June 28, 2006

LONELY AMERICA: THE BASICS OF SOCIAL CAPITAL



Caption: This is a loney (and probably single) box turtle.

This is the third in a series of posts on America’s declining stock of social capital, which can be defined as all the different formal and informal ways people relate to each other.

Among the modern researchers of social capital, Robert Putnam, author of the influential book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, is the best known.

His book (over 400 pages not counting appendices, notes and index) exhaustively and convincingly sums up the benefits of social capital and the damage to individuals and communities when it declines. Two websites to check for those who are interested are bowlingalone.com and bettertogether.org.

El Cabrero first heard of Putnam’s work in the early 1990s and was frankly skeptical. But after a few years of working on issue based campaigns to influence public policy, it started to make a lot more sense. Getting better at building and using social capital for positive goals is one of the better answers to the question What is to be Done?

Finally, I waded through the book, notes and all. Verdict: dude is on to something.

Only an idiot would try to summarize all that in a few paragraphs. Here goes:

A great deal of scientific evidence indicates that the richer communities and individuals are in social capital, the better equipped they are to deal with personal and social problems. Rich networks of social capital can vastly improve access to information, resources, opportunities, allies, and favors.

Conversely, individuals and communities poor in social capital can be extremely vulnerable to negative forces. Unfortunately, by several measures, social capital has been declining in the United States over several decades (although Putnam thinks the downward trend is leveling out).

In Bowling Alone, Putnam identifies several factors that contributed to the decline of social capital in the US. First comes pressures of time and money (10%); second, the sprawling and suburbanization (another 10%); Third comes the effect of electronic entertainment (25%)—especially TV—and especially not reading the Goat Rope (El Cabrero’s contribution); and fourth, generational change, “the slow, steady, and ineluctable replacement of the long civic generation by their less involved children and grandchildren,” which may account for as much as half of the decline.

(Minor critique: El Cabrero thinks Putnam overly downplays economic factors. Television, after all, is not just an invention but an industry. So is sprawl. And the civic generation was able to participate so actively in part because many of its members enjoyed good jobs, benefits, and secure pensions.)


Putnam identifies two main kinds of social capital, bonding and bridging. Bonding social capital refers to tightly knit but fairly exclusive networks. Examples might include some immigrant communities, small towns in Appalachia, political sects or isolated movements or even the country club set of wealthy families.

Bridging social capital refers to the kinds of networks that cross ordinary divides and brings diverse people together. Both kinds have their place and can serve good or bad ends, but the latter is more effective for many kinds of problem solving. It’s also a better way to gain access to new information.

Building social capital has to be a major part of any positive change. As a means to an end, diverse connections of friendships, partnerships, coalitions, and alliances are key ingredients to personal or public problem solving. It’s also not a bad end in itself. Strong social capital builds trust and reinforces norms of reciprocity which can also promote more productive ways of dealing with controversial issues and conflicts.

(Suggestion: one reason why so many "progressive" groups are ineffective is because they focus on bonding rather than bridging social capital).

It is not clear from Putnam’s research whether the benefits of social capital occur when one interacts with a variety of animals, but El Cabrero is skeptical.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Some ventures in social capital seem to work because they combine both bridging and bonding versions. Many Evangelical megachurches, for instance, combine a bunch of little, tighter groups. That way the church as a whole combines the peer pressure that a small, like-minded group can generate with the fellowship that bridging groups creates.

I haven't read Putnam's book, but I sure will now.