Social Capital and Rationality

In the first chapter of Sociological Insight, Randall Collins explains that groups and societies are based on reasoning and rational agreements, but also lie upon a non-rational foundation. When faced with a decision, an individual is influenced by certain conditions that make them choose a non-rational path to come to a rational outcome. He also explains that rationality is limited and only appears under certain conditions. Two types of rationality described were functional rationality, consisting of calculating how a result can be achieved most efficiently, and substantive rationality, which considers the ends (Collins 1992 p3-29).

An example that Collins gives is the case of a social contract. Both parties to the contract want to gain the most benefit from the agreement. The most rational decision would be to cheat the other person, thus reducing your risk and getting the most gain out of the deal. Often the case is that the non-rational decision is made to uphold the contract and to not cheat. This non-rational decision is influenced by other means, one example is Durkheim’s theory for non-rational solidarity, which lies in the notion of trust. People can work together to build a society and hold their side of the social contract because they don’t have to rationally decide if they might get cheated. They can put trust in other individuals not to break the contract, thus allowing a non-rational decision to become a rational outcome (Collins 1992 p11).

In Robert D. Putnam’s Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital, Putnam explains that since World War II the popularity of bowling has increased, however, group bowling has decreased significantly while bowling by individuals has been on the rise. He believes this shows that social capital, or connections within social networks, has been declining in the US. Another example is that Americans are participating less and less in voluntary group associations. This observation can be linked to specific changes such as busy lives, increased work, change in family life, and women working more. However Putnam believes the rise in technology is the most influential social capital killer(Putnam 1995 p71).

One of the major influences of declining social capital is believed to be the invention of the television. The television was brought into American households around the 1960’s and has created “radically privatizing and individualizing” of leisure time. Instead of congregating in groups and playing games, groups focus their attention on a television screen and become absorbed into the life of a television show or movie and not those around them. This is even more pronouced with the advancement of computers and the Internet. Only one person can use a computer at a time, compared to a television where multiple people can view the same show, creating an even more individualistic form of entertainment(Putnam 1995 p77).

Capitalism as a whole encourages people to make their own decisions and gain the rewards of success or embrace the punishment of failure. The immense options of choice in the world has increased such as hobbies, activities and political interests. It is increasingly difficult to find like minded individuals in a society of so much choice. In the case of politics, it’s hard to match individual beliefs and views to a single running candidate from a specific party. With all the complex issues that plague the world, it is hard to choose between the man in red on the right and the man in blue on the left when their opinions do not specifically line up with many individuals.

With social capital decreasing in many societies and individualism on the rise, the lack of society congregating in groups leads to less trust. Societies are no longer interacting as a whole. The inability of individuals to make a trust-based non-rational decision is becoming a problem. If individuals can not trust those around them, then social contracts will be cheated on and a society will not work as a group to improve the efficiency of society as a whole. Although there are still other factors that bind social contracts, such as the governmental laws and long-term payoffs of an existing relationship, trust is required to create a successful, cooperative and efficient society.

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