Strengths and Weaknesses of the Social Capital Approach

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Robert D. Putnam has argued that non-political organizations in civil society are vital for democracy. They result in building social capital, trust and shared values, which politically, help hold society together. Putnam’s civil society is the idea that positive outcomes in government are a product of civic community, for example, networks of trust such as, soccer club or choral society (Putnam). However, social capital may also lead to negative outcomes if the political institution and democracy in a specific country is not strong enough and therefore overpowered by the social capital groups (Berman). This essay will examine the social capital theory, democracy, civil society, as well as examining cases studied in Italy and Weimar Germany. As a result, I will identify strengths and weaknesses of the social capital approach.

There has been considerable and increasing interest in social capital theory in recent years. This interest exists because can be integrated into many disciplines such as, sociology and economics. The main concepts behind social capital, are not new but appear in the work of early thinkers such as, The contemporary authors, who brought the debate of social capital to become such a popular issue, include Pierre Bourdieu, James Coleman and Robert Putnam (Portes). In my opinion, social capital is simply defined as natural characteristics in social relations, which facilitate collective action. These characteristics include trust, norms ad networks of association representing any group that gathers consistently for a common purpose. A norm of social capital is belief in the equality of citizens, which encourages the formation of crosscutting groups (Putnam). Interaction enables people to build communities, commit themselves to each other and knit a “social quilt.” Sense of belonging and the concrete experience of social networks can indeed bring upon great benefits. Individuals and groups can sometimes gain needed resources and support from their network of social connections. These networks form their social capital. In combination with other human and financial resources, social capital can significantly influence social, economic, and political participation. Government policies and programs certainly affect patterns of social capital development (Putnam).

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Democracy which means, “ruled by the people” when translated from its Greek meaning (Merriam-Webster). It is seen as one of the ultimate ideals that modern civilizations strive to create, or preserve. Democracy as a system of governance is supposed to offer widespread representation and of as many people and views as possible to cater to a fair and just society. Democratic principles run parallel to ideals of universal freedoms such as freedom of speech. Importantly, democracy is supposed to serve to check unaccountable power by the few at the expense of the many, because fundamentally, democracy is seen as a form of running a government: by the people, for the people (Defining Democracy).

This is often implemented through elected representatives, which therefore requires free, transparent, and fair elections. The ideals of democracy are so attractive to citizens around the world that many have sacrificed everything to fight for it. In a way, the amount of propaganda and repression some non-democratic states set up against their own people is proof of the people’s desire for more open and democratic forms of government. That is, the more people are perceived to want it, the more extreme a non-democratic state has to be to hold on to power. However, even in established democracies, there are pressures that threaten various democratic basics (Defining Democracy). A democratic system’s openness also allows it to attract those with interests to use the democratic process as a means to attain power and influence, even if they completely agree with democratic principles. This may also signal a weakness in the way some democracies are set up. In reality, once power is attained by those who do not genuinely support democracy, rarely is it easily given up (Defining Democracy).

Civil society means nothing without its corresponding notions such as “individual,” “State,” “civility,” etc. Putnam sees civil society as a state of social, equality and fraternalism that exists between individuals as sovereign actors and the State as a potentially unchecked force or power. One reading of Tocqueville could see him as illustrating civil society as a common public foundation of associations on which the State is supported; unlike Putnam, who ironically cites him, Tocqueville sees a cooperative relationship between the individual, civil society, and the State as the political order (Tocqueville).

Robert Putnam’s “Making Democracy Work: Civic traditions in Modern Italy” is a well-researched and organized book. It draws a disturbing comparison between the different fates of an identical experiment with regional government in the regions of both Northern and Southern Italy. Northern Italy, with its long history of civic traditions, saw its newly created regional governments functioning quite well after two decades. On the other hand, the Southern Italian regions with their equally long history of poor civic tradition were plagued with poorly functioning regional governments after the same time period. Putnam draws the distressing conclusion that any attempt to foster a successful civil society will depend largely upon the civic traditions of the region in question. Areas with weak civic traditions will not succeed in quickly developing the traditions that lead to a flourishing civil society, if they succeed at all (Putnam).

In comparing Northern Italy’s civic traditions with Southern Italy’s lack of civic traditions, Putnam puts forth criteria that define civil society. One criterion used measures the civic orientation of the citizens themselves. Are citizens interested in politics? Are they active participants in the political process? Putnam’s research showed that citizens’ interest and active participation in politics was directly proportional with the “civicness” of a particular region. Northern Italy, with its successful regional governments, showed a high level of participation and interest in the political process. Conversely, the weaker southern region demonstrated a large amount of laziness and boredom towards active political participation and politics in general. Another method Putnam used to measure the civic orientation of citizens was studying the “associativeness” of the people. That is, did citizens form private organizations? Did they ally themselves in clubs, sports leagues, and other such groupings? Once again, citizens in the successful regions of the North demonstrated a high degree of associativeness. They united in all sorts of groups with all sorts of purposes. Once again, the South trailed far behind. Another major reason why Putnam decided to measure the “civility” of Italian society related to the relative efficiency of the governments in each region. A large part of Putnam’s demonstration of this standard revolved around how long it took a government agency to complete a request from Putnam.

For example, in one study Putnam tested the regional governments efficiency by requesting some information from each government. By this standard, the Northern governments across the board were more efficient than the South. Also, citizens of each region were asked to express their satisfaction with their particular government’s performance. Not surprisingly, people in the North were much more satisfied with their governments efficiency and quality than the people in the South. Another survey asked officials in the governments to rate their own government’s performance. Once again, officials in the North were much more satisfied than were those in the South. To explain the difference between North and South, Putnam went back to the year 1000 AD to trace the roots of civil society.

Putnam went on to conclude that Northern Italy enjoys its modern civic traditions thanks to a process that can be traced back almost one thousand years. Southern Italy suffers its current predicament because it did not have the same history as Northern Italy. Putnam makes every effort to be open about his methods of research, offering generous amounts of graphs and figures, plus other background information that went into his charts. If Putnam’s thesis has a weakness, it can be found in his rather nebulous prescription for societal change in Southern Italy. Putnam proposes a gradual build up of social capital, whereby civic traditions slowly develop; first through small organizations of citizens such as the rotating credit associations that he cites. Gradually, these fledgling units of civic trust and cooperation will continue to grow according to the theory, until a healthy and thriving civil society has been created. While this is a credible theory for how a civic society could develop, Putnam offers the reader no inkling of how such a process could be started or how it could be sped up once in motion (Putnam).

Berman’s main argument is contrary to Tocquevillean theory, associationism and participation in civil society caused the downfall of democracy in Germany. This theory proves that no one factor can explain democratization in one or all countries. Thus, democratization is a combination of factors, which vary from country to country. In 1919 the Weimar Republic was set up in Germany. From its birth it faced numerous political problems, for which the causes were many and varied. These problems included political instability, deep divisions within society and economic crisis; problems were constantly appearing for the new government and from 1919-1923, the Weimar Republic experienced a period of crisis. Participation in government was at an all time low. The different parties were extremely polarized and failed to reach a consensus. As a result, the majority of society organized into different interest groups and formed their own associations. These associations met regularly, members formed great bonds with one another perhaps because of the sense of belonging they felt within the group. Traditional political parties attempted to restructure the relationship between national political life and civil society, however, it was too late and they failed miserably (Berman).

Due to an extremely “loose” central government and decreasing socio-economic conditions, Germany was headed toward associationism. In the early to mid 1920’s, the Nazi Party realized it could use the divided state of society along with its general dissatisfaction to its advantage. The party set out to infiltrate the multitude of organizations that formed across the country. The Nazi focus in the early 1920s had been on the urban and working class. By 1926, their outlook had shifted to the middle class, people who do not normally vote, and the rural poor class. The shift in focus coupled with the Weimar’s weak government’s weak response to the Great Depression set up the perfect stage for the Nazi party to take over. One of the key elements of their seizure of control was infiltration among groups of farmers. From 1930 to 1932, gradually but effectively infiltrate leadership positions in the farmer groups; this status secured endorsement for the Nazi Party. This was essentially the launch pad the Nazis needed, it secured them the non-urban areas of the country (Berman).

It was not that the diversity and multitude of organizations that made the Weimar democracy fall, but it was simply that the Nazi mechanism devised a way to use this activism to its advantage for its own crooked purposes. As Berman stated, “Without the opportunity to exploit Weimar’s rich associational network in short the Nazis would not have been able to capture important sectors of the German electorate so quickly and efficiently.” Tocqueville said that a societies that organize and form groups, contribute to the formation of democracy. In this case, even so many associations that formed civil society, liberal and democratic values were absent and
democracy failed to cultivate (Berman).

Social capital is as important to the efficient functioning of modern economies, and stable liberal democracy as an important base for cooperation across sectors and power differences, and an important product of such cooperation (Fukuyama). Some aspects of the concept, such as inter-personal trust, are clearly desirable, while other aspects are more instrumental. Optimism, satisfaction with life, perceptions of government institutions and political involvement all stem from the fundamental dimensions of social capital. It has great strengths such as, growth in facilitation of labor markets; lower levels of crime; and improvements in the effectiveness of institutions of government (Putnam). Others such as Boyte, 1995, have emphasized the importance of social capital for problem solving and how only certain types of social capital contribute to this. According to Hunter, 2000, it is also important to note that these kinds of groupings and associations that can generate social capital also carry the potential to exclude others. Simplistically speaking, the make up of these types determines the structure of the overall social capital present (Coleman).

Perhaps largest weaknesses of social capital, is the problem of definition, or knowing what exactly counts as social capital. For example, if I meet somebody in one of my college classes and later on down the road, they help me to find a job, is this social capital? Recent arguments about social capital (Fukuyama) suggest that it varies with the purpose individual’s use it for. This creates a circular definition, where social capital exists when people are successful and is absent when people are not successful. To serve as a strong theory, I believe there needs to be a clear definition of social capital so that it is possible to judge when it is and is not present.

A second issue is whether social capital is a thing or a process. Is it, in other words, the possession of one individual or does it happen as a result of interactions between people? When surrounded by networks, social capital must always be acknowledged as a community based resource beyond the control of any individual (Fukuyama). This does not diminish its value, but does raise questions about the possibility of managing it. Many communities living in poverty have excellent social capital, yet have little money or education. How could their efforts be supported to convert social capital, and does this process necessarily tear away from social capital?

In conclusion, social capital is often presented as an unproblematic good, as if it contained a positive moral imperative, but this can be disputed. As we discussed in class, the Mafia, for example, has superb social capital, but it is hard to argue that this results in a general desirable and acceptable outcome. Another example I thought about is the relationship between drug dealers and their customers. It is a highly trusting relationship of social capital, with desired outcomes being achieved, but not good for a society in general.


Berman, Sheri, “Civil Society and the Collapse of the Weimar Republic,” World Politics 49, No. 3 (1997).

James S. Coleman, “Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital,” American Journal of Sociology Supplement 94 (1988): S95-S120.

“Defining Democracy.” International Information Programs. United States Government. 27 Sept. 2008 .

Fukuyama, Francis, “Social Capital and Civil Society”(April 2000). IMF Working Paper No. 00/74 Available at SSRN:

Portes, A.: Social capital: its origins and applications in modern sociology. Annual Reviews of Sociology 24:1-24, 1998.

Putnam, R.D. (1993) Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy, Princeton University Press, Princeton, trad. it. La tradizione civica nelle regioni italiane, Mondadori, Milano

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