Media Use, Social Capital, and Civic Participation in South Korea

By Kim, Sei-Hill | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Autumn 2007 | Go to article overview
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Media Use, Social Capital, and Civic Participation in South Korea


Kim, Sei-Hill, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


Analyzing data from a telephone survey (N = 527), this study examines the interplay of social capital and media use in affecting civic life in South Korea. Two individual-level indicators of social capital (interpersonal trust and informal socializing) were both positively associated with civic participation. Use of the Internet for entertainment had positive relationships with both interpersonal trust and informal socializing, indicating that the Internet might enhance the production of social capital. Findings also supported the idea that different patterns of media use might either foster or undermine civic engagement.

During the last several decades, various types of civic participation in U.S. politics have declined significantly. Participation in presidential elections, for example, went down from about 65% in the 1950s to 50% or below in recent years, with exceptions in 1992 (55%) and 2004 (61%). America is not alone. Though not as dramatic, this decline is also recognizable in other industrialized nations.1 Since the country was democratized in the early 1990s,2 South Korea has experienced a similar linear decline, with presidential turnout falling from over 89% in 1987 to under 71% in 2002.

Robert Putnam, among others, pointed to the erosion of social capital as being responsible, at least in part, for the decline in civic participation in the United States. Social capital, in Putnam's definition, refers to "features of social life-networks, norms, and trust-that enable participants to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives."3 Grounded in mutual trust and relationship networks, social capital provides a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for civic and political participation.4

While it is likely that social capital is related to the civic engagement of citizens worldwide, this relationship has been investigated mostly in the United States. Using South Korean survey data, this study examines whether social capital plays an important part in a country with a different political system and a strong cohesive cultural tradition. The role of media use in the equation is examined. Do the media function to enhance or erode social capital? Do different patterns of media use produce different consequences? This study makes a rough distinction between news media use and use of entertainment media, analyzing whether different patterns of media use enhance or undermine civic life. The analysis includes not only such traditional media as newspapers and television but also the Internet as a new source of information and entertainment. South Korea represents one of the most "wired" countries, leading the world in Internet infrastructure and usage. The country offers a great opportunity to test the effects of Internet use in civic activities.

Social Capital and Civic Participation

Research in political science has focused largely on socioeconomic status and political predispositions as the major predictors of civic participation. Communication researchers have recently begun to explore the role of social connectedness as a precondition for bringing people into civic life.5 Social capital requires mutual trust and social networks, which assist citizens in dealing with common issues and problems in their everyday life. Interpersonal trust and relationship networks are two important components of social capital that provide community members with the means to work together.6

According to Fukuyama, trust is "the expectation that arises within a community of regular, honest, and cooperative behavior, based on commonly shared norms, on the part of the members of that community."7 Trust, therefore, is a prerequisite for participation in a variety of collective actions, including community and civic affairs.8 It is a building block to cultivate a larger civic structure based on voluntary associations. A relationship network-one's involvement in various social associations-also functions to foster civic participation.

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