Dietlind Stolle and Marc Hooghe, “Inaccurate, exceptional, one-sided or irrelevant? The debate about the alleged decline of social capital and civic engagement in Western democracies”, British Journal of Political Science 35 (2005), pp. 149-167.

‘Summary: this is a review article of the social capital debate. It addresses studies (such as Putnam’s Bowling Alone, 2000) that that not only describe and document an erosion of traditional integration mechanisms, but also interpret this evolution as a fundamental threat to the survival of healthy communities and democratic political systems (i.e. ‘the decline thesis’).

 

 

Important Insight: It presents four distinct modes of criticism of the decline thesis:

 

1) rejection of the thesis on empirical grounds. The available data simply do not support the decline thesis, and strong variations in social capital’s numerous aspects are possible across time and across societies – there is no general syndrome.

**calls for continuation and replication of already existing time-series.

2) empirical grounds are ok, but the decline thesis is not generalizable outside of the US. In other Western societies, social capital and civic engagement are not declining to the same extent as in the US. The available evidence does not suggest a broad, Western decline.

**calls for cross-national longitudinal studies.

3) while traditional forms of participation have declined, the decline thesis’ failure to incorporate new forms of participation and interaction that fulfil the same functions with regard to socialization and interest mediation.

*the problem with this argument as that systematic evidence on the new forms of involvement has yet to be collected, and thus studies in this field are often anecdotal in nature. What’s more, new forms of participation are potentially less collective and group-oriented in character (e.g. ethical consumerism, passive membership in cheque-book organizations).

*calls for the development of new survey questions and instruments that adequately measure these new forms.

4) while the decline thesis is correct, its normative consequences are not. The decline of traditional participation formats is seen as largely irrelevant for the future of democratic systems. Post-modernization erodes respect for authority, but increases support for democracy.

*calls for further research at the macro-level, and a re-invigoration of the old governability debate.