Social Capital, Cultural Diversity and Media

Cultures set up a framework for building the social capital of a society, and democratic media can effectively determine it.
Photo by @wisanu_nuu

Ideas, values, and norms are intangible assets of a society. Human relationships are influenced by the beliefs, values, and customs that people harbor, personally, and which the society represents en masse. Interactions among individuals, belonging to the same or different ideological and cultural groups, are inevitable. Globalization, furthermore, opens up new doors for cross-cultural interactions.

Cultures are central to human civilizations. Although difficult to capture holistically, culture is characterized as “a complex web of relationships and beliefs, values and motivations… a social operating system that influences attitudes, behavior and responses to change.” In a geographical setting, the cultural elements have a significant impact on individual identity and communal relationships. Language, food, dress, literature, music, and so on, can set up a context or framework for societal relations, whether formal or informal.

Moreover, media is an essential element of modern society. The nuances of contemporary media go beyond informational and entertainment purposes, and facilitate various social, economic, and political relationships. The impact of culture and media on individuals, groups, and their relationships is linked to a much-researched social sciences topic: Social Capital.

Definition and implications of social capital

Robert Putnam, an American political scientist, describes social capital as “the specific benefits that flow from the trust, reciprocity, information, and cooperation associated with social networks.” Social capital signifies individuals, groups, and organizations’ ability to benefit from social associations.

In a sense, it is the “resource potential of social relationships.” Social coordination enables mobilization of information, opportunities, and resources, which are exchanged on the foundation of trust and reciprocity instead of pure self-interest.

Social capital is gaining increasing interest among other types of capital: natural, physical, and human. Numerous studies have found that social capital has positive impacts on employment, academic performance, individual health profile, low transaction costs, income distribution, work efficiency and productivity, innovation and entrepreneurship, civil society organizations, democratic political participation, governance, and economic growth.

In a nutshell, social capital is the “foundation” of social, economic, and political development and contributes to national progress and greater human welfare.

The building block of civil and uncivil society

A remarkable effect of social capital is facilitating people to establish civil society organizations, which reflect democracy in a nation. In a modern democratic society, civil society plays the role of balancing the private and public institutions’ use of power. In the face of abuse of power, a robust civil society can confront transgressing parties and compel them to rectitude, especially with common people’s best interests in consideration.

Social capital acts as a “building block for a civil society.” As a result, increasing the stock of social capital becomes a growing interest for the society and its people to strengthen the civil society, and hence the society at large.

Civil society protest with fists in air
Civil society protests with fists in the air, image by @oatawa

Dr. Daanish Mustafa, a Professor in Critical Geography, aptly raises the question of the emergence of “uncivil society”, one that espouses violence and extremism in society on account of “(anti)social capital”. Illuminating the case of Pakistan, which is home to several civil but also uncivil society activisms, the paper argued that preceding militarist state structures “may have promoted social-capital mobilization for espousing religious extremism, thereby promoting a politics of exclusion and violence.

Historical records also display a sharp rise in state-sponsored sectarianism and terrorist organizations during Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorial regime. Just like physical capital can be used, through manipulation, in creating destructive arms and weapons, social capital can be directed, through ill-advice and under perverted institutions, towards “negative externalities”. The emergence of uncivil society on account of (anti)social capital is detrimental to society as a whole.

Building social capital

The question of interest here is what can we do to keep the uncivil society from emerging. To put it another way, how can a society increase its stock of positive social capital that generates individual and collective benefits at large and limit the proliferation of uncivil society?

Due to the subtleness and imperceptibility of social capital, it is challenging to devise policy measures that increase its supply. Francis Fukuyama, an American political scientist and economist, suggests that governments can directly build social capital through education and indirectly foster its creation by providing public goods and social services. Interestingly, these directions are similar to the policies commonly prescribed for human capital development in education, healthcare, and income distribution.

There is a sizable overlapping ground between human capital and social capital, which can be seen from the fact that “human capital resides in individuals and social capital resides in relationships.” In fact, the various forms of capital reinforce and support one another, thereby actualizing their true potential in each other’s presence and support.

For example, a case study of Pakistan shows that social capital positively impacts economic growth. Social and human capital together generate an even larger positive impact on economic growth. And social capital is also “an important determinant of physical capital.

The sources of social capital, and the role of culture

Interestingly, social capital is an indigenous form of capital, which cannot be imported or borrowed from the outside. Trust and reciprocity nurture in social relationships on account of mutual interactions taking place every day. Social capital is a continuously evolving treasure inherited from the society’s cultures, religions, historical experiences, literature, and the interplay of these and other factors, making it unique for every nation.

Ashfaq Ahmad, an influential writer of Pakistan, perhaps addressed a theme to the same effect when he penned the following words in Mann Chalay Ka Sauda: “Har basti ka apna ilm hy, k wo sailab k aage kese band bandhe gi… dosroun ki mitti se apne ghar ka sailab nahi roka ja sakta.” [Every community possesses its own knowledge with which it embanks itself against floods… A flood that is native to our home cannot be shielded with outside soil.]

To improve the stock of social capital, it is imperative to create a peaceful and cooperative environment in the local context, where people can engage in healthy and productive interactions.

Culture sets up the context for individual and group interactions taking place in a particular setting. Cultures, then, play a vital role in establishing the framework and determining “the quality of social capital.” According to Pierre Bourdieu, a renowned French sociologist, a person’s social capital depends on the “economic and cultural capital possessed by those to whom he or she is connected.” Moreover, investment in cultural events and activities appears to reap collective benefits and increase the community’s social capital.

For example, research unfolds the positive impact of cultural arts on social capital. In addition to empowering and bringing together people from the same cultural background, art can promote intercultural understanding, thereby enhancing community development. Furthermore, countries have “different cultural capacities for institution-building.

Introducing bonding and bridging

Robert Putnam distinguishes between two kinds of social capital: bonding and bridging. Bonding social capital describes the social connections between people who belong to the same identity, group, or culture. For example, families residing in the same neighborhood may form amicable relations with each other.

On the other hand, Bridging social capital refers to “networks that are outward looking and encompass people across diverse social cleavages.” Interfaith dialogues, for example, contribute to building the bridging social capital of a society.

The nature of interactions and relationships in both kinds of social capital may differ. As a result, the outcomes and “resource potential” of bonding and bridging social capital are different. For example, bonding does not necessarily contribute to the entire community’s welfare, since the focus is mostly inward and social ties are restricted to a group of people who identify with each other.

In contrast, positive outcomes accrue for the entire community when individuals from diverse groups bridge social ties, as resources are shared and exchanged bilaterally and on a broader scale.

concept of bonding and bridging social capital
The ‘loose’ concept of bonding and bridging, image by @zardin

According to traditional assumptions, strong ties are formed in the case of bonding, thereby producing “emotional and instrumental support.” However, weak ties are created during bridging, facilitating only perspectives and information sharing. Interestingly, research shows that with the rise of the internet and social media in the rapidly globalizing world, these assumptions do not necessarily take effect.

We cannot divorce bonding and bridging and pursue them disjointedly. Many scholars claim that social capital’s negative consequences may accrue when there is “too much bonding and not enough bridging.” At the same time, social capital displays its optimal effects where bonding and bridging are present contemporaneously.

It is interesting to imagine interactions transcending time and space, based on the belief in the unity of humanity. Interactions of such sort must have a significance of their own, blossoming (global) social capital on account of the application of universal principles that embrace, but also transcend, bonding and bridging!

The crucial role of media

Media plays a vital role in influencing and determining the extent of bonding and bridging in a nation. Even social media allows for not only maintaining social ties, but also “making new connections.” It is argued that social media networks enable individuals to “employ specific relationship management strategies which help them… get more out of their social networks.

Typically, relationships based on bonded ties (intra-community relationships) provide more support. But social media enables people to generate social capital and receive benefits specifically from bridging (inter-community networks).

Similarly, media structures at the national level are essential determinants of a society’s quality of social capital. In the modern context particularly, with contemporary modes of communication technology, a country can develop its social capital by facilitating bonding and bridging through the “democratization” of media. For this, media should become a free, open, and pluralistic platform that showcases different and intercultural perspectives, debates, and representations.

An empirical study based on a macro-analysis of 135 countries claims that “media freedom” is essential for effective media functioning. Moreover, “democratic media structures build a structural environment in which social capital can be generated.

The concept of unity holds meaning only in the presence of diversity. A free media, on account of inclusive and diverse representation, provides an opportunity for social capital development by encouraging unity in the world of diversity.

The curious case of Pakistan

We can raise an important question in the light of Pakistan. Given the diversity along various axes of language, ethnicity, and cultures, is building social capital in Pakistan a challenge? More precisely, how can Pakistan build an environment conducive to social capital, provided its rich and diverse cultural traditions?

Building on the preceding discussion, it is expected in a society replete with rich cultural traditions that bonding and bridging social capital should be found in abundance, if such a society wishes to maintain strong socio-economic cohesion. Moreover, lack of social relationships between heterogeneous groups, residing in the same locality, may reflect intolerance inherent in the society or groups.

Pakistan, theoretically speaking, holds favorable opportunities for social capital development. Its historical, religious, and cultural experiences offer a promising framework for profound social relationships. Fostered through the right channels, such relationships can generate social capital based on meaningful interpersonal and intercommunal associations.

The government, education system, and media in Pakistan will play a crucial role in combating marginalization, (un)civil society, and intolerance in the society – while facilitating peaceful social engagements.

The views presented in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Effective Thoughts.

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