Social Capital in Rural and Urban Communities: Testing Differences in Media Effects and Models

By Beaudoin, Christopher E.; Thorson, Esther | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview
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Social Capital in Rural and Urban Communities: Testing Differences in Media Effects and Models


Beaudoin, Christopher E., Thorson, Esther, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


This study examines whether the effects of the mass media on social capital and related processes vary between rural and urban communities. A distinction is made between indicators of social networks (association membership and neighborliness), social trust (interpersonal trust and community trust), and pro-social behaviors (voting and volunteering). We test nonrecursive structural equation models with manifest and latent variables on rural and urban U.S. samples. Media effects differ by medium and by community type. Newspaper use has positive effects in each model, while those of entertainment TV viewing are negative. Local TV news use has positive effects in only the urban model, while network TV news use has positive effects in only the rural model. In addition, there is a reciprocal relationship between social networks and social trust in the rural model, while the relationship is linear-from social networks to social trust-in the urban model.

The nexus between communication and community has long been at the center of research in different fields, including mass communication, sociology, political science, and public health. One stream of research has relied on the concept of community integration,1 defined in terms of social relations at the personal and societal levels2 and as the "set of relations and processes that tie communities together and direct their change."3 Researchers in this area view social ties in terms of objective community-level relationships. Another stream of research has focused on the concept of social capital.4 Putnam defined social capital as the "connections among individuals-social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them."5 Researchers in this area view social ties and related perceptions at the individual and aggregate levels.

Although the concepts of community integration and social capital are not identical, research in both streams suggests the important role that social networks and social trust play in the United States, with some of the operational definitions used in the community integration literature similar to those found in the social capital literature.

Putnam popularized social capital in the 1990s with his contention that it was on the decline in the United States.6 Scholars have pointed out two antecedents that may explain the decreases in social capital: mass media use and community type. Putnam, in part, blamed television viewing.7 He argued that the more time people devote to television, the less time they have to interact with other people and participate in society. Other scholars have challenged this contention, indicating the importance of media content.8 Researchers have found that social capital is negatively associated with general and entertainment TV viewing, but positively associated with newspaper and TV news use.9 This positive role of news shares commonality with research in civic journalism. Scholars in that area argue that the news media can foster democratic communities, democratic discussion, and public life.10

Another explanation for the decline of social capital involves community type. Research over the years has indicated that rural communities have higher levels of social integration and attachment than urban communities.11 For example, Sampson demonstrated that urbanization had a negative association with local friendship ties and attachment at the collective level and with local friendship ties and attachment to community at the individual level.12 More recently, Putnam contended that urban areas, because they are "less congenial to social connectedness," have lower levels of social capital than rural areas.13 He found that people in rural areas are more likely than people in urban areas to volunteer, work on community projects, come to the aid of a stranger, and donate blood.

Although these studies explain the roles that mass media use and community type play in affecting social capital, not one study could be located that compares mass media effects on the social capital and related processes for rural and urban Americans.

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Social Capital in Rural and Urban Communities: Testing Differences in Media Effects and Models
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