The Effects of Mass Media Use and Social Capital on Civic and Political Participation
Zhang, Weiwu, Chia, Stella C., Communication Studies
Social theorists have long stressed the importance of civil society in the stability and effectiveness of democracy. That is, society must be self-organizing through some voluntary associations to fulfill various social needs apart from the sphere of the state. Social capital--broadly individual's connectedness to others in their community-constitutes much of this civil society. The presence of social capital has been found to produce such benefits as better education, efficient government, safer neighborhoods, robust economy, and a more vibrant participatory democracy. Recently, however, many scholars, most notably Putnam, have lamented the declining or depleting of social capital. For example, Putnam (1995a; 1995b) found evidence for a declining voter turnout in the past three decades and shrinking membership in civic organizations and continuing decline of interpersonal trust.
Theoretical Underpinnings of Social Capital and Civic Engagement
While scholars in the social capital and civic engagement debate generally agree that social networks and norms are closely intertwined with the health of democratic governance, they focus on different aspects of democracy and thus examine different causes of civic engagement/disengagement from different theoretical assumptions. In general, there are three relatively distinct theoretical approaches to social capital and civic engagement (e.g., Edwards & Foley, 2001; Skocpol & Fiorina, 1999; Kanervo & Zhang, 2004; Kanervo, Zhang, & Sawyer, 2005): (1) Pierre Bourdieu's (1986) focus on unequal access to resources via the possession of more or less durable relationships; (2) James Coleman's (1988, 1993) notion of social capital grounded in rational choice theory; and (3) Putnam's (1995a and b, 2000) emphasis on norms, trust, reciprocity, social networks, and cooperative actions seen as necessary for solving social problems and enhancing community, which underlines the Weberian assumptions of the political culture perspective.
Bourdieu's (1986) approach, which has a distinctive Durkheimian flavor, maintains that different access to capital, not merely an individual's pursuit of self-interest. In a similar vein, the fundamental structures that produce and reproduce access to social capital are not self-regulating markets but networks of connections. For Bourdieu, "the volume of the social capital possessed by a given agent ... depends on the size of the network of connections he can effectively mobilize and on the volume of the capital possessed in his own right by each of those to whom he is connected" (p. 249).
Arguably the most influential formulation of the concept of social capital is that of the late sociologist James Coleman (1990). His notion of social capital is grounded in rational choice theory, which presumes that all human behavior results from individuals pursuing their own interests, if necessary at the expense of others. Therefore, cooperative behavior and trust are deviations from the norms and individuals choose to cooperate with others because it is in their interests to do so. In short, people only cooperate when they believe it is the best way of achieving their personal goals.
However, Coleman argues that social capital are "social-structural resources" available only in and through relationships and social structures. Also, he disagrees with the prominence of the "generalized social trust" of the political science literature but emphasizes the specific context in which specific individuals can be trusted, giving a social structural twist to the concept of social capital different from the social psychological focus of Putnam's approach. Rational choice theory of social capital should not be dismissed out of hand because people sometimes do indeed make conscious choices to invest in their social capital (Field, 2003). When this approach is applied to the larger civic engagement debate, rational choice theory tends to be skeptical about the automatic benefits of mass political participation. Instead, it asks what kind of civic engagement, by whom, to what ends? (Skocpol & Fiorina, 1999).
Putnam's (1993, 1995a and b, 2000) approach to social capital approach has a distinct Weberian and Tocquevillean reading, consonant with a long tradition of the political culture argument in American political science, in which interpersonal trust, tolerance and norms of reciprocity stand along with social networks as essential elements enabling a society to take cooperative and collective actions. He defined social capital as "features of social life-networks, norms, and trust-that enable participants to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives" (1995b, pp. 664-665). For Putnam, individuals who regularly interact with one another in face-to-face settings are socialized to the norms of reciprocity, gain and generate interpersonal trust, which spills over into trust in government, and are more likely to participate in civic and community affairs. In the absence of a strong associational life, citizens will lack the skills and willingness to work together on community projects. Because dense social ties and generalized social trust are central to the functioning of democracy in Putnam's social capital approach, he finds it alarming that Americans today are far less likely to interact with one another, to trust others/institutions, to vote, and to participate in voluntary associations than they did three decades ago.
Compared with the other two perspectives, Putnam's approach proved to be immensely influential in the spate of empirical work that appeared after his classic argument of "Bowling Alone." In addition, only Putnam has tackled the intriguing relationship between television viewing and the status of social capital and civic engagement. The other two perspectives essentially treat mass media as constant. That is why so far communication researchers have only responded to Putnam's perspective with an impressive list of empirical work (e.g., Kanervo & Zhang, 2004; Kanervo, Zhang, & Sawyer, 2005).
Putnam's assertion and evidence concerning the positive role of social capital has been generally well accepted. However, his claim of the sources of the decline of social capital has been much more controversial, especially his indictment of television as the main culprit for the eroding of social capital in general and civic engagement in particular. According to Putnam (1995a), the declining social capital in the past three decades is accompanied by the rapid growth in time spent watching television. He believed that television saps time that people would otherwise spend engaging in political or civic activities. As a result, our communities have become "wider and shallower" (p. 75). This provocative time displacement hypothesis immediately sparked the heated debate about whether we really are experiencing a decline in civic engagement (Schudson, 1998), whether the mass media contribute to this decline (Putnam, 1995a, 1995b), or whether they fight against it (Norris, 1996; Shah, McLeod, & Yoon, 2001; Shah, Schmierbach, Hawkins, Espino, & Donavan, 2002).
Putnam has been criticized on both conceptual and empirical grounds. First, some scholars (e.g., Schudson, 1998) pointed out that Putnam did not capture the important qualitative aspects of civic engagement in the available survey data. For instance, some people are actively involved in only a small number of civic organizations. However, Putnam only used the number of civic organizations involved rather than the depth of each involvement as an indicator of civic engagement. Second, McLeod, Kosicki, and McLeod (2002) pointed out that Putnam used total viewing time as the measure of television watching and neglected the fact that different types of media forms and content may produce different effects. McLeod (2000), for example, documented the superiority of content-specific measures over measures of time spent. He reported that reading public affairs in newspapers has positive effects that are stronger than the negative effects of television consumption on audience's political learning and participation. In addition, long hours of exposure and attention to public affair on television may enhance political participation (McLeod et al., 1996; McLeod, Scheufele, & Moy, 1999; Norris, 1996; Sotirovic & McLeod, 2001) whereas entertainment TV viewing is negatively correlated with local political participation (e.g., McLeod, Daily, Guo, Eveland, Bayer, Yang, & Wang, 1996; Shah, Kwak, & Holbert, 2001). Finally, Putnam was criticized for only focusing on the negative effects of media use and ignored decades of mass communication research documenting the positive effects of mass media on civic and political participation (e.g., McLeod et al., 1996).
In this study, we attempt to address these concerns. We examine the effects of media use and social capital on individuals' civic and political participation. We first explicate the concept of social capital and its dimensions. Then we assess its relationship with political and civic participation. Secondly, we examine differential effects of a variety of media use, including newspaper reading, attention to public affairs on television, viewing of entertainment TV, and internet use, on individuals' civic and political participation.
Social Capital and Civic/Political Participation
The concept of "social capital" was believed to originate from Hanifan (Putnam, 2000) and has been popularized in recent …
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Publication information: Article title: The Effects of Mass Media Use and Social Capital on Civic and Political Participation. Contributors: Zhang, Weiwu - Author, Chia, Stella C. - Author. Journal title: Communication Studies. Volume: 57. Issue: 3 Publication date: September 2006. Page number: 277+. © 2008 Central States Communication Association. COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group.
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