British Journal of Political Science

Review Article

Inaccurate, Exceptional, One-Sided or Irrelevant? The Debate about the Alleged Decline of Social Capital and Civic Engagement in Western Societies

a1 Department of Political Science, McGill University
a2 Department of Political Science, Catholic University Leuven

In his 1790 address to the Académie Française in Paris, Condorcet noted that every new generation has a tendency to accuse itself of being less civic-minded than previous cohorts. Two centuries later, this argument has once again regained front-page status. The debate is currently focused on the question of whether or not social capital and civic engagement are declining in Western societies. In his academic best-seller Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam argues that younger age cohorts, socialized in the prosperous economic conditions of the 1960s and onwards, are less inclined to engage in community life and in politics, and also less likely to trust their fellow citizens. By contrast, the ‘long civic generation’, born roughly between 1910 and 1940, is portrayed as much more motivated in these respects. They readily volunteer in community projects, read newspapers and take on more social responsibilities. In this view, a process of generational replacement is responsible for a steady decline of social capital and civic engagement in American society. As the long civic generation is replaced by younger age cohorts, the social capital stock of American communities slowly diminishes. The indicators used to substantiate this claim are numerous and diverse: measures for voter turnout, attendance of club meetings, generalized trust, the number of common family dinners, the number of card games played together, and even respect for traffic rules. All of these attitudes and behaviours, it is argued, depict a significant downward trend.

Although Putnam is by far the most vocal of all scholars in the ‘decline of social capital’ choir, he certainly is not the only author describing an erosion of traditional societal relations.


a Both authors contributed equally to this article. They wish to thank the members of the ECPR 1st General Conference panel on ‘Social Capital in Comparative Perspective’ in Canterbury, as well as Henry Milner, Eric Uslaner, Matthew Wright and the anonymous reviewers for their useful comments and suggestions to a previous version of this article.