Strengths and Weaknesses of the Social Capital Approach

Topics: Social capital, Democracy, Civil society Pages: 7 (2471 words) Published: November 10, 2013
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).

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,...

Bibliography: 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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