Why is social capital important to democracy

State of society - poverty and wealth

Sebastian Braun

To person

Dr. phil., born 1971; Visiting fellow at the Center for Civil Society of the London School of Economics and Political Science as part of the Emmy Noether program of the German Research Foundation (DFG).

Address: London School of Economics and Political Science, Center for Civil Society, Houghton Street, London WC2A 2AE.
e-mail: [email protected]

Publications i.a. on the topics of elite education, third sector, social capital and social integration.

Integration discourses between hyper-individualism and the abdication of the state

Social capital is booming in Germany. Above all, it is brought into play against that unbridled individualism, which is seen as the greatest threat to social cohesion in society.

I. Introduction

"The rise of the bowling alone represents an existential threat to the operators of the bowling alleys, because league players consume three times as much beer and pizza as single players, "explains America's model communitarian Robert D. Putnam. [1]" The real social significance of bowling, however, lies in the social one Interaction and the occasional discussions about civic affairs over beer and pizza, which are not available for individual players. Regardless of whether bowling is more attractive to Americans than voting, it is clear that with the bowling teams another form of social capital is disappearing, "continues the Harvard professor, who has been doing his analyzes of social capital in the United States became a sensation in the western world in the 1990s.


This also applies to Germany, where Putnam's studies were hailed as a "groundbreaking breakthrough" [2]. This success is not accidental; because Putnam combines the long and repeated concern about the loss of social cohesion with the search for ways to produce solidarity. With this topic, his analyzes fit perfectly into a culture-pessimistic discourse that successively worked on the so-called dark sides of the much-discussed "push of individualization with a previously unrecognized range" [3].

Putnam initially provided this discourse with empirical evidence that solidarity and sociality had long since disappeared in Western democracies. In countless pairs of terms such as For example, "social energy" (Helmut Klages) or "social cohesiveness" (Wolfgang Schäuble) mixed Putnam's key concept with Erich Fromm's famous metaphor of "social cement" in order to describe in flowery language what society had apparently lost. At the same time, the old antipodes of the concept of individualization - anomie and impoverishment - experienced a renaissance that had not been seen since the industrial revolution.

In keeping with the American tradition of thinking, according to which the loss of community can be followed by new and even "better" communities, which, however, do not arise arbitrarily but are created with the help of social sciences, Putnam also showed a way out: strengthening civil society, republican traditions, the " community "and local associations is his formula for creating new social capital, which he laid down in an" Agenda for Social Capitalists "[4] and which was popularized in this country in media-friendly slogans - always according to the motto:" Not just economic Capital, but also 'social capital', determines Germany's future viability. " [5]

Social capital has meanwhile become the rhetorical trump card of all those who on the one hand are concerned about the social cohesion of the apparently highly individualized German society, but on the other hand also have hope for the revival of solidarity relationships, networks and social trust in a lively civil society their unexploited resources to increase the performance of the state and the economy. Because at least on one point there seems to be a consensus in this country about the importance of social capital: that - as Claus Offe, the most astute theorist in the German social capital discourse put it - "makes a contribution to (collective) welfare", since it "makes a welfare-increasing social and moral competence "of companies same. [6] This is why "the fluctuations in the quality of political, administrative and economic performance that occur over time and space can also be explained by the level and spread of social capital in a society" [7].

What is astonishing about the euphoric debate, however, is that a fundamentally different discourse about social capital remains largely ignored, although it has dominated the socio-political discussion in France for decades. This discourse is also about social networks, solidarity obligations or mutual trust. Social capital describes the network of relationships that contribute to the fact that careers, power and wealth are not only based on individual achievements, but also on origin-related group affiliations and other beneficial connections in the sense of "vitamin B".

This discourse thus critically questions the official self-justification of modern societies that have elevated performance to their supposedly only legitimate yardstick for assigning status. Social capital is seen as a central element which, in interaction with other types of capital, contributes to social inequalities in "achievement societies". These inequalities have become enormously explosive in the public debates on the other side of the Rhine since the nineties at the latest, especially in the violent disputes about the "increasing gap between the prevailing economic logic and the social disintegration tendencies it has caused" [8].

Both discourses on social capital are linked to the names of two prominent scholars: the American political scientist Robert D. Putnam and the recently deceased French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. In the following, I will first outline their approaches in order to clarify the theoretical background of the various discourses on social capital. It is only against this background that the political discussions can also be understood, which are based on the respective approach and which address the problem of social cohesion, each with a different thrust. In conclusion, this comparison also allows us to take a more differentiated look at the discussed discourse on social cohesion in German society.