Social Capital and Civic Engagement in Putman's Theories

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Social Capital is a topic that is capturing the interest of many scholars who are particularly focusing on the nonprofit sector. Over the course of the last couple of decades there has been a surge of concern in community development policies, and the implementation processes, emphasizing community‐based, solutions to important urban problems that effect marginalized communities. “Robert David Putnam (1941-) an American political scientist most famous for his controversial publication Bowling Alone, which argues that the United States has undergone an unprecedented collapse in civic, social, associational, and political life (social capital) since the 1960s, with serious negative consequences” (Claridge, 2018). Putnam is generally credited for creating the term “social capital” by expanding on Alexis De Tocqueville theory of voluntary association in Democracy in America. Social capital is defined in this study as resources of trust, norms and networks that can be demonstrated in social organization, I.e. religious, educational, or athletic networks. “The core of his social capital theory is that activities in informal and formal social interaction settings can create norms of cooperation and generalized trust, leading to positive results for society” (Vilhelmsdóttir, 2012). His research has shown that social capital can be used to explain a range of social networks, including government effectiveness. In this research paper I will first explore the 3 dimensions that Janine Nahapiet and Sumantra Ghosha created using Putnam’s perspectives which include structural, cognitive and relational. Secondly, I will examine the history of Alexis De Tocqueville's theory of voluntary association to enhance the understanding of the growth of the nonprofit sector and social capital. I will inquire directly into the successes and failures of the theoretical knowledge acquisition strategies and the effectiveness of through generating social and relational resources. Finally, in using these dimensions, I will describe how James Madison explored the republican government by creating the Federalist Paper 10 and whether it has positively or negatively impacted social capital and the nonprofit’ to meet societal problems.

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Since the beginning of the 19th century when Alexis De Tocqueville briefly construed the word social capital there has been a need to acquaint it with voluntary association. “voluntary organizations to provide for the general welfare, foster political participation, and socialize citizens as a unique strength of this participatory democracy” (Schneider, 2018). Social capital has been related to voluntary associations and its community and organizational success as well as its failures. Today, many believe that it is vital to blend the two. “It has been shown to help communities overcome “tragedies of the commons” and collective action problems in a wide range of areas—including water shortages, crime, drugs, and hazardous waste” (Saxton and Benson 2005). Alexis De Tocqueville is best known for his study of Democracy in America in which he came to America to study Americas prison system, “the danger represented by freedom of political association, or by its misuse” (Galston, 200). Social capital and nonprofits constitute as a considerable resource for a community’s social, political, and economic development. In the Federalist 10 papers Madison began “Distinguishing republican government from pure democracy, he explained that an extended republic would not only make it possible to govern a large territory through a system of representation but would also obviate the dangers of faction by virtue of its size” (Education@library). Madison believed in civic engagement to understand the history, it is best to be knowledgeable of Putnam's’ dimensions that is said impact voluntary association through social capital.

Robert Putnam theoretically derived four dimensions from De Tocqueville idea where he described as a source of social capital. His perspective came from end of WWII and how America has become and is still becoming less socially engaged, less civically active, and more socially fragmented. Community development a is the main reason for Putnam’s studies “Social capital has been argued to provide an important source of collective glue or social repair” (Fredette & Bradshaw, 2012). Structural social capital is a dimension of social capital that relates to the properties of the social system and of the network of relations. (Nahapiet and Ghoshal 1998). The term describes network ties and configuration or connection between people. The structural dimension is typically studied using the network approach, which is an approach that describes the closeness, frequency of contact and, social distance among people in a specific locality for exchanging and transferring knowledge. The approach increases and improves the access to engage in mutually beneficial collective action by lowering transaction costs and improving social learning. “Civil associations paved the way for political associations: The more individuals get used to the idea of coming together for economic, social, or moral purposes, the more they enhance their capacity to pursue “great undertakings in common” (Galston, 2000). De Tocqueville was convinced that interest groups directly impact strengthening political engagements. In retrospect Knowledge acquisition theory is explaining the concept of generalized reciprocity. Since the groups are embedded with shared collective understandings and objectives, it becomes a mutual- benefit which then leads to interpersonal relationships being formed. “Through Madisonian civic involvement, practice in articulating shared principles as an essential part of important but regular political deliberation becomes a tool for integrating individuals into the political community” (O’Brein, 2015).

Cognitive social capital is a dimension of social capital that relates resources providing shared representations, interpretations, and systems of meaning among parties (Nahapiet and Ghoshal 1998). The cognitive approach includes shared understandings of languages, values, beliefs and attitudes that provides for communication, and helps to dictates how you should act in a particular social situation. While we structural dimension can be observed in tangible relationships, roles, rules, and procedures the cognitive dimension is intangible as it relates to interpretations of a shared reality. As we break down the cognitive perspective, we relate it back to Putnams’ dimensions as being the norms of trust and reciprocity. “The close association that Putnam posits between social participation and high levels of generalized trust has been called into questions” (Vilhelmsdóttir, 2012). In most cases found it has been revealed that membership does influence trust, but more towards members of the group that have participated for long periods versus new members.

The last dimension of Nahapiet and Ghosha is Relational. Relational social capital is defined as “a dimension of social capital that relates to the characteristics and qualities of personal relationships such as trust, obligations, respect and even friendship” (Claridge 2018). It is important because its assesses’ the quality of the relationship and interaction between individuals. The relational dimension encourages normative behaviour based on trust, reciprocity, obligations and expectations. A core facet of relational social capital is associability – the willingness to subordinate individual goals to collective goals (Claridge, 2018). Relational is often mistaken for the cognitive concept with regards to the key aspect in both being trust and trustworthiness.

Social capital and the nonprofit sector have been tied together and for many years have been said to improve nonprofit organizations. Putnam's’ studies had a less direct impact on civic engagement, his dimensions of social capital do not have a uniform effect on nonprofit sector growth as much as De Tocqueville's. After looking at the illustration of substantive importance of nonprofit founding rates, research concludes that “diversity of friendship, which leads to a 125.6 percent predicted increase in foundings, followed by political engagement (a 118.7 percent increase) and social trust (a 94.8 percent decrease)” (Saxton & Benson). Political engagement and voluntary associations are important as it pertains to organizations. Alexis De Tocqueville ideological theory on the importance of political participation and meaningful dynamic relationships through voluntary association has a direct impact on civic engagement studies. Madison theory on political participation and civic engagement work together to support popular government. , In short, these results suggest that bridging ties are pivotal in the growth of the nonprofit community” (Saxton and Benson) In short, we understand from history that Democracy in Americas structure has been an evolving social and economic problem since the early 1990’s. Alexis De Tocqueville and James Madison made a major contribution that became a positive development for civilization. De Tocqueville created a democracy where people could have the liberty to improve and manage their lives and contribute to society. Voluntary association aids to provide opportunities for individuals to engage in social activate and engaged in community development.   

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