Having left my cosy LSE Library corner for my native and cold Lombardy, mainly to do exactly what I have been doing in London for the past 3 months – i.e. bury my head in books about international political economy and political ecology, only without a decent Internet connection – I have to confess I miss not being able to post regularly on this blog. Alas, holidays are a curse we all need to endure, and like everyone else’s mine will be dominated by nosey relatives, with the added bonuses of Wade’s Governing the Market, Amsden’s Asia’s Next Giant and an array of essays and studies on snow leopards in Nepal and wolves in Central Italy.
Still, I have found some time to make a few notes while reading Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, the epic study of the collapse and revival of American community. Admittedly, I didn’t read it all, but enough to appreciate its depth and contribution to our understanding of social capital theory. I noted down a few passages which I reproduce here, especially those relating to Information Technologies, in the firm belief that the Internet will work its magic and spread the ideas far and away…
‘By analogy with notions of physical capital and human capital … the core idea of social capital theory is that social networks have value. Just as a screwdriver (physical capital) or a college education (human capital) can increase productivity (both individual and collective), so too social contacts affect the productivity of individuals and groups’
‘Social capital … can be directed toward malevolent, antisocial purposes, just like any other form of capital’.
‘Computer-mediated communication is, to be sure, more egalitarian, frank, and task-oriented than face-to-face communication. Participants in computer-based groups often come up with a wider range of alternatives However, because of the paucity of social cues and social communication, participants in computer-based groups find it harder to reach consensus and feel less solidarity with one another. They develop a sense of ‘depersonalisation’ and are less satisfied with the group’s accomplishments. Computer-based groups are quicker to reach an intellectual understanding of their shard problems – probably because they are less distracted by ‘extraneous’ social communication – but they are much worse at generating the trust and reciprocity necessary to implement that understanding’.
‘Much of Western political debate for two hundred years has revolved around the trade-offs between liberty and equality. Too much liberty, or at least too much liberty in certain forms, may undermine equality. Too much equality, or at least too much equality in certain forms, may undermine liberty. Less familiar but no less portentous are the trade-offs involving the third value of the triad: is too much fraternity bad for liberty and equality? All good things don’t necessarily go together, so perhaps a single-minded pursuit of social capital might unacceptably infringe on freedom and justice. […]
Is social capital at war with liberty and tolerance? This was and remains the classic liberal objection to community ties: community restricts freedom and encourages intolerance. […] Is social capital at war with equality? Thoughtful radicals have long feared so. Social capital, particularly social capital that bonds us with others like us, often reinforces social stratification. […] Does this logic mean that we must in some fundamental sense choose between community and equality? No. Community and equality are mutually reinforcing, not mutually incompatible’.