The Importance of Trust-Building in Transition: A Look at Social Capital and Democratic Action in Eastern Europe

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ABSTRACT:

This paper uses data from the 1995 and 2000 World Values Survey to examine and compare the relationship between social capital, education and political participation in Western and Eastern Europe. The concept of social capital is measured using indicators of trust and membership in voluntary organizations, while the concept of political participation is put into operation through indicators of political action. The research uncovers clear indicators showing that social capital is a factor in political participation in Eastern Europe and that the existence of general social trust is a characteristic of the most successful transitions. The paper finds evidence to support the theory that a trust-building mechanism based on reciprocity and a "critical mass" is indeed at work in the democratization process and that social capital is an integral part of transition for the Eastern European states.

Social capital became a buzzword in the academic world with amazing speed in the early 1990s and remains hotly debated even now, more than a decade later. Within the social sciences the concept has been used in a wide range of research including democratization studies. Scholars in this field posited that social capital is primarily a function of culture-and that the presence (or lack) of social capital has direct consequences for the effectiveness of democracy.1 Social capital is generally defined as the networks, norms and trust surrounding social relationships.2 However, variations on this definition exist and research in the area has been marked by problems and criticisms.

The wide conceptual reach of this concept has been criticized for attempting too much and for intruding into theoretical space already occupied by civil society research and network analysis. One of the most pervasive critiques is that many studies a priori cite social capital as a prime causal factor in democratization even though there is no agreement in the literature over social capital's correlation with democratization, much less its role as a causal factor. In reaction to this common a priori assumption, research has been conducted that has attempted to disprove the link between social capital and democracy.3 Indeed, there is enough doubt in the literature as to the validity of the link between social capital and democracy that it can be treated as a disputed hypothesis.

This study will address this dispute by comparing the relationship between social capital and democratic participation at both the individual and the crossnational levels, using data from two waves of the World Values Survey (WVS).4 This relationship and its cross-national comparison have not yet been tested elsewhere and represent an attempt to move beyond the small case studies of social capital in order to situate the concept within a more global arena. The paper will conclude that social capital and democratic action are indeed positively related at the individual level and that in cross-regional and cross-national comparisons the relationship is stronger in the West than in Eastern Europe, and stronger in the leading reformers of Eastern Europe than in the other transition states. Also, it will be demonstrated that the strength of the relationship increases across waves in Eastern European states that have successful transitions. From the data a specific form of trust reciprocity can be deduced in Eastern Europe. Trust generation begins as a tit-for-tat reciprocity mechanism; however, after a "tipping-point" or when a "critical mass" of people identifies itself as "trusters," then a "thick" interpersonal trust-building mechanism is replaced by a "thin" general trust building mechanism, one that is not based on personal experience. This is a crucial finding because without knowing how to generate social capital it is difficult to apply the concept as a useful tool in democratization studies.

COMPETING VIEWS OF SOCIAL CAPITAL

A vast amount of literature exists on the topic of social capital. …