Tag Archives: social capital

Trust Tells Us A Lot

As our social distancing drags on, researchers have been investigating the effects on social solidarity–how Americans view each other, and especially, any changes in the level of “social trust.” In this context, social trust is an indicator of what sociologists and political scientists call social capital.

The bad news is that, thanks to the ineptitude and constant and pathetically obvious lies from the Trump administration, trust in the federal government is very low. (Recent example: Israeli news reports revealed that U.S. Intelligence told Israel and NATO in November  about the threat posed by the coronavirus– contradicting Pentagon claims that no such report existed.)

The good news is that a couple of recent surveys have found improvement in the way Americans view each other. In that sense, it’s reminiscent of the change in attitudes triggered by the Great Depression. Suddenly, the very American (and arguably Calvinist) view that people are poor because they are morally defective–lazy or unmotivated–was replaced by recognition that poverty is largely a social phenomenon. (If there are no jobs, its harder to blame people for not having them.)

Social capital is the label we give to our memberships in social networks–the human relationships within which we are embedded. Trust is an important component of social capital–but so is reciprocity. Scholars define social capital as the institutionalized expectation that other people will reciprocate co-operative behaviors–the recognition that If we fail to work together when collective efforts are needed, we all become poorer.

There are two kinds of social capital: bonding and bridging. Bonding social capital is possible only with shared identity (however identity is defined). It’s at the heart of tribalism: “I belong to this group, and I look with suspicion/disdain at those who don’t.” Bridging social capital, which has been in short supply recently, links people across cleavages that typically divide us (race, class, or religion). Its associations create ‘bridges’ between communities.

The surveys that suggest a growth in “generalized social trust” are encouraging because they hold out the hope that America may be restoring some of its lost bridging social capital.

I was reminded of the importance of trust and bridging social capital when I was cleaning out cabinets in my home office. (I don’t know how other people cope, but stress tends to turn me into a maniacal cleaning machine.) I came across a reprint of “SPEA Insights” –a PR publication we used to put out, highlighting faculty research. This one was from July of 2010; titled “Trust Me, Said the Spider,” it was focused on the then-recent publication of my book Distrust, American Style.

In it, I pointed out that trust in social institutions–especially but not exclusively government–is absolutely essential to contemporary life.

Think about it. We deposit our paychecks and take for granted that the funds will be there when we need to draw them out; we pay the electric bill and expect the lights to turn on when we throw the switch; we order a gizmo from Amazon or other Internet merchant and are confident the gizmo will be delivered. We go to our local grocery and buy a chicken, confident that we won’t have to individually test it for e coli when we get home.

On and on….

And–as I argued in that paper– Americans rely on government to ensure that our water is drinkable, our air breathable, our aircraft flyable, and so much more.

I was particularly struck by my own words from 2010:

“And when we go through a period when government is inept or corrupt, that confidence is shaken–but our skepticism and distrust affect more than just the political system. Trust in government sets the tone for confidence in all social institutions….From time to time, America goes through periods where the failures of our civic and governing institutions are so manifest that awareness of them is simply inescapable. In the era of the Internet, the amount of information received by even the most “low information” voters has been enormously amplified. When I wrote Distrrust, the American public was positively marinating in news of corruption and incompetence.”

That was 2010. Ten years ago. I’d say we’re pretty thoroughly marinated now.

The last sentence of that essay is truer today than ever, in the wake of this pandemic: “our first order of business must be the restoration of transparency, accountability and trustworthiness of our government.”

No kidding.

Poverty and Social Capital

One of the least-recognized consequences of the gap between rich and poor and the growth and perpetuation of the ALICE phenomenon is the effect of poverty on social capital. Social capital is a shorthand term for networks of relationships among people in a society; the ubiquity and strength of those relationships has been shown to be essential to the successful functioning of that society.

In the wake of Trump’s disastrous behavior at the G7 meetings, The New Yorker had a fascinating article about Justin Trudeau and the extent to which Canadian social capital allowed him to (politely but firmly) stand up to America’s Bully-in-Chief. Trudeau made it clear that he and his country would not be intimidated.

Trump responded with gangster-style threats and sneers, followed by more threats and sneers from his associates. Trudeau, a young man generally thought to lack the great prime-ministerial gravitas of his late father, Pierre, emerged as a statesman and a leader. On Monday, the Canadian Parliament voted its unanimous support for his statements.

So what is it about Canadian national character that allows the country to stand up to bullies?

Famously obliging in attitude—how do you get twenty-five Canadians out of a swimming pool? You say, “Please get out of the swimming pool”—Canadians are also notoriously stubborn of spirit. What gives them backbone alongside their gift for compromise, allowing them to bend equably and then snap back sharply? …

Canadian democracy is supported by some of the strongest social capital in the world, exceeded only, by most academic measures, by that of Scandinavia and New Zealand. Trust in social institutions, in the honesty of government and the solidarity of citizens, remains strong in Canada, even when its results, as with the election of Doug Ford—the smarter brother of the late Rob Ford, the onetime mayor of Toronto—to the premiership of Ontario, is not what progressive-minded people might like. Though the United States now ranks below Canada, it still scored high in recent registries. But it once led the world in social capital. Can it do so again?

Social capital is generated through civic involvement. Adam Gopnik, who authored this essay, refers to a seminal study by Robert Putnam (he of Bowling Alone fame), analyzing differences in governance between north and south Italy.

Putnam discovered that the existence of “intermediate institutions” was crucial: in northern Italy, where citizens participate actively in sports clubs, literary guilds, service groups, and choral societies, regional governments are “efficient in their internal operation, creative in their policy initiatives and effective in implementing those initiatives.” In southern Italy, by contrast, where patterns of civic engagement are far weaker, regional governments tend to be corrupt and inefficient.

As most of us learned in U.S. History, the first person to notice the importance of civic engagement to the probity of governing institutions was de Tocqueville, who attributed what he deemed to be laudable American characteristics to widespread participation in the new country’s numerous civic and voluntary organizations.

Civic engagement, however, requires resources–namely time and energy. ALICE families–struggling to put food on the table, balancing the cost of diapers against the due date for the rent, stressed when the ten-year-old car or the twenty-year-old furnace gives up the ghost, or a doctor’s bill must be paid–have neither.

It’s no wonder the voices of the poor are so seldom heard in the halls of our legislatures, or via the ballot box. When simply surviving is the order of the day–when it consumes all of your time and energy–there isn’t anything left over from which to construct social capital.

Spring in the Hood

It’s spring. Finally!  Friday, I took the day off from the treadmill at NIFS in favor of a walk around my neighborhood–the Old Northside in downtown Indianapolis–and was reminded why I love living downtown.

I used to live in the suburbs. I’m sure my neighbors were nice people, but in the ten plus years I lived in my house, I never met any of them. We’d wave as we turned into our driveways, and a few had children the ages of mine and the kids played together, but that was the sum total of our interactions. The houses were separated by large lots, and we didn’t have sidewalks to stroll, or front porches to sit on, so those venues for conviviality were missing.

Friday, I walked (on sidewalks) to one of the many restaurant/bars within walking distance of my house, to meet my husband for dinner. The scale of the neighborhood is pleasant, with small but adequate lots, and at least a third of the houses I passed are owned by people I know. Several were outside– doing lawn work or just enjoying the beautiful day– and we exchanged greetings as I walked by.

Ours is a pretty diverse neighborhood  (my own short block has whites, blacks,  Latinos, straights and gays) and for most of us, that’s one of its attractions.  A significant number of the houses I walked past still have yard signs demanding the defeat of HJR 3, (the anti-same-sex marriage amendment) despite the fact that the legislative session is over.

One friend, who calls the restoration of his historic house his “100-year-project,”  handed me a tulip from his garden. At the next intersection, I stopped to chat with a lawyer I know (he was picking up dog poop in his meticulously-cared for small yard).

I turned down Alabama Street, and about halfway to my destination saw a University colleague on her front porch with three other neighbors; they were having drinks and snacks and invited me to join them. It was clearly cocktail hour somewhere, so I did; we talked work and politics and waved at other neighbors who passed by, and then I walked on to meet my husband.

Saturday was another beautiful day, and I was out for another walk (my fitbit is a stern taskmaster). I ran into my son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren out for a bike ride. They live in the neighborhood too, and were headed for the Monon Trail that runs a half-block behind my house.

I know that there are people who value having acres of land, who treasure their solitude, are irritated by serendipitous encounters, and who don’t mind driving six miles for a loaf of bread. To each his own. But I absolutely treasure these everyday pleasures of urban life.

Urban neighborhoods–with sidewalks that actually go somewhere–build social capital and connect us to others.

With all due respect, I don’t think those gated communities with their “McMansions” on acre lots do that.

 

Mom and Pop and Skin in the Game

A 2006 study by sociologists Stephan Goetz and Anil Rupasingha documented a decline in civic participation, including voter turnout and the number of active nonprofit organizations, after Walmart moves into a community. Those behaviors are markers for social capital, the connections citizens have to each other, characterized by what scholars call “norms of trust and reciprocity.” The importance of social capital had been studied by others, but was most prominently  highlighted by Robert Putnam, the Harvard political scientist, in Bowling Alone, published in 2001.

The Goetz and Rupasingha study also showed that with each Walmart store that opens in a city, social capital further erodes.

I was intrigued when I came across this study, so I did a bit more research.

It’s not just that cities with more social capital are better able to foster local enterprises and resist corporate consolidation, although they are. According to the research, the causality may actually go the other way as well. Where economic power is diffused, political power is more widely and democratically exercised. As economic power becomes more concentrated, civic engagement slumps.

This research tends to support what most economic development professionals believe–a city or town with a widely diversified economic base is healthier. That belief is grounded in a very practical calculus: in cities where there are many employers, the failure of one business is far less consequential than in cities where a substantial percentage of the workforce depends on one or two large employers. That logic is persuasive (and pretty self-evident), but it turns out that there is a substantial body of research supporting the thesis that a diversified economy composed of many relatively small enterprises is not only better able to withstand downturns, but also better able to generate higher levels of civic engagement and a higher quality of life.

According to an article in Grist,

In 1946, Walter Goldschmidt, a USDA sociologist, produced a groundbreaking study comparing two farming towns in California that were almost identical in every respect but one: Dinuba’s economy was composed mainly of family farms, while Arvin’s was dominated by large agribusinesses. Goldschmidt found that Dinuba had a richer civic life, with twice the number of community organizations, twice the number of newspapers, and citizens who were much more engaged than those in Arvin. Not surprisingly, Dinuba also had far superior public infrastructure: In both quality and quantity, the town’s schools, parks, sidewalks, paved streets, and garbage services far surpassed those of Arvin.

At about the same time, two other sociologists, C. Wright Mills and Melville J. Ulmer, were undertaking a similar study of several pairs of manufacturing cities in the Midwest. Their research, conducted on behalf of a congressional committee, found that communities comprised primarily of small, locally owned businesses took much better care of themselves. They beat cities dominated by large, absentee-owned firms on more than 30 measures of well-being,including such things as literacy, acreage of public parks, extent of poverty, and the share of residents who belonged to civic organizations.

……

Residents of communities with highly concentrated economies tend to vote less and are less likely to keep up with local affairs, participate in associations, engage in reform efforts or participate in protest activities at the same levels as their counterparts in economically dispersed environments,” sociologists Troy Blanchard and Todd L. Matthews concluded in a 2006 study published in the journal Social Forces. In studies of both agricultural (2001) and manufacturing (2006) communities, the late Cornell sociologist Thomas Lyson also found that those places with a diversity of small-scale enterprises had higher levels of civic participation and better social outcomes than those controlled by a few outside corporations.

When you think about it, this makes sense. Here in Indianapolis, many of us have expressed concern at the loss of the traditional business and banking headquarters from which so many of our civic leaders were drawn. Even our major law firms are merging with others to form “national” enterprises; their lawyers are likely to be less involved in the civic life of Indianapolis when it is just one of their many locations.

At some point, we need to consider the “big box” stores headquartered who-knows-where, and ask ourselves whether those cheap tube socks are really such a bargain.