In this instance, social capital allowed the ambassadors of Nazi ideology to spread their message throughout a community via a dense network of associations. The authors argue that this rapid infiltration was facilitated by the preponderance of clubs that welcomed all-comers: Choral groups, for example, took in anyone with a decent singing voice and professed love of music. This plausibly allowed National Socialist leaders to insert themselves into communities where no prior connections existed.
This is a downside of social capital Putnam fails to show much concern for. To the extent that he worried about the dangerous potential of social capital, he was more concerned with the effects of social ties built through membership in organizations that encourage bonding within an exclusive circle, while at the same time fostering a sense of mistrust of outsiders. A country with too many of these groups can end up with a fragmented set of mini-societies with strong internal connections, and breed suspicion and antipathy between groups. (Such in-group thinking has been blamed for, among other things, the ethnic tension and conflict in modern India.)
This kind of suspicion of outsiders is unlikely to afflict bird-watching clubs or choral societies, but it very plausibly describes the organizations built on political or religious beliefs that have growing prominence in American society. This American Life devoted an entire episode last fall to this troubling trend, documenting friendships that disintegrated over different political views and profiling “closet” Democrats and Republicans who feared the social and economic backlash that would ensue if their political beliefs were brought into the open.
Thus, it isn’t just the level of engagement in civic life that matters: We need also consider the type of social capital our society is creating and how it’s being deployed. Germany’s social capital might have been mobilized to improve the world; Hitler instead exploited it to his own insidious ends. It is also crucial to think about whether, in Putnam’s words, social capital will serve as a “bridge” to bring those with disparate beliefs together—think of the Democrat and Republican who meet in the comfortable environment of a PTA meeting—or whether it will serve to “bond” its participants, by strengthening existing ties, encouraging those with similar beliefs to grow closer still.
We’ve only just begun to examine the effects that social networks like Facebook will have on the nature of American social capital. Most studies thus far have found that computers have had a neutral effect on our willingness to be active in community groups. But the Internet has undeniably opened up more opportunities to connect with others with similar worldviews, to find a vastly larger network of like-minded stamp collectors or model car enthusiasts. So the Web is good at helping us forge and strengthen these bonds built upon mutual interests but—if you believe the conventional wisdom—few of us log on to the Internet to seek bridges to those with differing points of view. If that’s true, the Web might contribute to the greater polarization and distrust that’s come to characterize our political discourse, where Republicans and Democrats alike stick with their own groups’ Twitter feeds and online discussions, wary of the intentions and motivations of the other side.
You’d never want to live in a society where social capital—and the trust and cooperation it embodies—was completely absent. Nor would most of us prefer an America made up of mutually suspicious factions. The new study’s main message is something more subtle—social capital is neither inherently bad nor good—it’s simply an effective means of coordinating and mobilizing a community. The discourse on social capital in America shouldn’t just be about how to replenish it but also how to ensure that it’s put to good use.
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