if it is separated from the attribution to persons, Putnam’s concept of social capital is hardly compatible with Coleman’s definition. In the late 1980s Coleman worked on the operational requirements for social capital, whereby he picked up on earlier work by Loury (1977) on education and income. In regard to social advancement, Loury paid special attention to the social embedding in addition to individual capabilities and established this as a new field of research. ‘‘It may thus be useful to employ a concept of social capital to represent the consequences of social position in facilitating acquisition of the standard human capital characteristics’’ (Loury, 1977[8]: 176). Coleman leaves out this task by connecting different analysis levels and describes social capital in domination and trust relationships and as a phenomenon of collective action (free rider problem etc.). In doing so, social capital becomes a good which, in terms of general economic exchange theory, is explainable according to the standards of rational choice models. Social capital is thereby both a result and a resource in exchange relations, thus an individual characteristic and a good that varies according to the social situation: ‘‘Social capital is defined by its function. It is not a single entity, but a variety of different entities having two characteristics in common: They all consist of some aspect of social structure, and they facilitate certain actions of individuals who are within the structure. Like other forms of capital, social capital is productive, making possible the achievement of certain ends that would not be attainable in its absence’’ (Coleman, 1990: 302[9]). Any kind of structural determination should explain the operational requirements for social capital that in the end, however, remains tied to individual persons. The network approaches of Ronald Burt (Burt, 1984, 1987, 1992[10]) and Nan Lin (1982 see also: Lin et al., 2001[11]) have a similar point of origin. Social capital arises here from relationships between (at least) two persons (‘‘knots’’ in a network) and is conceived through the variables information and control, which can only arise through the relationship between the knots. One could now ask to which extent certain forms of networks offer more or less social capital for the individual. This also ties up with the approach of Mark social capital Granovetter (1973[12]), who drew attention to a peculiarity of networks in his much acclaimed article ‘‘The Strength of Weak Ties.’’ Many loose contacts appear to be more favourable for the structure of a network than a few close relationships. At the same time it also dealt with the use of networks at the individual level. He looked at what positions in networks and types of relationships are especially advantageous, e.g., when looking for a job (Granovetter, 1974[13]). None of these approaches and definitions touched off such a strong public interest in the concept of social capital as did Putnam’s definition. For Putnam, neither the sociology of inequality implications (as by Bourdieu), personal advantage (as by Burt and Lin), the action theory problems at the level of the participants (as by Coleman), nor the use for the network itself (as by Granovetter) is relevant. For Putnam it is the environment of the networks, as far as possible the society, that possesses social capital. For this purpose Putnam starts with concrete, localizable places, as Jane Jacobs (1961[14]) and Lydia J. Hanifan (1920[15]) did before him. Typical, culturally anchored social relationship structures are sought there. We are thus dealing with a space-related approach that differs from personal approaches. It is Putnam’s space related approach that has formed the actual and general definition of social capital more strongly that the participant-based approaches. This appears, e.g., in the official definitions of the World Bank and the OECD. For the World Bank, any kind of sources and conditions for economic development are interesting.  The concept of the World Bank understands social capital to be – in an obvious allusion to Putnam’s definition – the social coherence of societies, especially basic normative principles of trust: ‘‘Social capital refers to the norms and networks that enable collective action. Increasing evidence shows that social cohesion ‘social capital’ is critical for poverty alleviation and sustainable human and economic development’’ (The World Bank, 1998[16]). Informal, intermediary, and formal organizations are not differentiated here. According to the World Bank definition, social capital consists of all institutions, relationships, and norms that develop an influence on the quality and quantity of social interaction. The goal of the World Bank is to use the potential for an increase in social and economic growth that is attributed to social capital and the definition turns out to be correspondingly broad. The OECD pursues a similar concept, especially for developmental aid and advice. In the concept of social capital used there, the social environment in which economic growth should take place is allowed for. The inclusion of different organizational forms in the definition of social capital (from national, regional, and local organizations to NGOs and small neighborhood mutual aid associations) is intended to facilitate the cooperation between and in different groups. A loss of social capital must be counteracted by the OECD because otherwise no endogenous development would be possible and permanent aid and (exogenous) administrative interventions would remain permanently necessary.
One of the most important issues in the study of social capital is the question of relationships and trust attributed to the members of civil society. The nature of relationship also becomes important. Quite obviously, we can neither treat every form of relationship (marriage, friendship, exchange relationship, slavery) nor every form of association (club, company, cooperative, army, religious community, administrative bureaucracy, Mafia) equally. With regard to social capital we always think of voluntary forms of relationships and groups that in some way operate positively. In the simplest terms identifying a civil society as something brought forth by non profit organisations appears easy, however, it becomes more difficult once, one tries to find out which organisations, networks and actions tend to support or not support the pursuits of the development of modern society.

The question of modernity – bowling alone

Putnam (1993, 1995) starts not with organizations, but ‘‘dense networks’’ und ‘‘networks of organized reciprocity,’’ which make possible and stabilize economic growth and democratic development: ‘‘In fact, historical analysis suggested that...networks of organized reciprocity and civic solidarity, far from being an epiphenomenon of socioeconomic modernization, were a precondition for it’’ (Putnam, 1995: 67). He argues that the forms of network are important contributor to civility. For Unites States Putnam (1995) finds a steady decline in these forms. He argues that four factors are responsible for these: the increased employment of women, the increased mobility, the generational change and the increased spread of technology in leisure time (increased television consumption). These four developments disrupt face-to-face contacts in the communities and lead to more individual or isolated activities being carried out. However, many others like Wuthnow, (2001)[17]argue that increase in employment ensures better civility and that mobility does not automatically breaks down relationships. While Postman (1985)[18]presents a complex effect of mass media rather than simple breaking down of relationships because of TV consumption, Putnam is accorded as having occupied a position of antimodernist. However, Putnam more recently argues that ‘‘The level of social engagement is higher among affluent housewives than among other woman – they spend more time visiting friends, entertaining at home, attending club meetings and so on’’ (Putnam, 2000: 202[19]).
Mobility, like frequent repotting of plants, tends to disrupt root systems, and it takes time for an uprooted individual to put down new roots. It seems plausible that the automobile, suburbanization, and the movement to the Sun Belt have reduced the social rootedness of the average American ...’’
(Putnam, 1995: 75). If we follow this biologistic reporting-analogy increased mobility would always lead to an erosion of social capital. As a whole in ‘‘Bowling Alone’’ he laments the decrease of the bonding social capital. These forms of relationships are similar to the Gemeinschaft (in terms of To¨nnies) formed around the ‘‘essential, organic, or natural will’’ (To¨nnies: ‘‘Wesenswillen’’) of the participants. This contradicts the findings of network theory which tended to see loose ties, heterogenic, and nonredundant groups to be more successful for the bridging social capital. This would tend to correspond more to the arbitrary-will (Ku¨rwillen) that T¨onnies ascribed to the relationships in modern societies (Gesellschaften). Thus a considerable doubt arises about the traditionalistic understanding of social capital and the thus predicted decline through flexibilization and individualization. The way in which network structures that produce bridging social capital can develop in modernly structured civil societies must be empirically clarified.

Measuring social capital:

Club memberships, commitment, and trust are generally used as indicators for social capital. In a comprehensive overview of the standard quantitative research on social capital up to now, Tristan Claridge (only available on the Internet: shows that most studies refer both to individual aspects and to several aspects of the definition of social capital. Thus, for example, Cox, and Caldwell (2000), Glaeser et al. (2000) and Newton (2001) suggest using the variable trust to show social capital O’Connell (2003), Price (2002), Warde et al. (2003) and Wollebaek and Selle (2003) measure on the other hand above all memberships in formal organizations. Lappe et al. (1997), Lochner et al. (2003) and Veenstra (2002) use both variables. Isham et al. (2002), Skrabski et al. (2003) and Staveren (2003) suggest a mix of these variables plus reciprocity norms. Zhao (2002), on the other hand, only operationalizes social capital as network contacts. Grootaert (2001) finds a whole palette of indicators and index values (including the unemployment criminality, and suicide rates and the percentage of illegitimate children) that are included, with differing weighting, in the measurement.
Putnam himself applied the social capital index (SCI), an instrument made up of 14 variables which measure five groups of characteristics (Putnam, 2000: 291): (1) community organizational life (five variables: percent of the population who served on committees or served as officers in local organizations, civic, and social organizations per 1,000 inhabitants, average number of club meetings attended last year, average number of group memberships), (2) engagement in public affairs (two variables: turnout in presidential elections, attendance of local public meetings), (3) community volunteerism (three variables: nonprofit organizations per 1,000 inhabitants, average work on community projects, average number of times volunteer work was performed), (4) informal stability two variables) and, finally, two variables for social trust. The main focus of the variables regarding community benefits and contacts in the SCI correspond to the conceptual linkage of the term social capital to the community: ‘‘In other words, these 14 indicators measure related but distinct facets of community-based social capital, and we have combined them into a single social capital Index’’ (Putnam, 2000: 291). The variables are, however, not analyzed for the community or personal level, but are attributed to larger units (states).

Relationship with state:

There are three prevailing views. First, according to strict liberal view any kind of governmental support for social capital must be rejected. Many of the exemplary networks arose in conflict with the state and its institutions, namely with a clear emancipatory concern, against governmental arbitrariness and for more decision-making powers for individual citizens. Second, authoritarian approach accepts social capital only in ‘‘orderly’’ forms. For the one side tightly organized networks serve only to ‘‘overcome’’ the free market society, for the other they serve the destruction of democracy. Both result in the absolute power of the form of government dictatorship, which is the opposite of the civil society and thus does not need social capital in terms of Putnam’s theory. Here that type of ‘‘compliance’’ is required that was used, e.g., by the ‘‘Subbotniks’’ (‘‘voluntary’’ unpaid work on Sunday in the USSR) or the ‘‘Reichsarbeitsdienst’’ in fascist Germany. Both could be counted as social capital, but this would be virtually absurd in the background of a clear social capital definition. The measurement of social capital in those uncivilian contexts would be bringing eventually low scores of social capital by using the SCI. The third, corporatist approaches represent a middle course between liberal and authoritarian definitions of social capital. Here it is possible that social capital can be promoted, in its structure (e.g., through corresponding legal protection of associations), indirectly (through tax breaks) and directly (through governmental subsidies). In comparisons of societies we see again and again that there is no contradiction between a high level of engagement for the civil society and a high level of social welfare transfers. Even in the United States many forms of civic engagement are directly and indirectly promoted by local government, states, and federal agencies.
The current development in the direction of the ‘‘Longevity Society’’ (Butler, 2008) represents the greatest potential for the social capital. The increasing share of healthy and fit elderly, to the extent that they no longer have to provide for their own livelihood and thus have more time for those relationships that Putnam localizes in th  ‘‘dense networks,’’ can provide for the strengthening of social capital in a society (cf. the entry ‘‘Civil society and the elderly’’). This is only rewarding, however, when the premises for social capital are observed. If nothing else, since the World Bank and the OECD consider social capital to be important for development, the strengthening of respective infrastructures and networks will remain in the discussion and practical recommendations will be sought. It is self-evident that any kind of economic and democratic developments are dependent on the sociocultural context conditions that are connected with social capital. The strengthening of social capital in the communities is necessary to facilitate an independent and self-supporting (endogenous) development in local areas that extricates itself from dependence on subsidies and from bureaucratic paternalism (through regional rulers, governmental ministries as well as the World Bank and the OECD themselves, see Woolcock and Naravan, 2000). For the future it is important to consider which aspects of the variables that have been used to measure social capital up to now increase and decrease, which of them will need to be supported, which are less relevant for the future development, and which would tend to be detrimental.
If we regard the theoretical considerations together with the quantitative and qualitative findings and ask which characteristics informal groups, formal organizations or networks should have if on the one hand they should strengthen the social capital in their region and, on the other hand, be attractive and interesting enough to bind individualized actors, there are four structural characteristics that can be discussed for the future definition of social capital:

Heterogeneity or diversity:

This provides for the characteristic of bridging. Without the representation of different social groups in the engagement, only bonding capital would be created. Structures with a homogeneous status hardly provide the participants with contact and recognition in their community. Necessary for this are rules like ‘‘one man one vote’’ in order to equalize the internal power imbalances to accomplish group goals. In traditional contexts activities are often initiated by Gemeinschaften that are organized with a homogeneous status (according to castes or classes) and thus do not necessarily form productive social capital. Bourdieu’s analysis started here: his differentiating social capital used exclusive networks and thus tended to function in an exclusionary manner. Networks only form social capital as a common good for the civil society when through heterogeneous groups and direct – personal – contacts the existing networks (families, organizations) are made accessible for the neighborhood. Furthermore, according to the findings of network research, heterogeneous groups are more successful as a system because they are less redundant.


Without a free choice, group memberships remain compulsory communities. We can only refer to social capital when a range of engagement possibilities is discernible. If there is no choice between different types of engagement there are fewer possibilities for decisionmaking and the incentive for commitment sinks. Exclusive access, ‘‘lifelong’’ membership, a threat of sanctions against members who leave the group and loyalty to directives are the opposite of optionality and narrow the scope for decision-making. They lead to the principle of Folg schaft which is typical for traditionalistic sects or uncivil governmentally organized services (especially for national defense). Social capital does not evolve as well when the commitment invested is not perceived as a personal choice.

Status potential:

social capital does not emerge without societal recognition for voluntary involvement. The intensity of the participation in non profit actions must lead to an improvement of a person’s position in the status framework in the community. This quasi benefit represents on the one hand an individually attributable value of social capital that cannot be replaced by wage or wage compensation benefits at present. If involvement in  nonprofit activities is compensated by a wage-like low payment, this can have negative effects on the status potential and on the social capital. On the other hand, the symbolic ‘‘profit’’ has to be incorporated in the societal recognition, as it is by no means self-evident as is the case with altruistic motives (e.g., the mother-child-relationship). When actions that serve the group are presupposed as understood (like in traditional societies), then the element of status potential is lacking.


The conspiracy of the Mafia, secret societies and intelligence services form the typological antipode to transparency, which is necessary for the development of civic involvement and thus of social capital. Groups of actors and nonprofit companies that cultivate few personal relationships with their environment, where there is a lack of clarity about their policies, jurisdictions, and the disposition of their funds will hardly achieve a democratizing effect and not produce any social capital. Activities that are relevant for social capital thus require openness ‘‘from the beginning’’ as a matter of principle.
Differing contexts will affect the social capital in each society and each community. A promotion of groups or structures that are not transparent, do not offer status potential, present themselves as without alternatives for the addressees and allow little scope for making decisions (no optionality), and are closed for other ethnic groups, castes, classes, age groups, as well as political and religious persuasions (little heterogeneity) will not lead to the development of economic and political contexts and contradict the concept of social capital.

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