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The Decline of Social Capital Essay

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Updated: Sep 19th, 2019


The concept of social capital was developed by Bourdieu, a French sociologist in the 1980s. he referred social capital as “the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to the possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition” (Bourdieu, 1986).

This definition has been simplified by Heywood who has defined it as “the levels of trust and sense of social connectedness that help to promote stability, cohesion and prosperity; what turns the ‘I’ into ‘we” (Heywood, 2008). In other words, social capital incorporates social networks, notion of trustworthiness, and collective responsibility.

These aspects enable individuals and society to act effectively. This paper discusses the potential causes of decline of social capital as highlighted in Putnam’s text. The potential causes discussed include: absence of civic engagement in many countries; growth of television viewership, high costs of joining networks, and women entry into workforce.

Absence of Civic Engagement

Lack of social engagement in many countries in the Western world is a major indicator for the decline of social capital. Social capital is a crucial factor which allows democracy to strive (Heywood, 2008).

In the US, for instance, many social associations such as; Parents Teachers Associations, National Federation of Women’s Clubs, League of Women Voters and the Red Cross witnessed membership declines of around 50% since the 1960s (Heywood, 2008).

According to Putnam (2000), the trend statistics conveyed in 1974 indicated that one out of four adults volunteered regularly his or her time to any of these associations. Currently, however, these statistics have dropped to around one in five.

The scenario is no better in the UK, where there is seen a significant drop in church attendants, Union membership and political party membership Heywood (2008).

The Growth of Television Viewership

Putnam (2000) singles the growth of television viewership as main cause of social capital. According to Putnam, the theory of social capital peaked up in 1950. At that time he estimated that only 10% of the population had television in their households. This estimate had gone up to 90% by 1959 changing the lifestyle of average Americans (Putnam, 2000).

This change strongly goes hand in hand with decline in social capital. Television made American viewers to be more cynical over benevolence of other individuals around them in society. This is an important factor that contributes to decline of bridging social capital in the US and other Western countries. In his texts, Putnam requests society to reflect on effects of technology in the lives of people.

The issue becomes even direr with escalation of social networks such as twitter, face book, Bebo and others (Heywood, 2008). These social networks make populations to become more immune to social or human interaction, hence, leading to decline of social capital.

High Costs of Joining A Networks

Putnam identified causes of decline of social capital to be attributed to increases in cost of joining networks (Putnam, 2000). Other potential causes include pressures associated to money, time and suburbanization. According to Putnam (2000), these factors increase opportunity costs of networking. Many Americans work for longer hours to earn extra income.

In addition, they travel long distances and hardly have adequate time for leisure (Heywood, 2008). In other words, the effort put to develop or maintain social capital has a higher opportunity cost to American citizens. Our cost of joining a network captures this opportunity cost directly. These aspects are vividly expounded by Putnam in his description of change in American society over many years (Putnam, 2000).

Women entry into workforce

Putnam asserts that the mass entry of women into workforce had an effect in social capital and general civil engagement. The examination of golden age period of social capital, as postulated by Putnam allows us to rethink a new at the decline of social capital in the 20th century (Putnam, 2000).

The direct engagement by women in American society includes; participation of women in politics as candidates, elected representatives, and senior party organizers.

In addition, increasing number of female athletes in various sporting activities, numbers of women joining professional organizations, working mothers engaged in various kinds of child care activities, feminist organizations and others. Participation in these activities detached women from family, society, and others, hence, depicting decrease in social capital (Heywood, 2008).


In summary, a significant study was published by Putnam in 2000 on the decline of social capital. According to Putnam (2000), the central notion of social capital appreciates the idea of networks. He explains that social capital stands for “connections among individuals, social networks and norms of reciprocity and worthiness that emerge from them” (Putnam, 2000,).

Putnam indicates that social capital is central to social networks. Putnam’s theory; it nonetheless has important implications for our understanding of the effects of the decline of social capital and the alternatives to social networks. The decline in social capital happens as a result of individuals and society’s perception of others as less trustworthy and less likely to reciprocate their cooperation.

Further, Putnam’s text highlights the decrease of social capital due to modernization in society. Putman (2000) in the chapter called “what killed civic engagement?” calculated how much various variables enhanced decline in social capital.

Putnam seems to advocate for the return to old sociological theories which emphasized passage traditional society to modern society trying to demonstrate that community values are still important. He therefore proposed a decisive shift in social capital theory.

Putnam posits that nations have different endowments of social capital directly dependent on historical and cultural factors. The welfare of Americans has declined as social capital has deteriorated. Getting involved in a network is costly (Heywood, 2008).

Reference List

Bourdieu, p. (1986). The Forms of Capital. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Heywood, A. (2008). Essentials of UK Politics. London: Palgrave MacMillan.

Putnam, R. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse of American Society. New York: Simon and Schuster.

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