Monday, July 17, 2006

TV and Social Capital

Another of my graduate school classmates produces an interesting paper. This time, it is the very smart Ben Olken exploiting natural variation in access to TV and radio signals in Indonesia to find a negative, causal relationship between TV and social participation:

In "Bowling Alone," Putnam (1995) famously argued that the rise of television may be responsible for social capital’s decline. I investigate this hypothesis in the context of Indonesian villages. To identify the impact of exposure to television (and radio), I exploit plausibly exogenous differences in over-the-air signal strength associated with the topography of East and Central Java. Using this approach, I find that better signal reception, which is associated with more time spent watching television and listening to radio, is associated with substantially lower levels of participation in social activities and with lower self-reported measures of trust. I find particularly strong effects on participation in local government activities, as well on participation in informal savings groups. However, despite the impact on social capital, improved reception does not appear to affect village governance, at least as measured by discussions in village-level meetings and by corruption in a village-level road project.

The only question I have, which I did not see addressed in my quick perusal of the paper, is whether people who like TV (and are less prone to participate in the activities Ben examines) are more likely to leave areas with bad TV reception -- I totally would do something like that. However, I doubt that this effect is very prevalent in this area, and it almost certainly is not enough to invalidate Ben's conclusions.

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