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Making Democracies Work: Social Capital and Civic Engagement in 47 Societies

  • Norris, Pippa

    (Harvard U)

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    Many theorists have long emphasized the importance of civic society and voluntary associations as vital to the lifeblood of democracy. Interest in this perennial topic has been revived by Putnam's theory of social capital claiming that rich and dense associational networks facilitate the underlying conditions of interpersonal trust, tolerance and cooperation, providing the social foundations for a vibrant democracy. Despite widespread interest, conclusive evidence supporting these claims in a wide range of nations remains elusive. The first part of this paper reviews and summarizes three central claims at the heart of Putnam?s theory. Part II outlines the conceptual and methodological problems of measuring trends in social capital with the available empirical evidence. Part III develops an index of social capital, combining the distribution of associational activism with social trust. In Part IV this Index is operationalized and measured using the World Values Study to compare the distribution and dimensions of social capital in the mid-1990s in 47 nations around the world. Part V uses the Index to examine the consequences of social capital and its component parts for socioeconomic and democratic development. The study establishes predictable patterns in the distribution of social capital around the world, and long-standing cultural traditions and historical legacies can help to explain the contrasts found among global regions. There are two core components in Putnam's definition of social capital, social networks and social trust. The study finds that when combined into a single index it is true, as Putnam suggests, that social capital is strongly and significantly related to multiple interrelated indicators of socioeconomic development and to institutional indicators of democratization. But if we disentangle the twin components of Putnam's definition of social capital, what is driving this process is the social trust dimension, not the associational network dimension. Given the ambiguities in operationalization, three alternative measures of associational membership and activism are employed and tested, in exploratory analysis, but these are rarely significant across almost all indicators, no matter which measure is used. Moreover social capital was only weakly related to cultural indicators of political system support. The conclusion considers the implications of the results for "making democracies work", and whether a strong and vibrant civic society is a necessary condition for the process of democratization.

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    Paper provided by Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government in its series Working Paper Series with number rwp01-036.

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    Date of creation: Oct 2001
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    Handle: RePEc:ecl:harjfk:rwp01-036
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