Social Capital and the Internet

The idea of social capital was first introduced by Bourdieu in 1985. He was interested in the different types of capital that people can develop, which can be converted into economic capital. Individuals have “social capital,” built up through interactions with their social networks.

The area of study has had contributions from various academics. Coleman (1988) has provided some explanations of mechanisms for the generation of social capital, such as gifting, reciprocity, and trust. Putnam (2000) uses the concept on a more macro level, looking at how groups and societies can have social capital.

He defines social capital as “social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.” Social capital has palpable value. People can invest their time and energy into the development of social capital. Social capital must be built over time, it can not be created at one point in time.

At the dawn of the Internet utopians envisioned an explosion of possibilities for social capital, hypothesising infinite potential for the development of social ties (Ling, 2003).

While few argue that technology ‘has its most profound effect when it alters the ways in which people come together and communicate’ (May, 2002), over a decade on and the reality is somewhat sobering.

Much critical discussion concentrates on the negative impacts of the Internet such as possible rises in isolation and depression, though such approaches may be symptomatic of a general trend in society. Locating the Internet within the larger framework of modernity we might understand this technology as the latest stage of an ongoing debate.

Nie posits that with technological change has come an unintended decline in social connectedness and an increase in individualism especially during the twentieth century, what he sees as the “bedroom community” (2001:429).

According to Putnam, social capital describes the social networks of the individual along with the various webs of reciprocity: “Whereas physical capital refers to physical objects and human capital refers to properties of individuals, social capital refers to connections among individuals–social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them. In that sense, social capital is closely related to what some have called “civic virtue.”

The difference is that “social capital” calls attention to the fact that civic virtue is most powerful when embedded in a dense network of reciprocal relations. A society of many virtuous but isolated individuals is not necessarily rich in social capital.”

Putnam (2000) perceives a decline in social capital in the United States. He looks at a number of declining interests, namely: political participation, civic participation, religious participation, and participation on informal levels.

In his view, this decline in social capital can be associated with an increased sense of individuality. Putnam traces political events (WWII), stating that those who grew up before WWII participated in more social activities. Post-WWII, he feels that there was greater individualization.

The pressures of time and money, and increased suburbanization have also influenced the decrease in social capital. Putnam also feels that the television has lead to a decrease in social capital, although he is not exactly sure about the Internet.

According to Quan-Haase et al. (2002), the Internet supplements social capital. It can help facilitate our contact with social networks but does not greatly increase the size of our social networks. It can be used as a “tool,” to help us arrange meeting, for instance.

Social capital is generally agreed to be a positive things. There are certain academics (Portes, 1998) who question this notion, and explore how social capital can lead to social exclusion, and restrictions on individual freedoms.

Ling (2004) argues that mobile phones for instance, lead people to interact more intensely with people in their direct social networks, but exclude others. In this way, ICTs can strengthen existing connections, but decrease the ability of individuals to form new bonds. Putnam offers the term, Balkanization, to to describe the phenomenon in which social capital between small groups of friends is high, but is a barrier to the formation of new relationships with others.

References

Ling, R., Anderson, B. and Diduci, D. (2003) ‘Mobile Communication and Social Capital in Europe’, in Nyri, K. (Ed.) Mobile Democracy: Essays on Society, Self and Politics, Passagen Verlag, Vienna, pp.359-74

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