Does Politic Decentralization in Switzerland Strengthen Social Capital?

Term Paper, 2009

18 Pages, Grade: 1,3



Switzerland is recognized for its high level of direct democracy, citizens having the chance to participate directly in the process of decision making of public policies, to intend law initiatives, to amend ordinary laws or the Constitution, to submit referendums. Switzerland enjoys a strong federalism, with high degrees of decentralization at each of three federal levels. A high degree of political decentralization can boost social capital. I intend in this Thesis to observe if the level political decentralization in Switzerland is increasing the social capital, defined in terms of generalized trust, civic cooperation and social cohesiveness.

Decentralization is currently promoted in many countries for improving the performance of local governance. Even that only 25 of the world´ 193 countries have a federal political system, their citizens form 40 per cent of the world’s population.[1] The degree of decentralization differs from country to country, some having a strong federalism, other a weacker one. Switzerland is an example of a country with a long-standing tradition of decentralized system for many purposes, including the direct participation of the citizens in the political process. The freedom of the 26 cantons to organize their local politic process is guaranteed by Constitution for the population of around 7 million people. This permits the system to be responsive to local priorities and interests. The distance between the local governance and citizens is much shorter than that one between federal governance and citizens. Being closer to the citizens, local governance knows better the coordinates of the local status, as an indicator for the local problems, interests and needs, thus, being able to provide the best adequate public policies. The accountability and transparency in policy-making brings together the local government and the citizens, strengthening their trust in local politicians and their trust in each other.

The government from the local level is more efficient in providing goods and services, being better informed about the citizens needs and interests. A deep vertical structure of government, like in Switzerland case, encourage the political participation and has an important implication in the growth, of both qualitative and quantitative, political culture. Being so often „solicited” from a political point of view (referendums, civic initiatives), the civic virtue and the public spirit is strengthened, people getting political experience and political knowledge. The Swiss exert their direct democracy at national, cantonal and communal level, providing a strong self-determination. The stability of the political system increases also, being weak chances for citizens willing and, worse, forcing political changes. Sharing the political power with its citizens, Switzerland has the satisfaction and contentment gratification of its citizens guaranteed. By being allowed to take part at the political process, they can influence the country (or region) direction in their own wishes, purposes and interests. The people, the central concept of the democracy, can decide for themselves, in the aimed directions. Maybe the people don´t have the required expertise for taking political actions, but definitely they know better which are their purposes, interests and needs.

Switzerland’s Constitution is often updated for taking into account the changes in people’s preferences, translated in referendums or civic initiatives. Minor modifications to the Swiss Fundamental Law are frequently, but without altering the essential ideas or the constancy of the political system. Everything what is not clearly touched in the Constitution is left at the decision of canton’s legislation.

The Theory

In this Thesis I intend to search if there is a connection between the degree of decentralization and the level of social capital in Switzerland. The question of my thesis is „Does the degree of decentralization increase the level of social capital in Switzerland?”. Specifically, I am asking if a strong federalism, characterized by autonomy and sovereignty for the cantonal governments will affect the social capital. The claim that decentralization, by congregating people together may consolidate, amplify and incite the social capital is going to be validated empirically.

The main hypothesis is that a higher degree of decentralization will improve the social capital in Switzerland. Through „decentralization” I mean political decentralization, the level of federalism, how much did the central government deputed the local governance (in my thesis, the cantons governments) to exert political activity; which is the power of the cantonal governments to take political actions, their independence in agenda setting, policy making, budget administration, establishing priorities and ways of action; how much are the Swiss cantonal governments to do all this, full of autonomy and sovereignty, independent of the central government. For measuring de degree of decentralization for Swiss cantons, I will use the next two indicators: the degree of autonomy of cantons governments and the decentralization degree of total expenditures.

The other concept from the hypothesis, „social capital”, is a multidimensional concept, broadly defined as „trust, norms and network” (Putnam, 1993), which foster mutually beneficial cooperation in society. It involves civic virtue, interpersonal trust, social cooperation and cohesiveness, and associational engagements among social groups.[2] All general notions related to social capital are usually correlated with the idea that trust and high standards of civic „interrelationshipness” are constituent for a „healthy”-society, and for its working in normal parameters. R. Putnam indicates for the concept of social capital, the core idea that „social networks have value. Just as a screwdriver (physical capital) or a college education (human capital) can increase productivity (both individual and collective), so too social contacts affect the productivity of individuals and groups"[3] Always has been an oscillation near concept of „social capital”. Taking into account the fact that this concept is belonging to social sciences, and not to exact sciences, so that a precise formula to be indicated for it, it’s not surprisingly that at the chapter „definitions”, social capital is very rich. Many authors tried to put social capital in a definitional framework.

Pierre Bourdieu (1986) defines social capital as „the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition."[4]

For James Coleman (1994), „social capital is defined by its function. It is not a single entity, but a variety of different entities, having two characteristics in common: they all consist of some aspect of a social structure, and they facilitate certain actions of individuals who are within the structure”.[5]

Robert Putnam (2000) talks in similar terms about social capital. „Whereas physical capital refers to physical objects and human capital refers to the properties of individuals, social capital refers to connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them. In that sense social capital is closely related to what some have called “civic virtue.” The difference is that “social capital” calls attention to the fact that civic virtue is most powerful when embedded in a sense network of reciprocal social relations. A society of many virtuous but isolated individuals is not necessarily rich in social capital.”[6]

Obviously, the three different definitions of social capital have a common sense. Social capital is described in terms of reciprocity and interconnectivity at society level. Social capital is analogous with civic cooperation, mutual relations, and people maintaining intercourses. The reciprocal ties should be kept unconditionately, without constraints, independent of any forcingable reason, without obligations, unauthoritative. The social liaisons are maintained voluntary, by willing, shaping a social interdependence. Another attribute of social capital is trust. Trust in the others is vital for deeping and amplifying the social networks. Trust refers to seeing the others like being part of the same sphere, being statutable with you, seeking common goals with you and further, you are intended to affiliate with them, to share common values.



[2] L.R. de Mello, Can Fiscal Decentralization Strengthen Social Capital?, Public Finance Review, 2004

[3] R. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, 2000




Excerpt out of 18 pages


Does Politic Decentralization in Switzerland Strengthen Social Capital?
University of Constance  (Fachbereich Politik- und Verwaltungswissenschaft)
Kulturelle und politische Grundlagen sozialen Kapitals im Vergleich
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ISBN (Book)
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politic decentralization;, Switzerland;, social capital
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Cornelia Baciu (Author), 2009, Does Politic Decentralization in Switzerland Strengthen Social Capital? , Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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