Tag Archives: Robert Putnam

Television, Equality, and Economic Development

The spread of television around the world is a positive force for socioeconomic development, according to an article published in Foreign Policy earlier this week. According to Charles Kenny, the article’s author, “It’s not Twitter or Facebook that’s reinventing the planet. Eighty years after the first commercial broadcast crackled to life, television still rules our world. And let’s hear it for the growing legions of couch potatoes: All those soap operas might be the ticket to a better future after all.”

The article cites a number of interesting studies to support their position. According to a study by the Inter-American Development Bank, the increased popularity of soap operas in Brazil in the 1970s and 1980s correlated to a decline in family size. Researchers hypothesize that female characters with small families provided an important social cue for rural women. The effect was equivalent to two additional years of education. A similar study conducted in India noted a similar outcome. Television can also play a role in promoting gender equity. The success of a female contestant in Afghan Star (Afghanistan’s version of American Idol), could, according to the program’s director, “do more for women’s right than all the millions of dollars we have spent on public service announcements for women’s rights on TV.”

But more radical changes might also be around the corner. Will people give up

What conclusions should we draw from this? FP suggests that,

In the not-too-distant future, it is quite possible that the world will be watching 24 billion hours of TV a day — an average of close to four hours for each person in the world. Some of those hours could surely be better spent — planting trees, helping old ladies cross the road, or playing cricket, perhaps. But watching TV exposes people to new ideas and different people. With that will come greater opportunity, growing equality, a better understanding of the world, and a new appreciation of the complexities of life for a wannabe Afghan woman pop star. Not bad for a siren Medusa supposedly giving so little.

Perhaps worries about television and the decline of social capital [glossary] were overrated? Was Robert Putnam wrong to suggest that we’d all be Bowling Alone? Perhaps we’re just bowling on Wii instead? The spread of television will not provide a cure to all the challenges of development. But it might not be a cause for worry either.

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Leisure Time and Social Capital

The Free Exchange blog at the Economist offered some interesting coverage of the OECD’s 2009 Society at a Glance report, including a special report on measuring leisure. Some of the findings are perhaps not that surprising: Americans tend to work more hours per year (1,896 per year), than any other OECD country. In terms of leisure time, Americans tend to fall towards the middle of the pack, with about five hours (21.6 percent of their day) occupied by leisure time. There is also a strong gendered component of leisure time, with American men having almost forty percent more leisure time than women.

 The survey data get most interesting when looking at leisure activities. In most countries, respondents indicated the bulk of their leisure time was occupied with watching television or radio at home. Engaging in social activities, such as visiting friends or participating/attending events, took up a much smaller amount of time. In some countries (including Turkey, New Zealand, and Canada), social activities took a relatively large portion of time, nearly equaling the amount of time spent watching television. But in many countries (Australia, Japan, Spain, and the United States, among others), a disproportionate share of leisure time was occupied by individual activities, particularly watching television.

Why should we care how people spend their time? According to Robert Putnam, the development of social capital depends on engaging in collective, social activities. In his seminal book Bowling Alone, Putnam argues that social capital—loosely defined as networks of trust and reciprocity—depends on the development of broader social connections between individuals. Without collective activities, those connections begin to break down. This is why Putnam laments the decline of bowling leagues in the United States. In this context, the importance of bowling leagues (as opposed to bowling alone) rests in the ability of sports leagues (or dance groups, or community socials, or any other number of collective social activities) to bring desperate individuals together and encourage them to think as a collective social body, with empathy for the other members of the group. Absent that, the collective sacrifice that democracy entails begins to wane.

Think about that next time you sit down to watch an hour (or five) of American Idol.