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Social Capital, Civic Engagement and The Internet.

 “[T]he United States also has undergone a less sanguine transformation: its citizens have become remarkably less civic, less politically engaged, less socially connected, less trusting, and less committed to the common good.  At the dawn of the millennium Americans are fast becoming a loose aggregation of disengaged observers, rather than a community of connected participants.” 

 - Robert D. Putnam, ‘Civic Disengagement in Contemporary America’.

Putnam’s thesis is that American society has undergone a decline in social capital and civic engagement, caused by a declining rate of generational replacement, technological innovations, spatial reorganization of cities and the growth of suburban developments.  Social capital refers to the networks and social resources people draw upon in their quotidian lives for support, and it has been positively correlated with better health, wealth and political outcomes for individuals and communities.  Despite recognised benefits, Putman argues, since the 1960s social capital has declined approximately thirty precent.  To support this claim data from establish social organizations and nationally representative surveys conducted by two separate marketing research companies showed a clear decline in civic  engagement and membership of social clubs.  Putnam employed the metaphor of ‘blowing alone’ to encapsulate this trend, Americans’ are still blowing but group participation has sharply declined. However, Putnam noted that contemporary trends are comparable to problems encountered in 19th century America; Industrialization and urbanization swept away the old certainties of agricultural communities for large sections of the American population and social capital predicated on pastoral existence was undermined before social networks appropriate to industrial and urban communities developed.  Social capital might not be in terminal decline, but merely undergoing a period of abeyance.

Question:  To what extent do computer mediated communication replace earlier modes of social interaction? Is this a possible medium for post-industrial forms of civic engagement? 


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