Generating Social Capital through Institutional Equality

The importance of social capital has become widely accepted in the social sciences. One reason for the interest in social capital (defined as networks based on reciprocity and interpersonal trust) is that, as measured in surveys, it correlates with a number of other variables that for most people are normatively highly desirable.

For example, people who believe that most other people in their society in general can be trusted, are also more inclined to have a positive view of their democratic institutions, to participate more in politics and to be more active in civic organizations. They are also more tolerant towards minorities and to people who are “not like” themselves. Trusting people also have a more optimistic view of their possibilities to have an influence over their own life-chances and, not least important, to be more happy with how their life is going.

The same patterns exist at the societal level. Countries with high levels of social capital are likely to have better working democratic institutions, to be more prosperous, have better records on measures of population health, higher levels of gender equality and more encompassing and generous social insurance and social service systems and, because of this, less economic inequality. They also in general have less crime and corruption. Workplaces with high levels of social capital are not only more efficient and productive but also have much better working conditions. In sum, places with high levels of social capital have high levels of human well-being.

The highest levels of social capital (as it can be measured) are generally found in the four Nordic countries in which Social Democracy historically has been (and to quite some extent still is) a dominant political factor. On average, more than sixty percent of people in these countries would in surveys answer “yes” to the question if they believe that “most people can be trusted”. This is more than twice as high as the European or global averages. However, it would be difficult to argue that Social Democracy as an ideology in itself generates social capital since, at the individual level, one cannot find correlations between support for Social Democratic parties and having a high level of social capital.

This has led to a search for other variables than can explain the great variation in levels of social capital. One idea that has been prominent is that social capital is generated “from below” by people being active in civic/voluntary association. The problem with this seemingly intuitively correct theory is that empirical research has not been able to confirm this theory. Instead, new research shows that social capital seems to be generated “from above”. It is the existence of fair, trustworthy, reliable, un-corrupt, non-discriminatory public authorities that are responsible for implementing public policies that generate high levels of social capital. People who feel that they are “even-handedly” treated and respected by the authorities will develop high levels of social capital.

The causal mechanisms in operation seem to be that if people perceive the civil servants they meet to be unfair, untrustworthy or engaged in discrimination or even outright corruption, they make an inference from this to the moral standard of “people in general” in their society. This results is maybe best shown by research that concentrates on immigrants that come to the Nordic countries from low social capital countries such as, for example, Turkey, Pakistan and Bangladesh. This research shows that low levels of social trust is not culturally determined but instead, for the most part, based on experiences. And one of the most important experiences that immigrants to the Nordic countries have is how they are being treated by government authorities. Principles like “impartiality” and “even-handedness” in the civil service turns out be very important for generating social capital among immigrants to the Nordic countries.

This may thus be the “missing link” in explaining why high levels of social capital (and the many good outcomes that follows from this) are a characteristic feature of the Nordic Social Democratic countries. Not least the principles of universalism in social policy have in all likelihood been important in this respect. Including “all” or very large segments of the population in the welfare state and avoiding as much as possible systems for means-testing (that comes with a lot of stigmatisation of recipients), have been important for generating perceptions of equal and fair treatment by public authorities. Avoiding “special programmes for special groups” has been central for building high levels of social capital. In this respect, the left’s recent tendency to abandon universalism in favour of “identity politics” is problematic. Identity politics usually give rise to an “us and them” logic and in practice, this will at the stage of implementation be targeted and means tested programs including quota systems for various minority groups. The type of egalitarian universalism that historically has been the hallmark of the Nordic type of welfare state may thus be the secret behind high levels of social capital.

Further readings:

Kumlin, Staffan, and Bo Rothstein. 2010. “Questioning the New Liberal Dilemma: Immigrants, Social Networks and Institutional Fairness.” Comparative Politics 42.

Rothstein, Bo, and Dietlind Stolle. 2008. “The State and Social Capital: An Institutional Theory of Generalized Trust.” Comparative Politics 40.

Rothstein, Bo, and Eric M. Uslaner. 2005. “All for One. Equality, Corruption and Social Trust.” World Politics 58.

Rothstein, Bo. 2005. Social Traps and the Problem of Trust. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.