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Putnam’s definition of social capital changed little over the 1990s. In 1996, he stated that by ‘social capital’ I mean features of social life – networks, norms and trust – that enable participants to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives. (Putnam 1996: 56) The three primary ingredients here had not changed since 1993; what was new was the identification of ‘participants’ in particular rather than ‘society’ as the beneficiaries of social capital (Baron et al. 2000: 9). Subsequently, in his landmark book Putnam argued that the core idea of social capital theory is that social networks have value .

Many of the criticisms made of one writer could equally be made of at least one of the others, and sometimes of all three. Moreover, there are precursors to all three. While Coleman and Putnam credit the economist Glenn Loury with coining the concept of social capital (Putnam 1993a: 241), its separate elements – networks, participation, shared values, trustworthiness – have all been familiar subjects of scholarly interest for some time. It is therefore helpful to ask what distinctive contribution has been made by Bourdieu, Coleman and Putnam, and where it leaves the debate.

VII) For de Tocqueville, then, associational life was an important foundation of social order in a relatively open, clearly post-aristocratic system. A high level of civic engagement, far from inviting despotism, taught people how to cooperate across civil life; it was the nursery of a democratic society. Putnam’s message has found such a wide audience precisely because he suggests that the Tocquevillian foundation stone of American democracy is starting to crumble. Putnam’s first contribution to the debate on social capital came towards the end of a study of regional government in Italy (Putnam 1993a).

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