Bowling together

OECD Observer

©David Rooney

Social science research and international organisations are awash with jargon that many non-specialists find either confusing or unhelpful. Can this be said of the notion of social capital? According to Robert D. Putnam, Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at the JFK School of Government at Harvard, and author of the influential book, Bowling Alone, social capital is an idea whose time has come.

Indeed, a decade ago, there was only one research article every three years written worldwide about it; last year alone, there were 300. What exactly is social capital and how can it help policy-makers? Dr Putnam found time between international conferences and transcontinental airports to tell us.

Dr Putnam, what exactly is social capital?

As would be true of any new concept whose use has exploded exponentially in a short space of time, people use the term in a variety of ways. But I would insist on a lean and mean definition: social capital refers to social networks and the associated norms of reciprocity.

The core idea is very simple: Social networks have value. They have value to people in the networks – “networking” is demonstrably a good career strategy, for example. But they also have “externalities,” that is, effects on bystanders. Dense social networks – barbecues or dinner parties or whatever – in a neighbourhood can deter crime, even benefiting local people who don't themselves go to the barbecues.

Not all externalities are positive. Some networks have been used to raise finance for terrorism. Just as human and physical capital – through knowledge of chemistry or aircraft, for instance – can be used for bad purposes, so can social capital.

Moreover, social capital comes in many forms, not all fungible. A dentist’s drill and an oil-rigger’s drill are not interchangeable. Similarly, we need to distinguish among different types of social capital, like the difference between “bonding” social capital – these are links among people who are similar in ethnicity, age, social class, or whatever – and “bridging” social capital, which are links that cut across various lines of social cleavage.

But the main point is that social networks can be a powerful asset, both for individuals and for communities.

The idea of social capital has not been without its critics. Where do you see its particular strengths and weaknesses?

Naturally all theories are open to question, even the general equilibrium idea in mainstream economics. I've heard three broad complaints about social capital. First, it is theoretically sloppy; second, the evidence of causal direction is weak; and third, it has no policy levers.

It’s true, as I said before, that in the early days of the idea there was a certain “irrational exuberance” among some enthusiasts, such that anything good was termed “social capital,” but throughout the last decade, careful researchers have converged toward a rigorous core concept. The central theses that social networks have effects on information flow and that repeated interactions in networks can help resolve dilemmas of collective action are entirely consistent with conventional economic theory. Even the idea that networks can affect “identity”– if I interact more often with a group, I’m more likely to take their interests into account – is akin to some recent work on “endogenous preferences” in economic theory.

Advocates of the “social capital” lens have reported many robust correlations between vibrant social networks and outcomes like better school performance, lower crime rates, better public health, reduced political corruption, improved market performance, and so on. For example, several recent sophisticated econometric studies in Italy have shown that places with higher social capital have more efficient capital and labour markets, exactly as the theory would predict, even after controlling for all the other factors that might be thought relevant.

But that does not prove causation. This will be hard to do, since it’s not easy to imagine an experiment in which some people are required to have friends or attend church or whatever, and others are required not to.

I entirely agree with critics who say that we need to be as rigorous as possible, and I’ve been encouraged by efforts within the OECD to develop more sophisticated, cross-country measurements of different forms of social capital. Still, I believe that sufficient hard evidence is accumulating on the importance of social connectedness or social cohesion or, as I prefer, social capital, that policy-makers should not have to wait for a couple of decades of detailed research before asking whether attentiveness to social capital might be worth their while.

As for those policy levers, what can we actually do about social capital, assuming that it is a relevant factor? Here I want first to record my strong disagreement with the view, sometimes heard, that Bowling Alone Is an argument for shutting down the welfare state and relying on civil society to solve problems. Nothing could be further from the truth. More than 10 years ago, in my very first essay on the topic of “social capital and public affairs” I wrote (with emphasis in the original):

Social capital is not a substitute for effective public policy, but rather a prerequisite for it and, in part, a consequence of it. Social capital, as our Italian study suggests, works through and with states and markets, not in place of them. The social capital approach is neither an argument for cultural determinism nor an excuse to blame the victim.... Wise policy can encourage social capital formation, and social capital itself enhances the effectiveness of government action…”

How might the idea of social capital apply to education?

More work is needed on this, but we know some domains that seem highly promising. A few ideas spring to mind, though, I stress, these do not apply just to education, but to policy levers across a wide spectrum.

Let’s start with human capital and social capital. These are clearly linked in a kind of virtuous circle, with education tending to increase social capital and at the same time social capital tending to increase educational performance. The decline in social capital in the US might have been even sharper had it not been for the quality and strength of our higher education. Still, more is needed. Civics courses, community service requirements and even extracurricular activities like sports and music, have been shown to have long-term effects on the civic engagement of those students who have been exposed to them.

Social capital formation also requires careful thought about space. Schools, but also offices, housing developments and entire cities need to be designed with an eye toward how architecture (in the large and the small) can encourage easy, casual connections among people who might otherwise find themselves in isolated niches.

Another lever relates to scale. Most research suggests that “smaller is better” from a social capital point of view, with smaller towns, smaller firms and smaller classrooms. We need to think carefully about how to encourage decentralisation and empower grassroots organisations in all walks of life, while at the same time retaining some of the advantages of economies of scale. “Subsidiarity” as a design principle is relevant here, as are “cellular” organisations, like “schools within schools” in which smaller groups are nested within larger ones.

The trouble is that government policies can inadvertently “destroy” social capital. Think of the closing of post offices in small towns and rural areas. In the US, some have experimented with the notion of “social capital impact assessment” for major policy initiatives, so that, for instance, when putting in a major new expressway system, one at least considers how the result will affect social networks.

Governments should understand that investing in social capital requires time. As our labour markets develop – especially as more women go out to work – and as technology expands, greater flexibility on the part of employers can allow employees to better reconcile professional demands with the needs of family and community.

Is the US situation different to other OECD countries?

In Bowling Alone, I argued that many, many forms of social capital – ties to family and friends, civic associations, political parties, labour unions, religious groups, and so on – have been in decline in the US over the last 30-40 years, after having risen for most of the 20th century. Many people in other countries feel that a similar decay in community and family bonds has occurred there, too. But I have never claimed that social capital is synchronised to a single global metronome. The year 1945 (or the year 1989) meant very different things in the social and political life of the US or France or Poland or Ireland. For instance, the timing and pace of the introduction of television, which was an important influence on social connections, differed markedly from place to place. So, it is worth paying attention to social networks and norms of reciprocity, whether or not the trends are up or down in a particular country at a particular moment.

Interviewed by Rory J. Clarke

Visit Dr Putnam’s Harvard web page at


Putnam, R.D. (2000), Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Simon & Schuster, New York.

Putnam, R.D. (2003), Better Together: Restoring the American Community, Simon & Schuster, New York. With Lewis Feldstein and Don Cohen.

Field, S. (2001), “Does team spirit make economic sense?”, in OECD Observer, No. 227/228, available online at

OECD (2001), The Well-being of Nations: The Role of Human and Social Capital, Paris. Policy-makers should not have to wait for a couple of decades of detailed research before asking whether attentiveness to social capital might be worth their while.

©OECD Observer No. 242, March 2004

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