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How to Become a better Person?

Published in 1993, the ground-breaking tome ‘Making Democracy Work’ by American political scientist Robert Putnam suggests that people who are actively engaged in civic culture or non-profit organisations – and who have a higher ‘social capital’ – have greater confidence in other people, are less individualistic, have a more positive stance towards immigrants, et cetera. In Putnam’s interpretation these positive outcomes are the result of social engagement: in other words, and according to Putnam at least, civic culture makes you, “a better person”. The APEC (Applied Economics) research group, further tests these positive ‘effects’ of social capital under different circumstances.

In doing so, the APEC research group particularly focuses on the potential role of self-selection applied to Putnam’s findings: how important is it that those who have greater confidence in other people (and are less ethnocentric and individualistic) will be quicker to join civic culture? Does civic culture have a positive ‘effect’ after allowing for this self-selection? To answer these questions, the research group sets up experiments in which people are able to choose which organisations they accede to, before going on to carry out activities as a group. This enables the researchers to determine whether or not the kind of changes that are to be expected in accordance with Putnam's theory are actually seen to take place in participants. This research is funded by the Odysseus programme of the FWO Flanders and is conducted in collaboration with scientists at various European universities. 

Did you know that? 

  • The mafia is also a form of civic culture, albeit one that takes a negative approach: it appears that in Italian towns and cities where the mafia is politically active, the training level of local politicians is on average lower than in towns and cities where there is no mafia. This type of negative effect is referred to as “the dark side of social capital”. 
  • Membership of voluntary and nonprofit organisations does not necessarily have a positive effect on anti-immigration opinions in crisis situations such as 9/11. 
  • People who have greater confidence in other people tend to be more supportive of progressive government policies (including a more progressive science policy for instance) than people who have less confidence in others.

Contact Details: 
Prof. Benny Geys

Research at the VUB

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