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The loss of social capital

Politics 101

Last week I spoke about the importance of our responsibility as citizens and the obligations we have to civil society. This week I want to explore some of the obstacles to civic participation and some of the consequences that result when social capital declines in a democracy.

Robert Putnam is very well known for making the argument about the causes and the decline of the social fabric of society. His famous study is called "Bowling Alone". He uses this title because he wants to make us aware of the way we have become disengaged in our society. In other words we live a more solitary life than we once did and our participation in leisure activities are not as community orientated as they once were. He uses the idea of bowling "alone" to talk about the decline of participation in sporting leagues and other types of group organizations. We might still bowl but we are less likely to belong to a league.

Why would the idea of participating in a league be critical to social capital? As I mentioned last week it is because the relationships that are developed in those social settings are the basis for the trust that runs through our community.

So what drives people away from these obligations and opportunities to be part of these group activities? I suspect that you can guess that one of the things that has changed over the last few generations is the introduction of television into our homes. Among a number of causes, Putnam identifies watching television as directly related to the decline in participation in group activities. Watching television at home, even if we are with our families, decreases our opportunity to be with people from a different socio-economic status and culture. When we move into these solitary worlds we are less inclined to be in a context of social learning and less likely to learn how to be empathetic. Some scholars are less convinced that television itself is the culprit. Their argument is that the type of television we watch and the hours we spend watching television are more likely to determine whether or not we are interested and engaged with our community. Moreover, some scholars even argue that community organizations that have more diverse values are likely to attract new members. It is, in fact, our sense of feeling welcome that may influence our choice to participate. Whatever the direct causes, our inclination towards a more solitary existence has given rise to the feeling that we are separate from our community. This is a key component in the decline of social capital and an obstacle to civic participation.

There are probably many individuals reading this column who would say that they volunteer and that they participate in their community.

For those individuals there are other challenges to civic participation. One key issue that arises in civic organizations is "volunteer- itis". Many groups struggle because everyone is so stretched across work and family and other obligations. Volunteers do their tasks willingly and with a good heart but have to run events, fundraisers, and sell chocolate bars just to keep the association afloat. Participation in community activities becomes less about the end goals of the group and more about sustaining the financial viability of the organization. Moreover the litigious nature of our society has also made participation in community activities difficult because groups have to be concerned about dealing with potential liability issues sometimes at the expense of focusing on their community goals. These kinds of obstacles can discourage people from participating.

The consequences of this decline of trust in society are numerous including, I think, the rise of polarized politics. A great deal of political gain can be made in an environment of distrust. It is easier to blame "other people" for the plight of our community or the country when we are disengaged from the lives of those people. We are more likely to accept that we need punitive crime legislation or stricter immigration laws when we have lost the fabric of trust. It is easier to polarize us when do not have direct evidence about how other people live their lives. Social capital is necessary to provide us with a sense of trust and understanding and draw us to better compromises and civil discourse.

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