24 January 2008

Robert Putnam and social capital

Robert Putnam is a well-known Harvard political scientist about whom I have written before. For several years now I have used his Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy in my European politics course at Redeemer. It is an excellent study of the effects of longstanding regional political cultures on political institutions in that country, with broader applicability elsewhere as well.

With a hat tip to bookforum.com, here is an interview with Putnam in The American Interest Online: Bowling with Robert Putnam. Putnam's stock in trade is something called "social capital," a broad concept encompassing virtually anything people do co-operatively, including the formation of political parties and related groups, but also choral societies, garden clubs, private philanthropic foundations and business enterprises, among many other communal formations. Social capital can be good or bad, as Putnam indicates in this article. Hamas and al Qaeda are certainly manifestations of bonding social capital among its membership, but few outside of these terrorist organizations would argue that their influence is particularly beneficent.

Though Putnam's views mostly coincide with those championing what has come to be known as civil society, there is a pronounced difference, as seen in Putnam's expressed desire to establish mandatory national service as a means of fostering "bridging," as opposed to "bonding," social capital. Here he is reminiscent of those championing public education as a means of bringing together children and young people from diverse ethnic, religious and economic backgrounds. Contrary to Putnam, whom I otherwise appreciate, I question whether it is the state's normative task actively to build this bridging capital. With the proponents of civil society, I believe it is better to leave this primarily to the nonstate communities themselves, with the state limiting itself to supporting such efforts indirectly.

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