Robert Putnam's 2000 book Bowling Alone famously popularized the notion of social capital – or, rather, the consequences for society when we start to lose it. Bowling leagues, church groups, and other civic associations, he argued, help us form invaluable social connections (of the kind that don't exist when we all sit at home watching TV alone). And these connections help create greater trust within communities, stronger social cohesion and higher rates of political participation.
Get involved in a rec league, in other words, and you're more likely to get involved in your community in other ways as well (or to encounter people who will encourage you to). As a result, communities with higher social capital are better positioned to respond to disasters, solve problems or tackle poverty. Conversely, a low-income single mom in a community with low social capital is likely to have a harder time finding an after-school baby sitter, or tips about a better job.
Since Putnam first began writing about this almost 20 years ago, other researchers have probed the possibility that social capital might "cut both ways": Just as clubs and associations help hold communities together, so too could they bind criminal gangs, or reinforce divides in a polarized society (do you belong, for instance, to a Tea Party bowling team?). Putnam himself acknowledged that there might be a "dark side of social capital."
Now a new working paper by Shanker Satyanath, Nico Voigtlaender, and Hans-Joachim Voth makes this argument with a particularly stark historical example. Bowling leagues, community choirs, and animal-breeding clubs, the researchers find, may well have contributed to the rise of Nazi Germany. As they write:
What is missing in the emerging literature on the “dark side” of social capital is clear-cut evidence that a functioning democracy itself can be undermined as a result of having a rich network of clubs and associations.
Their study – "Bowling for Fascism: Social Capital and the Rise of the Nazi Party in Weimar Germany, 1919-33" – comes about as close as possible to making this case with data. Previous historical record from the autobiographies of Nazi Party members show that people actively used their civic clubs to proselytize for the party. And community members with existing connections to the most civic associations were in the best position to start new local chapters of the party as it was first coming to political power.
Satyanath, Voigtlaender, and Voth, however, zoom out from these anecdotal accounts. They manually gathered data from the city archives or libraries of 112 German cities and towns (a sample that skewed urban), identifying local clubs and associations from the period between World War I and II. They also referenced a long-since digitized database of party membership cards.
Their main findings: In cities with a denser network of civic clubs and associations, significantly more Germans entered the Nazi Party, as a percentage of the local population. And the higher the density of clubs – even those that had nothing to do with politics – the more rapidly people joined the party. The entry rate into the party was a full 45 percent lower in those cities in the bottom third of club density than those in the top third. And the authors write that they have "good reason to believe the link is causal":
Could the spread of the Nazi Party and the density of associations simply measure the same underlying preferences, namely a wide-spread authoritarian culture? We examine this question by first excluding all associations with a political angle, such as the front soldier clubs. Even when using only the density of the remaining associations (overwhelmingly, bowling, singing, hiking, and animal breeding clubs), we obtain the same result – the Nazi Party spread more rapidly in the fabric of German society where citizens had more points of social contact outside the workplace.
The findings illustrate that bad ideas spread through tightly knit communities just as easily as good ones do. This isn't necessarily an indictment of social capital, or an argument for why we should stop trying to build it in communities with short supply. But, the authors conclude: "It therefore becomes crucial to ask under what set of specific conditions the widely documented benefits outweigh the rare – but catastrophic – costs that a vibrant civil society can also entail."
Or, put another way, if social capital can help undermine an entire democracy, perhaps we should keep an eye out for some of its less nefarious, but still troubling implications.