Sunday, June 14, 2015

Building Social Capital

Top of my serious summer reading list is Robert Putnam's new book, about which I expect I'll blog plenty once I've read it. But I assigned myself a pre-reading exercise. I'm going to write out what I think I understand about social capital and where it comes from.

Social capital is a kind of fancy term for a quality that is critical for education, but also for pretty much everything else, and it's another way to understand the differences between rich and poor, powerful and powerless, that goes beyond simply saying, "Some people have money and some people,  not so much." And if you like your social studies woolgathering to have some science included, I've written before about this long study in Baltimore by John Hopkins. The marque headline was that family and money "cast a long shadow," but what was really casting the shadow was social capital.

I feel like I know a little something about social capital because I have lived most of my life in the same small town, and when we talk about how the quintessential small town is different, I think one way of understanding what we're talking about is social capital-- though even in small town America, we're losing it, and have been for a century or so (I've read Putnam's previous work, Bowling Alone-- everybody should).

So what do I think are some of the critical elements of social capital, why do they matter, and how have we stopped building them?


In a small town, everybody knows everybody. This does not mean that everybody is friends, but there is a level of familiarity that creates a sort of comfort that comes from having known somebody for decades so that every encounter is not charged with the sort of defensive fling-out that marks so many simple encounters in a big city. And it means that after decades, we may not be buddies, but we have an understanding, even to the point that w get along well because I know who you are and how you are and it's like the local climate-- it just is what it is.

Part of that interconnectedness is that we encounter each other in a variety of roles. The guy who checks out my groceries may be my neighbor or sing in church choir with me or lead my kid's scout troop. Members of the community know each other in several different contexts, which means we have access to different dimensions, different angles of view for each other.

This creates some social capital because it forces people to be more thoughtful about interactions. In LA you might be a jerk to your waitress because you'll never see her again. But social capital greases the wheels of karma, and the wrong you do at lunch may be biting you in the ass by supper time. Even if you don't buy altruism and kindness and general human decency, it makes practical sense to avoid peeing in your own weld.

True story. Years ago a new manager of a local hotel decided he would try to become a hub of arts activities as a business plan. His first move was to try to get local choirs to come do a fest at his place for free, so he approached each choir director by saying, "Well, all the other directors have signed on." But some of those directors sang in the same church choir, played in the same town band, were or former students of the same local teacher-- it took about a day for him to be caught in his lie, and he was done. Interconnectedness magnifies positive effects (everyone pitches in for a good cause) and squelches negative ones (it's very hard to be a successful small town con artist).

We lose this when the community is too large (I don't know how large that is, exactly, but I'm curious) or when movement through the community is too much (nobody sticks around long enough to become connected) or when people are dispersed. I cannot recommend strongly enough that teachers live in the communities they serve, but that is challenging in some situations and absolutely impossible if a school is not community based.

When you keep scrambling people around, spreading them out, or isolating them, the opportunity to be interconnected is lost, and so is the magnifying effect of social capital.

Shared experience

A little over a century ago, my county had an amusement park. Located a few miles from both of our larger cities, it could only be reached by streetcar (like most parks of the period, it was owns by the transportation company as a means of creating demand for transportation). On major holidays, the cities were empty-- everyone went to Monarch Park. If you were alive at that time, you knew exactly how everybody sent the Fourth of July and even if you were otherwise strangers, you had that common experience.

Shared experience can even transcend time. In lots of small town areas, grown adults still ask each other, "Where did you go to school?" Because even if you graduated from the same high school fifteen years apart, you share the same school, the same traditions, probably even some of the same teachers.

Shared experiences give us a shared vocabulary, as well as a shared measuring stick (If you hated Mr. McBoogerface as a teacher but I loved him, we now know something about each other). If we belong to the same club (literally or figuratively) we have a bond that connects us.

But if there's anything that has been eroded by the last sixty years of progress, it is shared experience. As a larger culture, we don't watch the same shows, listen to the same music, see the same movies, follow the same websites. Monarch Park was killed by the automobile-- people could go wherever they wanted on their own schedule, so they did. Choices work against shared experiences.

It's true that this was never as great as we like to think. The fifties are often held up as a swell time in which all Americans were pretty much on the same page, but that was only mostly true for white heterosexual males. But today we have sorts ourselves into far more discrete categories because, given the current levels of technology and media, we can. We get what we want, but walled up in our small personal silos, we don't get much shared experience, and we especially don't get shared experience with people unlike ourselves.

Making schools part of this sorting does not help build social capital. More importantly, it keeps it within small groups, and like money, social capital only does any good when it's moving around.

Sharing capital

An individual's social capital accumulates (or diminishes) over time. Do you make connections? Build networks? Share experiences? Do you look out for other members of your community?  Favors, assistance, a little slack-- these are all purchased with social capital

Like other currencies, social capital can be shared. You can cash in your social capital to get a favor for yourself or for someone else. You can use your clout for yourself or for the benefit of others. But doing favors for others often garners you more capital in the economy of favors.

Diane Ravitch collected a great deal of social capital by her connections, but she has used that to fourth a cause, and that has included using much blog space to amplify the voices of other writers. Hollywood, heartless as it may seem, is billed with stories of people who become famous and use that fame to lift up other people who are still low in social capital or career success.

Pay it forward is all about social capital-- recognizing that much of what you have was passed to you by folks before you, and so resolving to spend some of your capital on those fourth down the ladder than you. This keeps social capital building and growing. It is very hard to create social capital out of air, but given a little bit of it, you can turn it into a great deal more.

While our culture has a deep love of "I've got mine, Jack," selfishness, a closer look shows the social capita sharing economy in action. The Wizard of Oz is one of many stories in which the hero's main "power" is the power of connecting, building a community, and sharing the capital that is accrued. Even supposedly bootstrappy Horatio Alger stories invariably involve some mentor figure who helps lift up the deserving young scrappy poor kid.

But the sharing economy is a big deal, because the cool thing about social capital is that, as with any god investment, when you share it, you keep all that you had and get more besides.

Where does it come from?

So how do you get social capital. I can think of three ways.

1) You're born with it. You are born into the community your parents live in, and so all their connections are yours at birth. If your are born a rich white guy, you automatically enter the world with more social capital than a non-rich non-white guy.

2) Someone gives it to you. As above-- somebody decides to mentor, boost, share or otherwise help you to some social capital.

3) You earn it. Best way? By being good at something.

Schools and building social capital

So can social capital be created, and if so, what role can schools have in the process? Well, yes, and yes. Schools have a structure that is well-suited for creating social capital.

First, public schools have longevity. When people talk with pride about their children attending the same school they did (and having the same teacher-- I am on children of children of former students at this point), they are talking about social capital. They are talking about interconnectedness and shared experiences, and schools can help with that by being stable and by making sure that many of the shared experiences are positive. Traditions, particularly those that are inclusive and kind of cool, build social capital (love the idea of "clapping out" sixth graders). And traditions in high schools are easy to launch-- it takes just four years to go from "That new thing we're doing" to "That thing we've always done."

The structure of a public school is also like playing at social capital with monopoly money. Seniors have more social capital than freshmen just because. The trick would be to implement programs to teach them how to spend it wisely, to create a culture of sharing. We can also teach our students how to recognize social capital, which I suspect is a lot like learning to recognize privilege without triggering the usual defensiveness.

We can play with that traditional structure to create more interconnectedness; this already happens in things like sports and music programs, where students from all different grades and abilities work together and get to know each other. But we can also extend that interconnectedness out into the community to which the school is attached by bringing family and community leaders into the school.

These connections have to be built over time and with real connections. Drive-by do-Gooding, where some hot-shot breezes into the school and then leaves to never return again does not build connection, community or capital.

What about social capital poverty zones?

The John Hopkins study looked at the problem of communities that are low on social capital, low on connectedness, low on shared experiences that are positive and uplifting.

In communities that are strong in social capital, the big web of connectedness is hung from the topmost peg-- there's somebody connected to that community who has plenty of social capital that is connected thousands of ways to thousands of people and that's what keeps the whole business hanging high.

My own community is largely rural and not very wealthy. You can only rise so high here without simply getting of the community. It was not always that way--we once had a couple of wealthy well-connected families here, but their wealth and social capital did not survive the next few generations. Replacing that would be- I don't even know how you do it. Up the road there is an even smaller community that a wealthy doctor actually bought and refurbished-- built a hotel, a small concert space, some shops, a golf course. It has worked well, but the key was that he moved there and made it his home by carefully connecting to the people who already lived there. He didn't just try to breeze through and he didn't try to brush aside the local connections.

I don't know enough about urban poverty zones to know how to approach this challenge, but I feel certain I know some things that don't work. Taking the connectedness that is there and shattering it to spread the children across an entire city (eg Newark or New Orleans) will destroy more than it builds. Trying to do long-distance fixes without actually entering the community, or ignoring the people who are already connected to each other and the community-- that will destroy more than it helps, too.

Building strong traditions. Finding ways to achieve real self-directed excellence (which is not remotely the same n as scoring well on a test somebody else slapped on you). Building on the economies off sharing that exist.

My homework

This is most of what I think I know now. I will start reading Putnam's book soon; I'm hoping I'll be able to glean some insights from that. I'm sure I'll let you know.

1 comment:

  1. Peter, I'm not a conspiracy buff, but diminishing social capital works for a corporation-driven society. Connections are established between consumer and producer, supplanting the social capital you speak of.

    Many of the folks wrecking our public school systems are the same folks who run the corporations in our consumer society.

    Public education works against their interests, in more ways than I ever thought. Thank you.