The Effects of Mass Media Use and Social Capital on Civic and Political Participation

By Zhang, Weiwu; Chia, Stella C. | Communication Studies, September 2006 | Go to article overview
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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.

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The Effects of Mass Media Use and Social Capital on Civic and Political Participation


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