Concepts, Assessments, Subversions
Edited By Matteo Stocchetti
Bowling Online: A Critical View of Social Capital and Virtual Communities
Trust is the expectation that arises within a community of regular, honest, and cooperative behavior, based on commonly shared norms; on the part of other members of that community
… Social capital is a capability that arises from the prevalence of trust in a society or in certain parts of it. It can be embodied in the smallest and most basic social group, the family, as well as the largest of all groups, the nation, and in all the other groups in between.
(Francis Fukuyama: 1996)
In 1995, Robert Putnam introduced his theory of social capital in Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital. Furthering his research, in 2000, he published Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, in which Putnam attempts to explain how and why Americans’ social capital has consistently declined in the wake of the 1960’s era. Putnam’s uses his main argument to demonstrate how the United States, historically recognized as a leader in democratic civic engagement, is in danger of reaching critically deficient levels of social capital, thus leading to a society that no longer trusts or knows its own members. This chapter seeks out a modern relevance for Putnam’s concept of social capital in a nation increasingly defined by hyper-realism and virtual lives. In engaging some of the critiques of this particular iteration of social capital, we engage with hidden discourses of marginality and historical contextuality, the effect of dis-association and individualism on the development of communal bonds, and implications for virtual social capital. In the end, we suggest the possibility of a paradigm shift that is reflective of the faceted selves we embody today – where identities lie along a continuum from communal to virtual and technology facilitates choices about engagement and responsibility.
In 1995, Robert Putnam introduced his theory of social capital in Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital. Furthering his research, in 2000, he published his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, in which Putnam attempts to explain how and why America’s social capital has consistently declined in the wake of the 1960’s era. Putnam’s uses his main argument to demonstrate how the United States, historically recognized as a leader in ← 117 | 118 → democratic civic engagement, is in danger of reaching critically deficient levels of social capital, thus leading to a society that no longer trusts or knows its own members.
However, much controversy has surrounded Putnam’s work in the last decade. Some critics point to Putnam’s negligence of interpersonal networks outside of more traditional organizations, as well as the sometimes ambiguous logic and use of the term social capital (Fischer, 2001). Other critiques come from within a post – modernist and feminist framework, calling attention to the social reality and marginalized discourses in Putnam’s work. Additionally, many disagree with his categorization of technology as anathema to the development of social capital and a civic populace.
Our purpose, with Putnam’s particular construction and application of social capital in mind, is to address those arguments by bringing the core of Putnam’s research into a modern historical context focused on the nexus of 1) social capital as structured within spaces of power – recognizing those discourses marginalized in Bowling Alone; 2) the effect of dis – association and individualism on the development of communal bonds; and 3) the emergence of virtual communities (specifically Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games – MMORPG ) as new arenas for social connectivity pushing the boundaries of what is meant by community. Further, by investigating whether these new digital environments add to a sense of social engagement or operate as hyper – realism – simulacra replacing in vivo the real – we hope to establish if social capital itself has become a relic of a post- modern virtual world or if it has been replaced by a type of virtual social capital, one that bleeds over into the real world creating a new definition of community.
The foundations of social capital
According to Putnam (1995: 19), social capital ‘refers to connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them’. Putnam contends that social capital is of great importance for both communities and society in general, acting as a force that those within particular societies can draw upon to solve problems within their own communities. Underlying this centrality is the realization that ‘… social networks have value. Just as a screwdriver (physical capital) or a college education (human capital) can increase productivity (both individual and collective), so too social contacts affect the productivity of individuals and groups’ (1995: 18). Putnam holds that social capital is the oxygen that keeps the organism of community alive and vibrant.
Putnam provides evidence for the decline of social capital over the course of the last several decades by using traditional social organizations, such as bowling ← 118 | 119 → leagues and the girl scouts, as his historical touchstones. Since the 1960’s, the decline in political knowledge, voting and memberships in various organizations is alarming in American society. Instead of bonding together to demonstrate unity and camaraderie, what Putnam (2000: 82) calls the ‘cult of individual’ has developed.
However, any discussion of social capital becomes complicated when its value is constructed in a segregated pre- 1960’s American landscape, where many women and most people of color were not allowed to join unions or fraternal organizations. Social capital – especially its manifestations linked to economic gains – does not favor those who are excluded or marginalized in the social sphere. Measurement in Putnam’s pre – 1960’s America then becomes analogous to giving an assessment of academic performance to the college – track students in a school, and then reporting on how well your student population is doing, which at the time consisted primarily of white middle – class males.
This concern is reflected in Putnam’s discussion of two types of social capital: bonds and bridges. Bonding social capital includes associations between persons who are already similar to one another, and it has the effect of reinforcing identities. On the other hand, bridging social capital characterizes connections between individuals from different stations of life. Putnam indicates the greater desirability of the latter, in comparison to the former: it is bridging social capital which allows individuals to generate broader identities and connect with others who may not be like them. Although bridging social capital is lauded by Putnam, it is necessary to acknowledge the structural forces that affected such implementation in the 1960’s.
According to Fischer (2001: 7), ‘Putnam’s distinction between “bridging” and “bonding” types of social capital (better phrased as bridging versus in-bound social networks) reinforces a contrast between public and private rather than a contrast between social and asocial.’ While Fischer marks a valid distinction, we have to go further to look at how that public/private contrast gets performed in social spaces.
The public/private divide, as noted by many feminist scholars (Lather, 1987; Martin, 1982), becomes gendered in popular discourse to connote male/female, and this gendered rendering of the female presence in Putnam’s work (acknowledged by the author) does not fully engage with who gets to name and/or claim social capital. It is not a distinction addressed by Putnam, although he does review the position of women in reference to their effects on participation in typical women’s organizations. However, once he concludes that women are not the root cause of the decline in social capital within America, the conversational focus is swiftly shifted back to men. This gender – neutrality hides the position of women/wives on the private side of the divide as their identities become subsumed in their public partners’ place in the social and roles as citizens (Prokhovnik, 1998). ← 119 | 120 →
Further, people of color in a pre – 1960’s America had a very different social experience as well. Many of the social organizations and activities examined by Putnam – for example, voting and union membership – were highly prohibitive, if not directly illegal, for people of color (Oldendorf, 1990). Although there was much in the way of community interaction in segregated Black neighborhoods – like adult education programs in the South that focused on literacy, health, and job training for a generalized social betterment (Franklin, 1990; Williams, 1990; Neverdon – Morton, 1990) – marginalization within the greater society troubles Putnam’s usage of bridging social capital. A closer reading of Putnam’s description helps to explain how this contention should be understood.
Referring to ‘individuals from different stations in life’ demarcates class distinctions – a distinction more easily made in the absence of race (with white females already subsumed into the male). This lays the groundwork for inter – class bridging and community building without troubling the segregationist discourse of the times. If nothing else, combining a feminist critique with a critical race studies frame (Delgado and Stefancic, 2001) would open space for recognizing the need to restructure the parameters of social capital to reflect the totality of the social base.
The rise of dis-association and the cult of individualism
After establishing that social capital has been in decline for several decades now with the use of empirical data, Putnam then shifts to determining contributing factors. He considers a number of possible culprits, including the entrance of women into the workforce, pressures associated with time and money, as well as the effects of increased mobility and urban sprawl. A growing number of women, adding work time outside the home to their regular domestic responsibilities, would seem to imply fewer available resources left over for civic engagement or participation in social organizations. Men, too, were finding themselves spending longer hours at work and in commutes, as the upwardly mobile moved out into suburban neighborhoods. However, none of these prove to be the primary cause of the decline. In the end, Putnam settles upon two explanations for the decline of American social capital: generational change and the rise in television viewership.
Essentially, Putnam argues that our grandfathers’ and grandmothers’ generation was, in a certain sense, very special. They were forced to endure many hardships, including the Great Depression and WWII. And, as a result of these extreme tribulations, they developed into a generation of individuals who appeared to be very civically oriented. The children of the Baby Boomers’ and subsequent generations have grown up with the ideas of materialism and corporatism firmly implanted into ← 120 | 121 → their psyches, which has led to the deterioration of community life in America. This argument, however, requires us to quantify concepts such as hardship, tribulations, and extreme duress. Could we not argue that historical moments like the Civil Rights’ era, the Vietnam War, or 9/11 also had jarring impacts on people’s lives and influenced their perceptions of others, society, and their role in society? Additionally, research by Fischer (2001) questions whether levels of civic engagement have actually decreased or simply changed forms.
Indeed, it may be this changed representation that is at the heart of Putnam’s second explanation. He surmises that increased television viewership leads to less of almost every form of civic participation and social involvement. Why is this the case? Putnam provides three possibilities: television vies for limited time, television could have psychological effects which cause civic isolation and programming content could weaken civic participation. As already mentioned, time (specifically leisure time) quickly became a shrinking commodity by the 1970’s. Shifting patterns of mobility not only led to longer commutes but also added distance between families and more traditional forms of social engagement, from lodge halls to neighborhood watering holes and churches. Television, with its explosion of content, became a powerful competitor for limited leisure time. Putnam claims that television causes civic isolation and that it has a deleterious effect on civic participation, which are both indicative of dis-association and the rise of the cult of the individual.
Once again, we find it helpful to contextualize the situation. John Brehm and Wendy Rahn (1997) in Individual – Level Evidence for the Causes and Consequences of Social Capital claim that individuals in America face incentives for acting selfishly in society. They examine in this article social capital based on an individual level, and examine issues concerning democratic institutions and issues pertaining to hegemony within American society.
Dis – association rises when individual citizens in America essentially ask for the benefits of social capital without paying the costs or actually wanting to engage in activities that would create social capital in the first place; thus, creating ‘inescapable conflict between the interests and desires of individuals and the requirements of society’ (Brehm and Rahn: 999). This claim of individual unregulated self-interest is the problem that the authors say is the major issue at play, not the decline in the amount of social capital within America that Putnam had originally proposed.
This unregulated self – interest is what is leading many in American society to be distrustful of others around them. It is fostered by competition among members of society over economic pursuits and wealth attainment – competition that has increased dramatically as individuals face the increased pressure of globalization. ← 121 | 122 → Thus, Brehm and Rahn (1997: 1009) hypothesize that ‘income inequality and levels of unemployment diminish individual levels of interpersonal trust’ and thus individuals in society begin to see others that they may have trusted as competitors. Essentially, when society’s rewards become inequitably dispersed, ‘people may begin to feel exploited by others, thus diminishing their faith in their fellow citizen’ (1997: 1009).
For Brehm and Rahn, the reciprocal relationship is what most directly represents the social capital idea. Citizens who participated in their communities outside of their individual neighborhoods and became part of a broader picture beyond themselves, had very positive outlooks about helpfulness, trustworthiness and equity among their peers and fellow human beings. However, Brehm and Rahn struggle with the ideas that social capital is the main contributing factor to a decline in communal relations in American society.
Toward a paradigm shift: virtual social capital and beyond
David Kong and Marqus Theodore (2011) in Competitive Video Games and Social Capital: New Frontiers of Community Formation introduce the way competitive video games or more specifically Massive Multi-player Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG) are changing the ideas of the type of social capital that Putnam wrote of in Bowling Alone. The authors contend that the ‘mechanisms that encourage social connectedness exist in new technologies, and comprise a new frontier for community formation’ (2011: 5). They further claim that unlike television, which Putnam contends has been the downfall of social capital in America, the internet, or more specifically, games that are played in community formation online, have had a positive impact on social capital which has caused a community unto itself – leading to a communal expression with a ‘shared cultural identity through various forms of art, language (slang), fashion, merchandise, and electronic media’ (2011: 4). Kong and Theodore’s sole contention is that social media does not create a counterfeit community, as many scholars claim happens within the online realm; but it is the impetus that is perpetuating a new and better type of social capital within not only America, but the world.
The idea of the counterfeit community comes from Freie (1998: 3) who claims that it is the ‘disjunction between the longing for community and the reality of separation that makes us vulnerable to counterfeit claims of community’. The decline in real world connections is what makes the counterfeit community so appealing. The underlying value of Freie’s claim is that counterfeit communities are ← 122 | 123 → an outcome of weakened community bonds across society. The conclusion is that we have essentially changed the way we interact with each other in response to changes in our social milieu.
Scholars, including Freie have asserted that the internet is a double-edged sword. Most claim that internet communities, although they do tend to open up new horizons and let people interact who might not do so otherwise, in the most simplest terms, do not foster a sense of true community; they do not imply any real sense of obligation, trust or commitment between members. To this effect, Freie understands cyberspace and the internet to be one of the biggest breeding grounds for the falsification of social capital and hence the counterfeit community. He further asserts that the relationships that are formed via online, specifically those in community gaming situations, do not lead to lasting or real relationships and only provide a temporary psychological satisfaction to those involved in them. Freie writes that:
when difficult problems arise that threaten one’s involvement in the cyberspace community, it is far too easy to either avoid or withdraw. The community thus fails to provide a genuine and lasting group of relationships. This temporariness is a fundamental characteristic of the structure of cyberspace communities and makes it inevitable that communities on the Internet will be counterfeit. (1998: 154)
In addition, Freie also contends that it is quite easy to manipulate a person’s true identity, so that even if one claims to know or trust someone online, it does not necessarily follow that the person is who they say they are, or would act in a certain way toward the other individual in real life. It is because of these contentions that Freie maintains in no uncertain terms that the internet and gaming communities do not foster a sense of social capital, and in fact may be adding to its decline within America society.
As a counterpoint, Felicia Wu Song (2009) writes in Virtual Communities Bowling Alone, Online Together about the rapid generational changes that have taken place over the last two decades in American society – changes that Putnam saw as instrumental to the decline in social capital. Specifically, for Song, how we define social capital must adjust due in large part to technological transformations within our world. She claims that:
after the novelty of computer-mediated communication wore off, it is arguable that the appetite for online communities may not have been so much about having an experience that was completely “other” or removed from what was known in our face-to-face, physically bound settings. Instead, the success of [online communities] may serve to crystallize the fact that we still enjoy being in relations with the people that we know and that we still grant credibility to our friends and loved ones, being prone to trust their contacts, interests, ← 123 | 124 → and commitments. What this technology gives us, then, is a means of adapting our existing relationships to challenges posed by the social realities of geographic distance and the task-cluttered lives that contemporary Americans seem to have. (2009: 136)
Further, it is Song’s (2009: 130) contention that virtual communities ‘do not so much introduce a completely new dynamic of membership to the public sphere’ but that they actually serve to enhance and reinforce what has already been transforming over time. Putnam insists that even in light of new technological innovations, he hopes that social capital will become important to us once again. He hopes that the internet becomes like the telephone, something that improves social capital in America, and not like the television that has seemingly lowered how we feel about our communities. It is also Song’s ultimate hope that online communities, including game play, will enhance the idea of social capital in American society. What her research adds to the discussion is a view into a new take on causality. Whereas, Putnam may view the decline of traditional notions of social capital as a result of a rise in technological integration and generational shifts, we might see Song’s view as seeing the formation of new technology driven forms of social capital as the result of changes within our larger social structure. A new system emerges to allow us to adapt to a new social landscape.
Within this new social landscape, the prevalence of virtual communities constitutes another major shift in social reality. We earlier challenged the legitimacy of Putnam’s construction of social capital because it ignored the social realities of women and people of color. The intention, however, was not to discard the concept completely. Social capital in its genesis is a function of the way individuals relate to each other to create and maintain the whole. Traditional conceptualizations of social capital, however, do not reflect the modern, technologically advanced society we inhabit. On the other hand, virtual social capital – by dint of its digital nature – lacks the presence to reinforce real world communal bonds. The real issue, then, is whether social capital still exists in a form which can reproduce the positive functions put forward by Putnam. Replacing one formation with the other is therefore insufficient. What remains is to appreciate what happens when we accept their strengths and limitations … and keep both formations.
This requires a paradigm shift. A modern version of social capital reflects the mobile, technology driven, multifaceted lives of people today. It acknowledges our continued connections to family, neighborhoods and communities while recognizing that the ways we interact have changed. Additionally, it accepts the fluid nature of identity – the different selves we present as we interact with others and engage with different sections of our world (Barker, 2008).
This shift re – conceptualizes social capital along a continuum – marked on one end by traditional institutions and on the other by virtual representations. ← 124 | 125 → A single individual inhabits identities that fall along the continuum – reproducing a need for community, yet reflecting varying degrees of engagement and obligation. We coordinate a neighborhood yard sale to raise money to buy laptops for an afterschool program. The success of this event relies on a sense of responsibility and obligation for the communal well – being as well as the ability to exercise social networks for a common cause. We sign the Greenpeace petition online, occasionally read the campaign newsletters they email, and send a donation once a year (Davis, 2003). For some, this might be an example of how dis-association leads to a breakdown in communal responsibility. However, such a participatory option increases the range of communities that individuals can now connect to – no longer bound by space or time – with the format allowing them to define their level of attachment while balancing the needs of the social and the individual. And, twice a week, our avatars on Guild Wars join a dozen or so virtual comrades online and stretch the possibilities of who we are. In virtual space, we get to challenge the social markings that influence our communal experiences and see what it is like to be a part of something bigger than us. In an age where communities do not always inhabit defined physical spaces as they did during Putnam’s golden age, the flexibility to create multiple connections across the continuum stands in for a less desirable situation where no connections are made at all. It then becomes the cumulative effect of these connections – real and virtual – that help societies flourish.
In the end, it is the bigger picture that Putnam is most concerned about: what will a marked decline in social capital mean to the way our society functions, our communities are structured and our citizens treat each other? Traditionally defined, social capital functioned as a key element in the creation and maintenance of stable, flourishing communities. In these communities, reciprocal relationships were centered on mutual commitment to communal goals for the greater good. For many, these relationships were manifested in communal identities fostered through social organizations – lodges, women’s societies, bowling leagues. In order to engage with this concept in a modern context, however, it is necessary to fully situate it in its original milieu. This means understanding the sociocultural parameters that engendered Putnam’s construction – a mostly segregated American landscape where access to communities and institutions was highly proscribed.
After reaching its heyday in the years following WWII, traditional representations of social capital were challenged by emerging social realities linked to the ← 125 | 126 → Civil Rights era which began in earnest in the 1960’s. Social capital, as traditionally conceptualized, did not question the marginalization of women’s roles in society or the exclusion of people of color from most social organizations. This reality directly challenged the idea of social capital as an essential element in the representation of America as a leader in democratic civil engagement. In addition, changes in the social fabric brought on by urban sprawl, rising numbers of women entering the workforce, new patterns of mobility, diminishing leisure time and the heightened presence of television drastically altered patterns of civic engagement.
As levels of dis – association rose and people found it more convenient to engage from a distance, the social shifted toward an individual focus. The resultant individualism, fostered by unregulated self-interests and economic pressures, presaged a climate of distrust and the breakdown of communal bonds. However, such dire predictions about the complete demise of social capital andcommunity are being challenged by the increasing presence of technology in our lives. The question then becomes whether virtual social capital is analogous to Putnam’s social capital – providing basic functions of reciprocity, networking, and trust.
MMORPG’s create community in virtual space. Here people come together to establish a community with a recognized, agreed upon, purpose. In these counterfeit communities, hyper-real replicas of the world, players build mutually beneficial relationships and extensive networks. As technology becomes integrated into our everyday lives and physical connections are hampered by the hectic pace of modern life, these virtual communities can serve to replace the connections that traditional communities provided. We might even argue that they do a better job representing democratic ideals as anonymity removes the superficial markers that foster marginalization and discrimination. Yet, we have to question the substance of what is being offered.
Virtual social capital replicates in name only. In a MMORPG, membership is based on a fantasized self – outside the boundaries of real-life obligations or expectations. The democratic ideals of Putnam’s social capital required a common element that – when threatened – strengthened the communal bonds as individual survival depended on the whole. In the virtual world, we can just log off, suffering no consequences for our disconnection. However, we caution against a wholesale denouncement of the way technology is changing the way we connect and communicate: the change has already occurred and understanding the cyborg allows us to see how we can use the system to inform a new sense of community.
In the final analysis, we would argue that Putnam’s basic vision of social capital has fractured to reflect multiple realities in our modern society. Just as scholarship has helped us to understand that we all embody different identities in multiple contexts, our complex lives require multiple avenues for communal connection ← 126 | 127 → and social networking. In this new imagining, social capital becomes a factor set along a continuum from traditional manifestations to virtual realities. Technology meets us at different levels of engagement and commitment – allowing us to create multiple communities to support and nourish a complex world.
Putnam concludes Bowling Alone by declaring that, ‘We should do this, ironically, not because it will be good for America – though it will be – but because it will be good for us as a whole’ (2000: 414). Ultimately, the discussion on how the concept of social capital can find synergy with our modern, virtually enhanced perceptions of self and community is relevant because it helps us to understand how we cope with changes in our social environments and recognize the possibilities for reshaping the ways we relate to each other.
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