Evaluate the evidence concerning the impact of the internet on social capital

1.         Introduction

Internet critics and media reports were suspicious that technology would lead to social isolation (Castells, 2001; Haddon 2004). This concern is familiar to parents' suspicion towards Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in the past such as TV and computers in domestic life towards their children's behavior (Haddon, 2004). It is this concern that sparked interest in studies of how the internet impacts sociability. Interestingly, there are conflicting arguments and evidence in literature, especially on whether the internet increases or decreases sociability. The varying methodologies and conclusions have paved the way for social capital as a concept to be useful in analyzing the impact of the internet on social relationships. To evaluate these evidence, this author will first look at evidence of the impact of the internet on sociability and explore how the discussion shifts towards social capital. Then, there will be an exploration of the definitions of social capital and the debate surrounding its usefulness in research. The diversity of arguments provides a pathway to evaluate innovations in methodology such as the creation of a social capital scale and its uses. Afterwards, evidence such as Choi et al.'s (2011) cross-cultural study and Ahn's (2012) exploration of teenagers' experience in social network platforms will be evaluated. This author will also acknowledge recent studies such as those by (Munzel, Galan, and Meyer-Waarden, 2018;  Arampatzi, Burger, and Novik, 2016; Pang, 2018) to see what trends are present in the discussions of social capital.

2.         Internet and Sociability 

In sociology, sociability is defined as, "the play-form of association and is related to the content-determined concreteness of association as art is related to reality" (Simmel and Hughes, 1949, p.255). However, studies of the internet's impact towards sociability did not present a large groundwork on its definitions. In addition, Haddon (2004) observes that there is conflicting evidence within contemporary internet studies. Some evidence showed the decrease of sociability such as Nie's (2001) U.S. survey and the Homenet study by Kraut et al. (1998). Nie's (2001) study measured the decrease of sociability by the decreased time spent with family and friends despite the fact that there is an increase in email use. They argue that email communication does not create a deep relationship between families and friends. Kraut et al.'s (1998) study concluded that greater use of the internet has led to a decrease in family communication, the size of their social circle, and an increase in depression and loneliness in new internet users (1995-1996). Their study explored the internet's impact on psychological well-being, a trend which will be repeated in social capital studies. It is important to note that Kraut et al. (2002) followed up with the same respondents three years later and found that the negative effects disappeared. They also reported positive effects of the internet from 406 new computer and television buyers through a longitudinal survey from 1998-1999 where they experienced positive communication, social involvement, and well-being (ibid.). However, it is important to acknowledge that they found extraverts with social support to have a better predicted outcome compared to introverts, showing the effects of the internet depend on many social factors such as personality and the existence of a support network. From observing Nie's (2001), Kraut et al.'s (1998, 2002) studies, one may argue that even though communications such as email do not create a lasting relationship, it should not be ignored in exploring the impacts of the internet towards sociability. Baym (2010) expanded on Granovetter's (1973) argument that the majority of interpersonal relationships are weak ties, with limited shared activities, thoughts, and feelings. Weak tie relationships can provide feedback, emotional support, information, advice, goods, and services (Baym, 2010). This will be explored further in this essay's Internet and Social Capital section.

Several studies showed the positive impacts of the internet on sociability such as those conducted by Howard et al. (2001) and Kavanaugh and Patterson (2001). Howard et al.’s (2001) findings respond to the skepticism of emails by Nie (2001). Respondents who used email to connect with relatives stated that it increased communication between family members. Howard et al.’s (2001) findings show that the internet, especially with email, provides a space to connect with family, friends, and extend their social networks. Not unfamiliar to other studies in the field, they measure internet use by time spent on it. They conducted the survey by using a rolling daily sample of 75-80 telephone interviews per day during a 6-month period to 12,000 American adults. They acknowledged that there are many factors at play such as gender, age, education, income, race, and ethnicity and created user typologies by noting differences in the duration of their internet access ownership and the frequency to log on at home. Overall, Howard et al.’s (2001) study concluded that Americans feel more connected to others because of the internet. Furthermore, they reported that the internet increased their ability to learn new subjects.

Haddon (2017) observed that sociability as a concept lacks academic groundwork, contrasting with social capital that became a popular topic of academic interest in the mid-90s (Wilken, 2012). Therefore, it is understandable that studies prefer to use a more solid term such social capital rather than sociability (Haddon, 2004). Kavanaugh and Patterson's (2001) research is one of the studies that show discussions in the field has expanded from sociability to social capital. They based their research on Putnam's (1993, 1995a, 1995b, 2000) elaborations on quality of life, community involvement, and social capital. These discussions of the impact on sociability are complex, since many factors contribute to sociability and social capital. There are a few methodological issues that should be taken account in these evidence of the impact of the internet towards sociability. Haddon (2004) identified issues with existing evidence of the impact of the internet on sociability, which will be useful as a comparison towards evaluating the evidence of the impact of the internet on social capital. These issues include questions on the use of time as measurement (Haddon, 2004), the representativeness of the samples (Katz et al., 2001), skepticism towards self-reported data collection method (Kraut et al., 1998), the difficulties of finding in cross-sectional data instead of longitudinal (Haddon, 2004), the variety of measurements to indicate sociability (Katz et al., 2001). There is also a need to separate interpersonal uses of the internet with its informational activities (Haddon, 2004). Castells (2001) concluded that the study of the internet and its impact on sociability needs to be contextual of the transformation patterns of sociability in a certain society. An evaluation of the research methodologies in social capital will present some similarities from the sociability discussion and will be discussed further in this essay.

3.         Social Capital

Compared to sociability, the literature on social capital is ample. The contemporary discourse of social capital’s definition started with Bourdieu (1986). He defines it as, “the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition-or in other words, to membership in a group-which provides each of its members with the backing of the collectively-owned capital, a “credential” which entitles them to credit, in the various senses of the word.” (p.248). In Portes's (1998) review of social capital's origins and definitions, he regarded Bourdieu's definition as the most "theoretically refined among those that introduced the term in contemporary sociological discourse" because he treated social capital as an instrument, which is appropriate because then one can identify that the process of acquiring the capital requires investment strategies such as participation or the deliberate construction of sociability (Portes, 1998, p. 3; Bourdieu, 1986). Loury's (1976, 1981) definition of social capital takes into account inequality as a result of race and how it impacts policy-making. He attempted to create a definition that focuses on society as a whole, giving less light on the individual. Loury's definition did not regard social capital as an instrument but created the basic foundation for Coleman's (1988) definition of social capital. He defined social capital as, "a variety of entities with two elements in common: They all consist of some aspect of social structures, and they facilitate certain action of actors-whether persons or corporate actors- within the structure" (Coleman, 1988, p. S98). Portes (1998) views Coleman's definition as "vague" and serves as Portes's starting point for the critique of the exaggerated use of social capital (p.5). Putnam's definition however, were more popular in recent discussions in various areas, including happiness studies (Bjørnskov and Sønderskov, 2013). Putnam, Leonardi, and Nanetti (1993) defined social capital as "features of social organization, such as trust, norms and networks, that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated actions" (p. 167). He then expanded social capital into bridging and bonding typologies (Putnam, 2000).

Bjørnskov and Sønderskov (2013), Paxton (1999), Stolle (2001), Uslaner (2002), Fischer (2005) and Bjørnskov (2006) suggests that social capital is a complicated term that can produce various definitions and operationalizations, therefore creating confusion. They argue that it fails to fulfil internal coherence, which is the main criterion to evaluate to the usefulness of a social science concept (Gerring, 1999). One should be also attentive in the definitions of social capital used in evidence on the impact of the internet on social capital to avoid disorientation. This blur has motivated scholars to create instruments such as William's (2006) Internet Social Capital Scales (ISCS). 

4.         Internet and Social Capital

The quality of online compared to offline social relationships discussions of the impact on the internet towards sociability is a subject of concern (Haddon, 2004). It is also an issue in evaluating evidence of social capital, but the concept of social capital itself provides a clearer framework from sociability because of its acknowledgement of networks, as discussed earlier. This gives an invitation for the analysis of the qualities of the networks: are they strong or weak? Granovetter’s (1973, 1983) introduced the concept of strong and weak ties in the social sciences which links to Putnam’s (2000) bridging and bonding typology of social capital. He defines bonding as “inward looking [networks that] tend to reinforce exclusive identities and homogeneous groups” and bridging as “outward looking and encompass people across diverse social cleavages” (Putnam, 2000, p. 22). However, Putnam’s (2000) typology developed from a focus of local ties whereas Castells (2001) invited to see a bigger picture; a network not limited to geographical boundaries but connected through interests and values. Castells (2001, p.129) argues that society has shifted to ‘network individualism' because of the new patterns of urban life. Previous discussions on sociability have mostly focused on friends and family (Haddon, 2004), but Castells's (2001) argument links to how there is an increasing interest in observing the social relationships outside of the domestic life, focusing on the individual. This is apparent especially during the popularity of Web 2.0 and Social Networking Sites (SNSs) where an individual may develop various types of relationships outside of a geographical boundary. Recent studies show a trend of a focus outside of Europe and North America, which introduces SNSs popular in other countries such as WeChat from China (Pang, 2018). But, they mostly use still use Putnam's (2000) typology of bonding and bridging social capital.

4.1.      Measurements

Recent evidence shows that William's (2006) ISCS is popular to measure bridging and bonding. Norris (2002) was one of the earliest to attempt creating a scale that focuses on the presence of social networks created by the internet. Williams (2006) critiqued Norris because of its lack of focus on the effects created by the networks, and most researches aim to study its impact. Williams attempted to create a new scale because researchers did not have a concrete benchmark to measure and it has been unclear whether social capital is a cause or an effect. Putnam (2000) regards social capital as tangible, taking the form of social networks and their outcomes. On the other hand, Newton (1997) and Resnick (2001) regard social capital as cyclical. Williams argued that the blur between the networks and their effects will create an endogeneity problem for measurements, therefore it was necessary to create the scale. He created it by extending Putnam's (2000) arguments and adapted a few aspects from ISEL[1]. One may notice that Williams’s (2006) scale was used in various recent studies of bridging and bonding social capital such as in Pang (2018), Munzel, Galan, and Meyer-Waarden (2018), Choi et. al (2011), and Ahn (2012).

Although measuring social capital itself is difficult as it is a vague concept, attempts to operationalize will be appreciated. However, one should be critical of the scale because it was developed and validated in the U.S. using a sample that is not the most appropriate to serve as a basis for studies that are global, which one will see that it is an increasing trend. The sample for the scale validation was predominately white, male, educated, and around 25-35 years old from every U.S. state. There is a need for further validation if the scale is used to study a more diverse group in cross-cultural studies or studies outside of the U.S.. Furthermore, the questions asked in the scale to represent bridging and bonding may not accurately measure the dimensions of interest because every culture may express various social relationships differently. 

4.2.      Evaluating Evidences

Reflecting on measurements brings the discussion towards empirical evidence existing in the field. Choi et al. (2011) conducted a cross-cultural study that aims to explore the bridging and bonding social capital and SNS users' relationship development in the U.S. and Korea. Their findings imply that SNSs help increases both bridging and bonding social capital, but which dimension of social capital is intensified depends on the cultural context. They used Williams's (2006) online social capital scale and Parks & Floyd (1996) and Parks & Roberts's (1998) relationship development scale. They measured the amount of daily usage and the duration of use. The size and composition of personal networks were measured by the number of contacts in the ‘friends' list in different social groups (Boase, 2008). This measurement is slightly problematic as individuals have different ways of classifying whom they consider friends and acquaintances. The study also did not specify what constitutes usage, whereas Haddon (2004) suggests that there should be a distinction between informational and interpersonal use. Their study involved 349 undergraduate students of the same university and 240 undergraduates from five different universities in South Korea. The research presented proportions of gender and race, but did not elaborate on how their sampling method may be considered representative of the whole population. This is unlike Ahn (2012) whose study used the sample of 852 urban teenagers in the US and compared the descriptive statistics of the ethnicities of the sample to all high school students in the districts. In addition, Choi et al. (2011) based its hypotheses on Hofstede's (1984) cultural dimensions. It is important to note that Hofstede's theory was developed in the context of the work environment and may be outdated as the world has become more globalized between 1984 and the year of Choi et al.'s (2011) study. 

Ahn (2012) reported an increase of both bridging and bonding social capital through SNSs, but suggested that various platforms may impact social capital differently. She acknowledged theories of social capital from Portes (1998), Bourdieu (1986), Lin (1999), Burt (2004), Coleman (1990), and Putnam (2000). The study provided analyses for the different type of SNSs: Facebook and MySpace. This contributed to the field by questioning how different types of SNSs impacts social capital differently or attract different groups of society. The findings suggested that Myspace users report more bridging social capital whereas Facebook users' bonding social capital increase. Ahn's (2012) use of William's (2006) scale is more appropriate compared to Choi et al.'s (2011) because Ahn's sample is situated in the U.S., though they are high school students rather than Williams's (2006) sample of 25-35 year-olds. The participants were asked the duration of time they spent on SNSs for each visit as an additional variable for bridging, while the positive or negative feelings of their experiences were related to bonding social capital. The study aimed to provide insights into how teenagers experience SNSs and their connection to the world. Ahn measured bridging and bonding social capital by using five items from William's (2006) scale for each type. In this study, she regarded the bonding and bridging social capital in different contexts, in school-based relationships and online participation respectively. She elaborates the online and offline relationships towards their interactions in SNSs. It is not clear why the study does not explore all typologies in both contexts, but she recommends future research to do so. The findings suggest that teenagers' online and offline networks overlap, which is also an interesting query for future studies. The use of valence in contributing to the evaluation of bonding social capital is innovative but one should be critical of how valid it is as a measurement, especially because emotions are very subjective. This research also did not differentiate interpersonal and informational uses during time spent on SNSs.

Choi et al.'s (2011) study shows the need for measurements suitable for cultures outside of Europe and North America, methods to classify an individual's social relationships, specifications of usage, and a more pragmatic approach to evaluating the representativeness of a sample. Ahn's (2012) study poses questions for the difference of SNS platforms, the use of the valence variable, and the synchronicity of online and offline relationships. 

4.3.      Recent Trends 

Recently, there has been an increase of interest in measuring other factors such as well-being alongside social capital. Studies by Munzel, Galan, and Meyer-Waarden (2018) and Arampatzi, Burger, and Novik (2016), Pang (2018) investigated the role of social capital in happiness and well-being. One can look back to Kraut et al.'s (1998) study of how the internet impacts psychological well-being and notice that there is a repeat in trend. It is important to note that Pang's (2018) research does not seek to investigate how SNSs decrease or increase social capital, but still exists within the scope of bridging and bonding, especially shown by its use of William's (2006) scale to measure bridging relationships. He also used time as a measurement, similar to studies in sociability and social capital. His study contributes to the discussion by shining a light on WeChat, an indigenous Chinese SNS. Going back to Ahn’s (2012) study that explores Facebook and MySpace, one can suggest that there is a need to further evaluate the impact of the internet towards social capital through different platforms of SNSs.

5.         Conclusion

The discussion on the internet's impact shifted away from sociability to social capital because there were stronger academic frameworks in the social capital literature. However, the term did not escape criticism. It is within this disagreement scholars attempt to operationalize social capital in recent evidence. It is concluded there are replications of methodological gaps present from the discussions of sociability to social capital such as the representativeness of the sample, the use of time, and the generalization of ‘usage'. However, there were new trends such as an expansion of studies from Europe and North America to Asia, the focus on new SNSs such as WeChat, the creation of ISCS, increased interest in cross-cultural studies, the use of valence, and the relation between online and offline relationships. One should also be critical of ISCS, a scale validated using an exclusive sample. This author also acknowledges the tendency towards the relation of social capital and well-being, which was also present in the discussion of sociability. The trend presents the need for further research to improve methodologies and confirm validities of measurements, especially when interests lean towards global cultures.


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[1] Interpersonal Support Evaluation List. See Cohen and Hoberman (1983).