Friday, July 15, 2011

Bowling Alone

Robert Putnam, a professor of public policy at the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government, presented his idea on social capital in his great book, "Bowling Alone".

Enormous statistics suggest the decline of social capital in US. Political, civic and religious participation are declining straightly. People feel less connected to their coworkers, altruism and philanthropic activities are diminished, and more now feel that people cannot be trusted.

Using statistics of correlation of events, professor Putnam explains potential reasons of the decline. The author guesses that 10 percent of the total decline is attributable to the pressures of time and money; as the economy develops people became to be busier than before and using their time for social activities may be more costly. An additional 10 percent is attributable to the suburbanization, commuting, and urban sprawl; people use more time for their commute and live in area with more strangers, making the civic engagement more difficult. Perhaps 25 percent of the decline may be due to the effect of electronic entertainment, among which TV proliferation coincides with the decline in civic engagement activities. The remaining is explained by the change in generation, the author argues; social habits and values of older generations are influenced by the great mid-century global cataclysm such as World War II, but younger generations did not explain the cataclysm.

Social capital matters, because it lessens communication costs of groups. It makes collective problems (like tragedy of commons) easy, makes communities more efficient, and empowers individuals. The author made index of social capital and evaluated the level of social capital strength of each state, and examined the relationship between the level and performance of the states. The result was striking: States with higher social capital score showed higher school performance (potential reason is children's mental health), lower murder and other criminal rates, longevity, and high tolerance to minorities (this suggests that the social capital here is not "bonding social capital" which sometimes leads to anti-outsiders, but the "bridging social capital" which brings about harmonization among different social groups). Even from practical perspectives, we can justify the importance of social capital.

Once the society looses social capital, it is not easy to rebuild it. Even though US in the last third of 19th century experienced a social capital crisis and succeeded in regaining it, we cannot apply the lessons of the past to the current problems. There is no panacea, and we need collective actions of different players: employer, urban and regional planners, politicians, religious leaders, journalists, and everyone.

The author identified the significant social change in US in this brilliant volume. The book is useful not just for understanding current status of the society, but for the way to conduct research of social capital in all other societies. Hope someone does the same analyses for east Asian countries.

No comments: