Social Capital: Robert Putnam explains why “together is better”

Science and society meet in the words of Robert Putnam, the “inventor” of social capital: a concept of transformation between new social and global dynamics

Over 20 years after the publication of the pioneering “Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy”, Robert Putnam goes back discussing the theme he invented: social capital. Putnam, professor of Public Policies at Harvard University, took part in the Smart City Exhibition event in Bologna with a speech entitled “Better Together: Investing on Social Capital”, where he “transferred” his idea of social capital to the present day, through a digression on the new digital dynamics and the recent migratory phenomena.  

With regard to the impact of the Internet on the idea of social capital, Putnam explains: «There are two kinds of social capital: networks that link you to people like you – the jargon used by social sciences is “bonding social capital” – so my ties, my connections, my relationships with other elderly white male old Jewish professors as my bonding social capital; and my ties to people of a different generation or a different social class, religion, gender, that’s “bridging social capital”. I’m not saying bridging good, bonding bad; because if you get sick, the people who bring you chicken soup are likely to reflect your bonding social capital. But in a modern, diverse democracy bridging social capital is very valuable, and what makes the problem more challenging is that bridging social capital is harder to build than bonding social capital.»

But, according to Putnam, there are other factors undermining the stability of social capital or redefining its nature today: «Two other big factors are the growth of ethnic diversity, especially from immigration, which is inevitably and basically positive; but, positive or not, people in Europe think “well we could stop immigration”. That’s just not true, it will not happen. Diversity is really valuable, but in the short run diversity hurts social capital: it makes us all like turtles, we pull in from everyone so lower social capital. And a successful immigration society is one that knows how to become different. In Europe now people talk about the challenge of diversity as being “how could we make them become like us?”. And that’s the wrong way of thinking about the problem. The problem of immigration societies is not to make them like us, but to create a new more composite “us”».



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