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Social Capital in Russia

Scientific organization
National Research University "Higher School of Economics"
Academic degree
Deputy Director of the Laboratory for Comparative Social Research
Scientific discipline
Humanities & Social sciences
Social Capital in Russia
Based on the World Values Survey (WVS) and Putnem`s definition of social capital the current study covers the period from 1990 to 2011. WVS data demonstrates that after a significant decrease in 1995 generalized trust is slowly recovering while membership in civic associations remains rather stable over the past 20 years. At the same, time Russians are becoming more and more tolerant towards different types of anti-social behavior including bribe-taking, avoiding a fare on public transport and claiming government benefits which a person is not entitled to.
generalized trust, civic activity, prosocial attitudes, World Values Survey

Social capital has become one of the most debatable and popular concepts in social sciences. As A. Portes notes it “has evolved into something of a cure-all for the maladies affecting society at home and abroad “ (Portes, 1998: p. 2). Indeed, recent studies demonstrate positive correlation between economic development, well-functioning civic and political institutions, high quality of life and different dimensions of social capital (Knack, Keefer, 1997; Zak, Knack, 2001; Beugelsdijk, Groot, Van Schaik, 2004; Inglehart, Welzel, 2011; Rothstein, Uslaner, 2005; Tokuda, Fujii, Inoguchi, 2010). 

There are many approaches to definition of social capital, but one of the most widely used ones belongs to R. Putnam who treats it as “features of social organization, such as trust, norms and networks, that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated actions” (Putnam et al., 1994). Following this idea, scholars divide social capital into three main concepts: 1) generalized trust which relates to strangers and out-groups: 2) civic activity; and 3) prosocial norms and behavior. Though the first two elements have been extensively studied during recent decades (see Nannestad (2008), Stolle (2002), Musick & Wilson (2008)) the third one has remained underinvestigated.  

There is a stereotype that after the collapse of the Soviet Union social capital significantly dropped. The current study aim to test this suggestion and trace three mentioned elements of social capital for the period from 1990 to 2011. The data is based on the World Values Survey (WVS) and the European Values Study (EVS). The Russian  Federation participated in four waves of the WVS (1990, 1995, 2006 and 2011) and in two waves of the EVS. In 1990 data was collected only in Tambov. 

Generalized trust is captured by so called standard trust question “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you need to be very careful in dealing with people?” It has a dichotomous scale and two possible answers:  1) most people can be trusted and 2) need to be very careful. Although this way of measurement has been severely criticized because of the trust radius problem (Delhey, Newton, and Welzel 2011; Sturgis and Smith 2010) this is the only indicator available since 1990. The more advanced question on generalized trust – question about trust in people one meets for the first time – was for the first time included in the 5th wave of the WVS. 

According to the WVS and EVS data in 1995 generalized trust decreased from 37 % in 1900 to 24%. After that it had been recovering and reached its highest point in 2008 when 30% of respondents answered that most people could be trusted. Compared to 2008, in 2011 trust remains almost at the same level. 

Civic activity is operationalized through formal membership in four types of associations (sport or recreational organizations; art, music or educational organizations; environmental organizations; professional associations) and signing petitions. It is worth noting that the share of people who belong to such organizations has been rather stable during past 20 years: from 2% to 6%. The only exception is the slight rise which took place in 2006. Sport, recreational and cultural organizations were the most popular ones during that period while environmental organizations had the lowest number of members. Turning to the average membership per person it ought to be mentioned that this indicator also demonstrated a quite stable trend. In 1990 around 11% of respondents belonged to at least one of these organizations, in 2011 this statistic did not changed. 

To capture direct form of participation WVS asks if a person signed a petition or could do this in the future. WVS and EVS show that this type of civic activity has a downward trend. While in 1990 30% of respondents did sign a petition, in 1995 only 11% of respondents answered this question positively. The potential activity demonstrates similar decline. However, there were no statistically significant changes between 2006 and 2011 that could be considered as a positive tendency. 

The last dimension of social capital is prosocial norms and behavior. Unfortunately, WVS and EVS do not ask about such behavior directly but they have a battery of items which relates to the attitudes towards prosocial/anti-social behavior. It includes justification of the following practices: 

1. Claiming government benefits to which a person is not entitled to;

2. Avoiding a fare on public transport;

3. Cheating on taxes if a person has a chance;

4. Accepting a bribe. 

All items have 10-point scales which were recoded to dichotomous variables (1 (“never justifiable”) relates to strong rejection;  points from 2 to 10 relate to acceptance of such behavior).   

Analysis reveals that bribe-taking was the most serious violation while avoiding a fare on public transport was justified by a largest number of respondents. Unfortunately, Russians are becoming more and more tolerant towards these types of anti-social actions. Between 1990 and 2011 the share of people rejecting bribe-taking, claiming government benefits and avoiding a fare has been constantly decreasing (from 85% to 65%, from 65% to 42%, From 52% to 30% correspondingly). The declining trend in the justification of avoiding taxes is less pronounced.  

Summing up, it is possible to draw several conclusions. First, generalized trust has reached almost the same level as it was before the collapse of the Soviet Unioun. Second, over 20 years formal membership has been rather stable while the number of people who signed any kind of petition or ready to do it has declined. Third, attitudes towards anti-social behavior has becoming more positive indicating the erosion of social norms.