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Social Capital and Democracy


Social capital, which is crucial in any society in the world, defines the essence of democracy. All democracies are developed with a communal perspective, where the social capital plays an essential role in the democratic fabric. In general, the social capital concept, if well developed in the society, plays a major role in developing the democracy in as much as it has its benefits and drawbacks. This paper examines the social capital aspect in the society and the way it affects democracy.

What is Social Capital?

Social capital comprises different institutions, norms, cultures, and relationships that determine the quality and quantity of social interactions. There is always a need to have social cohesion in any society if economic prosperity is to be achieved in a sustainable way. Social capital refers to uniting various institutions in the society and ensuring that they have a bond that holds them together. Social capital will create value for individuals in the society who are connected to the network and, at the time, the benefits can trickle to the bystanders. It emphasizes on warm feelings, trust, information, reciprocity, and corporation benefits resulting from social networks.

Social capital is divided into three main categories and includes bonds where individuals in the society are linked by a sense of having common identity, e.g. family, close friends, ethnicity or culture. Second, individuals may be connected by factors other than identity, e.g. associates, distant friends, and colleagues. The last linkage involves connecting individuals further up or down the social ladder. In general, social capital has significant benefits, for example, many individuals are capable of getting employment from connections rather than from advertisements. In other places, the clan or society can be involved in the process of funding education of their relatives or children in the community.

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Theoretical Linkages Between Social Capital and Democratic Stability

Democracy is a system of government in any state, where all persons are involved in governmental procedures by being able to elect a representative who will govern them. It is a government by people for the people, and representation denotes that the representatives are elected by a majority vote. Those researchers who investigated social capital have explored its impact on democracy, and Robert D. Putnam is one of them. His concept of social capital is based on three tenets, which are social values, where trust is a key factor; moral norms and obligations; and social networks like voluntary associations that are essential in the social fabric of society (Putnam 65). His central thesis denotes that a region’s level of political integration and economic functionality is a reflection of successful accumulation of social capital in the society in that particular region.

As many states gained independence and new democracies were emerging, many have emphasized the civil society presence for democratic consolidation. Advanced democracies are now emulated by the developing world as models for democracy more so the United States. This is a result of passive reliance on the state and the absence of independent civic society engagements. Tocqueville’s view of the American civil association is a key to making democracy work (Putnam 65). In the modern world, communities are forming associations ranging from commercial and industry engagements to religion as well as serious moral, political, and educational among others. This is an intellectual and moral association in the societies in the world, and they form the basis of social capital. Civic engagements influence the quality of public life and the way social institutions perform around the world (Putnam 65).

Research shows that issues of education, unemployment, drug abuse, poverty, crime, and health are not acute in societies that are civically engaged and that embrace social capital. Economic development groups also demonstrate significance of social bonds. Many economic outcomes are based on social network, and this includes such issues as job placement (Putnam 66).

This re-core parts of democracy and hence social capital become key in the stabilization of developing democracy. According to Putnam, civic engagements have a significant influence on the performance of representative government. In his research in sub-national governments in Italy, Putnam revealed that, although they were the same on paper, their effectiveness significantly differed. Systemic inquiry demonstrated that the governance quality was based on the long-standing traditions of civic engagement or the absence of it. Social networks in general will facilitate communication and coordination, hence solving issues of collective action. In fact, incentives for optimism are reduced if economic and political engagement are embedded in networks of social interactions (Putnam 66). It is, therefore, clear that the development of social capital can be a significant foundation for the stability of developing democracies around the world.

Limitations of these Linkages

In as much as there are benefits from the social capital, this social linkage between individuals in the society harbor various limitations. From the political perspective, many scholars think that the issue of civil societies has direct and positive relation with political effectiveness. However, there are others, who do not share this opinion. According to Fiorina, in the American context, the government has grown increasingly open to the people, while they are increasingly unhappy with it. The scholar believes that these trends are causally related, because very few who take the chance to engage in politics are unrepresentative of the whole population (Fiorina 396). In the today’s world, the parties that are formed for political or social reasons have become a part of the problem, and not a solution to ineffectiveness of the democratic system. Looking at the civil service coverage, the primary elections, the unions formed by workers around the world, investigative journalism, the law on conflict of interest, and other materials have come together and reduced the material incentives that revolve around party activism. The void is filled by ideologies (Fiorina 413).

According to Berman, the association was advantageous in Germany throughout the 19th century but in contrast to the view of social capital having a positive impact on democracy, high associationism levels, political parties, and absent responsive and strong government served to fragment than unit. According to Berman, societies with publics that are active and mobilized and have low political institutionalization in most cases end up suffering from disorder, instability or even violence. It means that social cohesion and capitalization becomes the main problem in stabilizing democracy. During the interwar period in Germany, for example, many individuals out of frustrations from the government joined clubs, professional organizations, and voluntary associations, thereby helping in the rise of Hitler’s power by undermining the government of the day. In this sense, civil engagements and the other social capital became limitation to the democracy of the day. The Nazis were able to capture many citizens and counter their opponents, because the civil society in Germany was strong (Berman 403). In this sense, social capital that is key in flourishing civil societies does not mean that it will have positive effects in liberal democracy.

The other limitations will result from social capital. The issue of crime and drug cartels are a form of social capital. The linkage between drug lords and distributors is in such a way that the ‘I’ is replaced with ‘we’, and they work for their common goals and benefits (Putnam 67). The bond that is created is so strong that it becomes a limitation on countering drug intake and crime around the world. Ethnic segregation resulting from the ethnic bonds in the society is another issue. Minority groups form ethnic bonds that are so strong that they alienate themselves from the bigger part of the society. Economically, these individuals will have slow economic development, because they will be regarded as external outsides by a larger community as a result of the lack of a bridge between them and the community (OECD Insights: Human Capital 104). The other issue is organizational, which involves wrong social capital engagements between employees who are self-centered and do not have a bigger picture that affects the company’s operations (OECD Insights: Human Capital 104).

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Fostering the “Right” Political Culture and the Other Factors

It is important to understand that political culture is the basis of the community, hence there is a need to cultivate this in any society. The right political culture will ensure that the society of that particular democracy will take as norm and resisting the democracy will provide a negative effect. Political culture is defined by social capital engagements between people. Basing on Putnam’s research in Italy, most sub-national governments were run efficiently because of the political culture in their regions as compared to those who had weak political culture and no civic engagement (Putnam 66).

However, in as much as there is a political right that entails a strong civil society, the other factors like economic development and political institutions must be considered. The influence of people’s ignorance and changing interest is enabling democracies adopt policies that may be damaging. The main essence of democracy is to defend people from this, but it is normally not the case. Economic policy is one of the things that the public does not understand, in particular the ability of the policy to harmonize privet greed and public interest. It is important not to underestimate the influence of the market. Thus, while the general public underestimates how well markets work, the others are capitalizing on this, hence the need to take care of the economic factor (Caplan 2).

Finally, it is crucial to investigate political institutions. The cause of the fall of the Weimar government and the rise of Hitler to power resulted from weak political institutions. Germans had a very strong civil society, meaning they knew about the right political culture. However, the civil societies led to this fall and revolution (Berman 426). It means that new democracies need to strengthen their political institutions in order to have stronger and sustainable democracy.


Social capital is important in the development of young democracies, because it will unite people in the country. The development of bonds between individuals is necessary for democratic development. However, in as much as this is true, there is a need to have stronger political and economic institutions to ensure stability of democracies.