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Welcome

Ghosts in the Machine: Media Technology and Social Capital

By Brian Jones

According to Robert D. Putnam's 2000 book, Bowling Alone, "When the history of the twentieth century is written with greater perspective than we now enjoy, the impact of technology on communications and leisure will almost certainly be a major theme." Technology has certainly played a major role in the way in which Americans have viewed their society in recent decades, and, some say, a harmful role.

Television, for instance, was instrumental to missing children becoming one of the suddenly sensational issues of the 1980s. The glare of the media spotlight on the kidnapping and decapitation of young Adam Walsh and other particularly dreadful cases produced, in effect, a brand new social problem in the public mind. The horrifying nature of these stories was reinforced by startling statistics sometimes claiming that up to eight hundred thousand children went missing every year in the United States. The estimate by experts that only two to three hundred children actually disappeared each year rarely made it into dramatic TV or newspaper accounts. The result was a surge in national concern about "stranger danger," and millions of haunted parents.

In 1990s America, school shootings made a similar media splash. "Banner headlines and terrifying photos screamed from the front pages of the nation's dailies," recalls Barry Glassner in his book, The Culture of Fear. "Round-the-clock television coverage broadcast images of distraught teenagers huddled in the hallways, anguished parents weeping behind police lines, ambulance gurneys wheeling the dead and injured from playgrounds to emergency rooms, and grave stones rising." These images, along with more recent ones from Red Lake High School in Minnesota, are still raw and fresh in people's minds, and filed into a whole new category of social problems.

Away from the gruesome pictures broadcast from the small screen, school shootings have been subjected to social scientific analysis. One study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Academy of Sciences led to the 2004 publication of Rampage: The Social Roots of School Shootings, by Katherine S. Newman of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, a report full of intriguing findings. In the first place, wrote Newman, "rampage" shootings did increase in the nineties; however, the rise of this specific form of school violence-to an average of about one "rampage" a year-happened during a decade when youth homicide and school violence in general dropped nationwide. And rampage shootings are a small fraction of the carnage committed in inner city slum schools in any given year. But the school shootings in Newman's study famously happened out of the slums that fit the public image of violent areas-and that is just the point.

Experts on social problems often cite the power of expectations to plant issues in the public mind. Stories that shock and appall do so precisely because they are not supposed to happen, or, more precisely, because they "are not supposed to happen here." The latter quote is a staple of local news interviews with shaken neighbors after a tragedy, and it has immediate relevance. Hollywood, Florida, where Adam Walsh was taken, is an affluent new suburb; Littleton, Colorado, site of the Columbine school shooting, is equally favored and equally white. Of course, everybody knows that there is epidemic violence in Watts and the Bronx, but that is just where the public expects it to be. Americans had no expectations of automatic weapons rampages in Ferris Buehler's 'hood. Hence, the ten thousand stories in the nation's leading papers post-Columbine, and the growing sense that something evil is loose in America's schools and the communities in which they are set.

And so there are "ghosts" in people's heads, haunting images of societal breakdown. Scads of public opinion polls-and one very recent election-document growing concerns about the moral decline of America.

In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam transformed the discourse on societal decline. Essentially, he moved the concern about specific issues such as snatched suburban children or Matrix scenes in affluent schools to a general concern about the very core of American society. His concept was social capital, defined as "connections among individuals-social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them." Putnam asked, is something rotting at the core of America?

His answer was yes, there certainly is, and in the detective-story style in which he hunted empirically for the sources of social breakdown, he identified television as the main culprit. And his argument asserted something even more sinister than the broadcast images of missing children and machine-gunned suburbanites saturating the airwaves and planting doubts in American minds about America. According to Putnam, TV is not just raising concerns about society, it is actually lowering the level of social capital in America .

Let's consider this proposition, using the Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey 2000 (SCCBS 2000); it consists of a national sample of some 3,000 respondents, as well as separate samples of forty-one communities, providing an additional 26,700 respondents. The latter survey was designed by Robert Putnam and his Saguaro Seminar group, and it provides lush detail about myriad forms of social capital, two of which we will spotlight here.

First, in keeping with the Tocquevillian tone of this subject, a composite index called "Voluntary Association" has been compiled from yes/no items tapping eighteen different types of groups. Certainly, membership in more youth, school, or church groups means more social capital. The second measure, "Informal Socializing," comes from the SCCBS2000 and is a composite of various items in the survey that quantify social network interaction with friends, relatives, and neighbors.
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