Summary of "Democracies in Flux: The Evolution of Social Capital in Contemporary Society"

Summary of

Democracies in Flux: The Evolution of Social Capital in Contemporary Society

By Robert D. Putnam, ed.

Summary written by Brett Reeder, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Putnam, Robert D.,editor. 2002, Democracies in Flux: The Evolution of Social Capital in Contemporary Society, Oxford University Press Inc., New York, NY


Social capital consists of " networks and the norms of reciprocity associated with them." (p 4) This book begins with the assumption that social capital matters and goes on to "ask how its characteristics have changed in the last fifty years or so in the economically advanced democracies" (p 6). In doing so, it seeks to provide the first "panoramic view" of social capital in advanced postindustrial nations through the use of eight case studies united by "a shared concern to understand patterns of social change and their implications for our democracies" (p 18).

Before embarking on this task, Putnam identifies four important (but not mutually exclusive) distinctions concerning social capital. First, social capital can be embedded in either formal networks, such as political parties ,or informal networks, such as friendships. Second, these networks can be either thick, with deep multi-level relationships, or thin, with highly-specific and limited relationships. Third, social capital networks can be either inward- looking, focusing on group members or outward-looking, focusing on the community as a whole. Finally, social capital can either bridge the gap between different groups or bond a homogenous group.

The above distinctions make it clear that social capital can come in many different forms, and is useful in many different contexts. But these forms are "heterogeneous in the sense that they are good only for certain purposes and not others" (p 8). This means that some forms of social capital are conducive to the collective institutions of society (such as democracy), while others are not. Thus, in an effort to understand the effects of contemporary changes in social capital on such institutions, this book attempts to describe qualitative changes, rather than to simply determine quantitatively whether social capital is generally "high" or "low". As Putnam put it, " [b]ecause social capital is multidimensional...we must take care not to frame questions about change solely in terms of more social capital or less social capital" (p 12).

The realization that social capital is dynamic and changes form is a rather new concept. Many of the "grandfathers" of modernization theory believed that isolation (or a decline in social capital) was a necessary by-product of modernization. Though this is certainly sometimes the case, such theorists "drastically underestimated the ability of humans over the longer run to adapt existing forms of social capital and to create new forms to fit new circumstances" (p 16).

Some of the forces behind such transformations of social capital include: technology, individual social and political entrepreneurs (or leaders), changes in the state and its institutions, war and conflict, and socio-demographic shifts. Though some of these driving forces are unique to a specific region, many are global in nature. But even these global forces have not changed social capital in a single direction. This is, in part, due to the differences between various societies. That is, the effect of global forces differs depending on the nature of a society and its historical experience. Indeed, according to Putnam "the dynamics of social capital...are determined more by the peculiarities of national history than by any single global modernization clock" (p 398). With this in mind, the book turns its attention toward specific cases studies.

Case Studies

Eight OECD countries are carefully examined in the body of this text: Great Britain, the United States, France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Australia, and Japan. Doing so allows for a comparative analysis, which can identify trends in social capital cross-culturally. Thus, these case studies allow Putnam to identify truly global shifts in the dynamics of social capital, as well as the effect of social histories on this shift.

Because the United States has received the bulk of attention in social capital literature, two chapters are devoted to it. Both chapters identify a general decline in most forms of social capital since the 1960s. Specifically "cross-class membership associations" have been replaced by "professionally-led political advocacy groups" with anemic involvement and narrow missions. Trends in Australia are similar to the US, with a general decline in most forms of social capital and particularly in bridging forms of social capital. The most notable exception to this is the rise of "episodic community events" such as festivals and fun runs.

Relative to Australia and the US, Great Britain has experienced a general stability in social participation. Hall attributes this to the massive expansion of educational institutions after WWII, changes in class structure that expanded the middle class, and British governmental policy that actively cultivated the voluntary sector. However, he warns that beneath this apparent stability has been an erosion in the quality of collective life, as people remain members of organizations, but have become far less active than in the past. France has experienced similar trends of stable, but negative, shifts in social capital as its disproportionately Muslim underclass is increasingly isolated. According to Worms, this is partially a result of strong bonding social capital and weak bridging social capital.

In contrast to these examples, Germany has experienced a general increase in many forms of social capital, but this is primarily a consequence of extremely low social capital durring and immediately after WWII. However, like most of the countries studied, Germany has experienced a general decline in association within the "familiar triad" of unions, parties and churches. Spain also experienced shifts in social capital directly related to its historical and political contexts. During the Franco period and after the Civil War in the 1930s, tightly bonded social capital was replaced with more bridging social capital. Perez-Diaz claims this made possible the democratic transition of the 1970s. Since then however, Spain has fit the global norm and experienced a general drop in traditional forms of social capital.

Sweden is at least a partial exception to this trend. While many forms of traditional social capital are declining in Sweden, there is little evidence of damage to Swedish democracy. Indeed, Sweden seems to be on the cutting edge of new forms of social capital, and in some cases (such as unions) it has experienced virtually no drop in traditional forms. This has been attributed, in part, to its strong welfare state as "Sweden (along with its Scandinavian neighbors) leads the world not only in many measures of social capital, but also in public spending and taxation" (p 396). Japan is another exception, with stable and in some cases rising civic engagement. Even more surprising, unlike all the other countries studied here, and in opposition to most literature on social capital, in Japan social participation is higher among less-educated groups.

When the evolution of social capital is compared cross-culturally, it becomes clear that "social capital dynamics do not follow a single global metronome." (p 409) Rather, features of social capital and its evolution converge in some ways, but diverge in others. Historical and political contexts affect the way social capital evolves, even when similar outside forces converge on our countries. Despite this, there are some common themes in global patterns of social capital evolution.

Common Themes

At the general level, this investigation found no universal and simultaneous drop in social capital throughout the post-industrial world. Rather, declines in social capital often followed similar patterns, but varied in their timing. Indeed, in most cases studied here, world trends mirrored that of the United States, but lagged by about two decades. This lag is likely a result of a lag in the introduction of the major underlying causal factors that have been linked to the decline of social capital in the US. These include commercial television, two career families and urban sprawl, all of which were introduced to the rest of the world later than they were to the US.

Whatever its cause, there has been an overall (though not universal or simultaneous) decline in many traditional forms of social capital throughout the OECD. First, there has been a general drop in electoral turn out (though only minor drops have been observed in Scandinavia). This has happened despite a significant increase in education, which is generally positively correlated with voter turn out (except in Japan). Second, there has been a general decline in engagement with political parties. This development has become pronounced enough to earn its own term in Germany: Parteinverdossenheit or alienation from political parties. Third, there is a general decline in union membership (except in Scandinavia). Fourth, there has been a general decline in church attendance. Like the others, this development appeared first in the US and was latter followed by the other countries of the OECD, but Europe's rate of decline has been faster and has now surpassed the US.

In a more general sense, there seems to be mounting discontent with political institutions, which have transformed from largely social-capital-intensive to media intensive. Further, these changes seem to be disproportionately concentrated in younger cohorts "singularly uninterested in politics, distrustful both of politicians and of the generalized other, cynical about public affairs, and less inclined to participate in enduring organizations" (p 413). These declines represent drops in the traditional "primary spheres of community life": politics, work and faith.

But as these traditional "reservoirs of social capital" dry up, new forms have increased in both number and relative importance. The new forms of social capital tend to be informal, fluid, and personal. Examples include Internet communications and "new social movements" focused on a narrow and specific set of interests. Referred to as "solidaristic individualism" by Rothstein and as "loose ties" by Wuthnow, these forms of social connection have increased in all the countries studied except for the US. But even in countries where loose ties are increasing, most authors featured in this book fear that these new individualistic forms of social capital may be less conducive to the pursuit of collective goals than the older forms. Further, new social capital may be "more liberating but less solidaristic--representing a kind of privatization of social capital." (p 412)

Additionally, there is much concern among the authors of this book regarding the distribution of social capital. While social capital has throughout history tended to favor the powerful members of society, the social capital gap appears to be growing rapidly. To a large extent this is thought to be the result of the general trends in the type of social capital favored, as well as contemporary demographic shifts. Traditional forms of social capital made up a disproportionate amount of the lower classes social connections. Thus as union membership, electoral turnout, party membership, and church attendance drop, the lower classes are more severely effected. This is exacerbated as younger cohorts, which favor the "new" forms of social capital, begin to replace current generations. Indeed, according to Putnam, "[c]oncern about the social capital domain is perhaps the most important common thread throughout the national studies in this volume" (p 416).


Social capital networks and the norms of reciprocity they foster are important aspects of human life. In addition to the effect they have on individuals, the dynamics of social capital have consequences for collective institutions, such as democracy. This book has attempted to identify changes in social capital over the last fifty years and the consequences of these changes, by examining eight of the "most developed" countries in the world. From a quantitative perspective, traditional forms of social capital (politics, work and faith- based social capital) have dropped virtually across the board, though not simultaneously and not at the same rate. But from a qualitative perspective, social capital has not simply declined--it has shifted into new forms. As Putnam puts it, contemporary trends in social capital are represented "less by a global slump in civic associationism than by a generational shift away from some sorts of associative activity...towards other sorts" (p 399), such as Internet communications and "new social movements". These new forms often utilize information technology and are more informal, fluid, and personal than traditional forms.

Unfortunately, they may also encourage further stratification of the distribution of social capital and may be less conducive to the pursuit of collective goals. Further, these new forms remain remarkably absent in the United States. Thus while there is an overall decline in traditional forms of social capital across the globe, these declines are sometimes (but not always) offset by an increase in new (though possibly problematic) forms of social capital. The consequences of these trends is not yet clear, but as Putnam put it, "at least in the United States, there is reason to suspect that some fundamental social and cultural preconditions for effective democracy may have been eroded in recent decades, the result of a gradual but widespread process of civic disengagement." (p 4)