Handbook of Social Capital

When Tocqueville visited the United States in the 1830s, it was our propensity for civic association that impressed him as the key to making democracy work. "Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of disposition:’ he observed, "are forever
forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand different types–religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute…. Nothing, in my view, deserves more attention than the intellectual and moral associations in America." Robert D. Putnam’s famous 1995 essay, Bowling Alone, introduced many to the concept of social capital.

Gert Tinggaard Svendsen and Gunnar Lind Haase Svendsen have edited an informative and greatly expanded update. The "Handbook Of Social Capital: The Troika of Sociology, Political Science and Economics" examines how three disciplines work together in developing and shaping networks. Economics primarily focuses on transaction costs. Political science focuses on institutions and sociology focuses on the norms that regulate behavior.

Life is easier in communities with high social capital. Networks of civic engagement foster generalized reciprocity and trust. Communication and coordination amplify the growth of reputations, facilitating collective action. Well worn templates and success lead to future collaboration and broaden our sense of empowerment. I read the essay’s mainly thinking of how these concepts might be applied to internet sites, such as the Investor Suffrage Movement, Proxy Democracy.org, Shareowners.org, TransparentDemocracy.org, MoxyVote.com, and VoterMedia.org.

One concept discussed by the editors was that of bridging vs. bonding. Bridging implies open networks across social cleavages, inclusion, and generalized trust. Bonding implies closed, inward looking networks based on particularized trust. Bridging seems more important for organizations attempting to facilitate shareowner action.

According to Elinor Ostrom and T.K. Ahn, "trust is the core link between social capital and collective action. Trust is enhanced when individuals are trustworthy, are networked with one another and are within institutions that reward honest behavior." One interesting study found that reciprocal agents using conditionally cooperative strategies have a higher chance to interact with one another and the surrounding population than agents who defect. "Information regarding a potential transaction partner’s trustworthiness is crucial when trustworthy individuals try to initiate cooperation."

Reputation is everything. "Self-governing systems in any arena of social interaction tend to be more efficient and stable not because of any magical effects of grassroots participation itself but because of the social capital in the form of effective working rules those systems are more likely to develop and preserve, the networks that the participants have created and the norms they have adopted." For example in in development projects, even "primitive" irrigation systems developed with the involvement of farmers often outperform those using more modern concrete and steel headworks. Investment by participants makes the difference.

In other words, in project planning we need to focus as much on the incentives of participants as we do on the physical or virtual technical infrastructure. Simply agreeing on a set of rules put in place with by others may get something up and running but doesn’t engender participation or long-term success.

Poulsen discusses research on cooperation, such as the "Prisoner’s Dilemma." Cooperation often falls over time because reciprocally minded subjects give up contributing if they feel like they are the only ones doing so. Punishing or expelling nonparticipants can generate higher and more stable cooperation but only if group members have information about each other’s contributions.

The chapter, "Corruption," by Uslaner found unequal distribution of resources in a society to be at the heart of the problem. Inequality leads to low generalized trust and high in-group trust, which leads to corruption, which leads to more inequality. Corruption thrives on particularized trust, where people only have faith in their own kind or small circle. "The policies that work best to reduce inequality and promote trust – universalistic social welfare policies – also depend upon honest governments to deliver the good and upon a social compact to provide benefits such as universal education and health care to the rich and poor alike."

Rothstein carries the theme forward by noting the services for the poor tend to become "poor services," whereas if all are included, middle and upper classes will demand higher quality. Popular movements of protest and self-help stand in contrast with charities dominated by middle and upper classes. "Needs testing and bureaucratic discretionary power are often more difficult to reconcile with principles of procedural justice, compared with universal public services. Since selective welfare institutions must test each case individually, they are to a greater extent subject to the suspicion of cheating, arbitrariness and discrimination, compared with universal public agencies."

That should give potential readers a rough idea of some key discussions. While the Handbook is geared toward an academic audience, especially those concerned with economic, political and social development, the more general reader will also find important insights in the cross-disciplinary approach.

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