Decline of social capital : Social Development

Decline of social capital

Since the 1960s and 1970s, Robert Putnam, a professor at Harvard University, has observed the decline in what he calls ‘Social Capital’: features of social organization, networks, norms, and trust, that increase the ability of people in a society to work together and achieve common goals. Social capital, he argues, is an integral part of trust and participation in society’s social, economic, and political institutions. It is an immaterial notion, unlike physical capital, but one that is vitally important to society. Social capital is also a vast idea, inclusive of civil organizations and family dinners, political parties and college friends.

Many political scientists have worried about the decline in active citizenship in America and other post-industrial states since the 1960s, even in basic civic exercises as voting. Trust in government has decreased to startling levels, with 75% of Americans reporting high levels of mistrust in Washington (1992). Putnam has connected this decline in political participation and trust with the decline of social capital, namely the participation in civil society.
In his publication, Bowling Alone, Putnam reported a decline in Americans who attended church, were labor union members, participated in Parent Teacher Associations, and were members of civic or fraternal organizations, such as the Boy Scouts, Rotary Club, or Red Cross. However the area of research that was surprisingly indicative and from which the publication gained its name, was in the trends of bowlers. Putnam found that despite a growth of 10 percent in the number of American bowlers between 1980 and 1993, league bowling decreased by 40 percent. While a whimsical example, it was not a trivial one. He explains that, “nearly 80 million Americans went bowling at least once during 1993, nearly a third more than voted in the 1994 congressional elections and roughly the same number as claim to attend church regularly. Even after the 1980s’ plunge in league bowling, nearly three percent of American adults regularly bowl in leagues.” This evidence points to an increasingly withdrawn society, not only from politics, but from all areas of social life.

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