Thinking About Social Change In America

May 17, 2010 — Leave a comment

Notes from “Thinking About Social Change in America” Putnam, R: 2000 in Bowling alone: the collapse and revival of American Community

“Somehow in the last several decades of the twentieth century all these community groups and tens of thousands like them across America began to fade.”

The article opens by describing a steady and universal decline in community activity across America’s middle class in the 1990’s, to the point of various veterans leagues and other such clubs closing down. This decline is not attributed to shifting populations but rather to the tendency for complacency in contemporary times. This trend was seen on the horizon as long ago, as the late 1950’s: “A 1958 study under the auspices of the newly inaugurated Center for the Study of Leisure at the University of Chicago fretted that ‘the most dangerous threat hanging over American society is the threat of leisure,’ a startling claim in the decade in which the Soviets got the bomb.”

However, as comfort set in, so did analysis of everyday life and social change became the focus point for American society. At the same time as social change, a baby boom was in effect and altering the demographic of the population. The population in the 1960’s was unusually young and so civic involvement started a decline. According to the article, civic involvement takes place later in a persons life, in middle age, and so public institutions were waiting out the calm, expecting a flood of activity in the 1980’s when this boom generation would come of age. When things didn’t go as expected, scientists started analysis of society in the context of ‘social capital’:

“By analogy with notions of physical capital and human capital – tools and training that enhance individual productivity – the core idea of social capital theory is that social networks have value.”

“a well connected individual in a poorly connected society is not as productive as a well connected individual in a well connected society. And even a poorly connected individual may derive some of the spillover benefits from living in a well connected community.”

However, this idea of social capital has external consequences and can be viewed in local, national and global contexts. Basically, the argument is that social capital is good for those within the network, and bad for those outside the network, as the disadvantage of being on the outside becomes a greater and greater divide as the social network gains momentum and power. THis can be seen, and is part of a common rhetoric in media theory, in contemporary times as the digital divide. The digital divide, which can be viewed as a knowledge consumption divide, has its own divide, which could be described as the knowledge production divide. There are those with no access to digital information dissemination technology, there are those with access but without the skills, or the will to participate, to produce knowledge and then there are those with the access and the knowledge production. If network theory suggests that these groups will homogenize more and more into a cluster, then the gap between the digitally unconnected and the knowledge producers, in terms of social capital, will become a massive social crevice.

“Social capital, in short, can be directed toward malevolent, antisocial purposes, just like any other form of capital.”

This effect is analyzed and discussed in depth by American intellectual Richard Florida with regards to the ways in which intellectual and creative classes cluster together geographically to create contemporary social institutions. However, the arguments and discussions for the positive uses of social capital are much more relevant as through this type of network understanding we can problem solve the various divides.

“Of all the dimensions along which forms of social capital vary, perhaps the most important is the distinction between bridging (or inclusive) and bonding (or exclusive). Some forms of social capital are, by choice or necessity, inward looking and tend to reinforce exclusive identities and homogeneous groups.”

If in our networking theories and practices, and analysis of community we look for the bridging capabilities within information technologies, i.e. the potentials of social software and how we publish and use our media productions, we may be contributing to important developments within the various digital information revolutions.


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