In a seminal and provocative book, Putnam argues that levels of trust, interest in public affairs and political participation are the most important explanatory features of the differential institutional performance across Italian regions over time.
Despite the long-standing debate this work has generated on the concept of social capital, there is a surprising lack of attempts to test his thesis empirically in other contexts.
This paper examines the possibility of replicating Putnam’s argument in the context of Indian states, by discussing available data at Indian state level, constructing new indicators, and attempting some preliminary statistical analysis of the relationship between social capital and state performance. At each step of the process, a number of factors are identified that restrict the validity of the exercise.
Far from discounting Putnam’s research question and methodology, this paper points out the specific empirical and conceptual issues one needs to pay attention to, when addressing the important topic of the roots of differential institutional performance in the Indian context.
Recommendations for future research in this area are to interpret data and design surveys very carefully; shift the focus from states as units of analysis, to either clusters of states identified according to historical and cultural features, or to selected areas for fieldwork comparison; and, finally, pay attention to the theoretical framework, in particular to the dynamics of the institutions – social capital relationship and to the role of education as a fundamental intervening variable in a country with widespread illiteracy such as India.