Homogeneity, Social Capital and Political Participation in Armenia

Analysis of the Caucasus Barometer and World Value Survey data

By Sonia Siropian
CRRC-Armenia volunteer

As we live in a globalized world with constant migration flows, ethnic diversity has become a common reality of the modern society and a debated topic in countries where nationalist parties have come to rise. Political representatives of nationalist parties commonly criticize ethnic diversity as an argument against immigration, claiming that multiculturalism makes integration difficult and divides the nation, resulting in what they call ‘parallel societies’. Consequently, they argue that the creation of parallel societies threatens democracy and instead, they advocate ethnically and religiously homogeneous societies. A similar account for diversity has also been proposed by scientific scholars, of which Samuel P. Huntington (1996; 2004) may be the most well-known in his debated Magnum Opus ‘The Clash of Civilizations’ and his critical reflections regarding immigration to America in his work ‘Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity’ (2004).

One could interpret the understanding of heterogeneity as a democratic threat, as a possible tension in what is defined in political science as social capital. In short, social capital is characterized by reciprocity, trust and cooperation in social networks, where public goods are produced for a common good (Putnam 2000). Putnam (2000) who coined the term argues that strong social capital is a fundamental element of a functioning democracy. Social capital could hence be argued to engage the citizens in political participation and thus contribute to the democratic development. This post will examine whether the level of social capital in the Armenian society can be connected to the level of political participation, while challenging the argument that homogeneous societies (here, the Armenian society) do have increased social capital. This will be conducted by using data provided by Caucasus Barometer, which is a cross-country nationally representative survey running in the three countries of South Caucasus; Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.[1] The analysis will also refer to World Values Survey, consisting of surveys conducted in almost 100 countries which contain almost 90 percent of the world’s population, using a common questionnaire.[2]

Armenia is often described as an exceptionally homogeneous country, and the Caucasus Barometer (CRRC 2015) can confirm this view, as 91% of the respondents consider themselves to belong to the Armenian Apostolic church and 99% of the respondents describe their ethnicity as Armenian. This implies that the Armenian society is religiously and ethnically homogeneous which, according to the previously mentioned arguments, should also generate high levels of social capital and political participation. 

However, it should be addressed that homogeneity could be understood as a rather ambiguous concept, because although societies may be homogeneous regarding ethnicity or religion, these societies still consist of individuals that may have varying values and beliefs that are not founded in their ethnic or religious background. One of many examples can be found in the Caucasus Barometer, which illustrates the diversity in values and beliefs among the Armenian people. The respondents were asked the question “Support or oppose opening of the Armenia-Turkey border with no preconditions?” – a sensitive question that particularly engages many Armenians because of the heated, and historically rooted conflict between the countries. The responses were rather equally distributed around the spectrum, which indicates varying beliefs in a homogeneous society. Hence, even when researching countries that are generally viewed as homogenous, researchers should still consider the complexity of societies, and the individuals that form societies. It then has to be concluded that the Armenian society may be considered as homogenous in regards to ethnic and religious identity, but it does not prove homogeneity in societal values.

In this post, social capital will be operationalized into three indicators. Firstly, trust and reciprocity are two essential elements of the understanding of social capital. The more people engage with each other, the more they will trust each other which produces and embodies social capital. Putnam has observed the decline in social capital in the United States by revealing drops in political participation and reduction in formal (i.e. unions and organizations) and informal (i.e. friends and neighbours) socialization.[3] Hence, this post will draw from Putnam’s conceptualization of social capital and use trust, socialization and political participation as indicators. However, it is necessary to acknowledge that social capital is a multi-dimensional and complex concept, and that it, as many other social phenomena, is not easily measured. This analysis will thus be looking at trust, socialization and political participation as indicators of social capital to identify tendencies, rather than make definite assumptions, about the social capital in Armenia.

In the Caucasus Barometer, only 5% of the respondents in Armenia believed that most people could be trusted. In comparison, in countries like Sweden and the Netherlands that are considered well-functioning democracies, over 60% of the respondents believed that most people can be trusted (World Values Survey, 2010-2014). Respondents in Armenia were also asked whether they trust close people to help them in different situations, for instance 45% expect that people close to them will take care of them if they get ill. In case they need to borrow money for a month for usual expenses, only 33% say it’s very likely that they can expect that from people close to them. In the last six months at the time of the survey, only 10% of the respondents attended a public meeting and 37% volunteered without compensation, which reveals a rather limited social network among the respondents. The low trust that the respondents show in people in general, and in people close to them, combined with the low socialization in networks, imply that the social capital is very limited. These findings indicate an exceptionally low level of trust and reciprocity among the Armenian people, which suggests that the social capital in Armenia can be expected to be weak. 

Regarding the political participation of the citizens, the assumption that there is low social capital in Armenia can be supported by the low rates of voter turnout. According to International IDEA, in the parliamentary election of 2012 the voter turnout was 62.8 %, and approximately 60% voted in the presidential election in 2013.[4] This number is seemingly stable, as the Caucasus Barometer shows that only 63% of the respondents would certainly participate in a hypothetical presidential election in the coming week. Additionally, according to World Values Survey (2011), 89.8% of the respondents are not members of a political party and 77.2% claim that they would never participate in a peaceful demonstration. However, it is not political motivation that they are lacking, as 34% of the respondents in the Caucasus Barometer claim that the country’s domestic politics is definitely going in the wrong direction, and 20% think that it is mainly going in the wrong direction. So, what is keeping them from engaging in the political life and pursuing political change? One possible answer could be that the seemingly low social capital plays a significant role in that picture. 

The findings of this analysis suggest that an ethnically and religiously homogenous country does not necessarily generate high social capital and political participation. Since democracy depends on people participating in the political life, it suggests that the Armenian case may still be developing its’ democratic features in terms of realizing the power of the people and pursuing political interests. Perhaps the argument that emphasizes homogeneity’s importance for social capital and democracy should rather be focusing on homogeneity in terms of a shared understanding of the fundaments of civic engagement In other words – perhaps social capital does not derive from an ethnically and religiously homogenous society, but rather from people who share the motivation to shape society for the better and the realization of their own power to pursue their interests, regardless of their ethnic or religious background. How to strengthen the social capital in Armenia remains to be studied, and further research on building societies characterized by mutual trust and reciprocity is highly encouraged. More analyses of the links between homogeneity, social capital and political participation are also needed to deepen the understanding of their significance. What can be concluded from the analysis of the data used is that social capital could still be considered as an important element for political participation, however, in the case of the Armenian society, ethnic or religious homogeneity is not necessarily the key ingredient in the participative, and hence democratic, political equation.

[1] http://www.crrc.am/caucasusbarometer
[2] http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org 
[3] Putnam. R. D. (1995a). Bowling alone: America's declining social capital. Journal of Democracy, 6, 65-78
[4] http://www.idea.int/vt/countryview.cfm?id=8 

The content of this blog is the sole responsibility of the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of CRRC-Armenia.