ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Investigating Democracy and Social Capital in India

Social capital refers to trusts, networks and norms shared by a group of actors that enable them to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives. The study of civil society and social capital allows for the study of conflict over resources or group domination. The theoretical significance of social capital is not that it will necessarily lead to societal peace and harmony, nor does its study necessarily exclude politics and political conflict. The point is to focus attention on non-material resources at the micro-level and their possible impact on the macro-level. Whether these resources, the social capital, are structured on the basis of class, caste, religious group or geographical belonging is open to empirical investigation.

More countries than ever before are democracies. This is one of the great global achievements of the last century. While we do not wish to belittle the importance of liberal democracy, two things are unmistakable: most citizens in any country expect more than a democratic political system (such as a fair share of economic resources), and there are degrees of democracy. There is a growing focus and awareness among social scientists on the latter fact. As Linz and Stepan have argued, “Within the category of consolidated democracies there is a continuum from low to high quality democracy; an urgent political and intellectual task is to think about how to improve the quality of most consolidated democracies” [Linz and Stepan 1996:6]. In a recent article Patrick Heller (2000) has discussed the same ‘problematique’ within an Indian context.

During the last decade, the most widely debated answers offered to the question of how to improve the quality of democracy have been civil society and social capital. The contemporary discussion on civil society – the importance of an autonomous sphere between the state and the household – was strongly influenced and inspired by the political opposition under the east European communist regimes. The energetic debate around social capital was provoked by Putnam’s study of regional governments in Italy, Making Democracy Work (1993). In this book – “a stunning breakthrough in political culture research” according to one reviewer [Laitin 1995] – Putnam suggests and gives evidence that social capital is the explanation behind the ‘high quality’ democracy in northern Italy. Last year Putnam published a 540-page study – Bowling Alone – showing a decline of social capital in America since the 1960s and why that has negatively affected democracy and political participation.

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