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NEXT: Social Capitalism

David Staley David Staley NEXT: Social Capitalism
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Among the many devastating results of the pandemic was an increase in social isolation. Confined to our homes, connected to others only via Zoom or other electronic networks, social capital diminished as much as financial capital did in the first six months of the pandemic. The economy has since recovered—albeit unevenly—but in some important ways there remains a deficit of social capital in the U.S.

One definition of social capital holds that it is “the links, shared values and understandings in society that enable individuals and groups to trust each other and so work together.” These are the networks that bind us to others, what we might more specifically call “useful networks.” Beyond following people on social media or being linked on LinkedIn—a very meager form of social capital—these are the bonds that facilitate mutual benefit. Think of those who assist their neighbors in a difficult situation, and do so as if they were their own family.  

There are a host of benefits that accrue to a community that has substantive social capital.  

Research consistently shows important benefits related to social capital, such as individuals with higher levels of social capital being happier and finding better jobs. We also see that people report better health and increased levels of trust in a community as a result of their positive relationships. Completing the circle, healthier communities often also report higher levels of social capital.

Social Capital – Health & Economic Benefits of Connecting While Distancing – By Anita Brown-Graham

Oftentimes, if we want to get things done and accomplish big goals in our communities, high levels of social capital are a necessity.  

Two decades ago, the sociologist Robert Putnam observed that Americans were less inclined to join bowling leagues in the numbers they once did.  His study on this phenomenon—titled Bowling Alone—detailed the increasing isolation of Americans, their unwillingness to form associations as they once did. Alexis de Tocqueville, during his tour of the U.S. in the 1830s, famously observed that Americans were a nation of “joiners.” Putnam’s research suggested that Americans no longer seemed to want to join with others. Thus the increase in loneliness brought on by COVID-19 is actually the continuation of a longer pattern in recent American history.

This is one way of looking at the state of social capital today. Since Bowling Alone, the argument is that citizens of the U.S. cocoon in their suburban detached houses, and do not engage with neighbors. While we might keep a close connection to our family, our networks of mutual benefit do not extend much further beyond that.

But another way to assess the state of social capital is to see it as a fragmented system. That is, systems of trust and mutual benefit have splintered into separate “tribes.” Divide them any way you’d like: Red vs. Blue, vaxxers vs. anti-vaxxers, conspiracy believers vs. those grounded in reality. It seems there are more ways to divide us today than to unite us. Absent broad bonds of social capital, accomplishing any societal task becomes more difficult: consider how difficult it has been to get Americans vaccinated or to wear a mask. Our ability to dampen the virus is made that much more difficult as a result of our splintered social capital.

Social capital might remain strong, but only among members of these divergent tribes. Like competing economic blocs, social capital in the U.S. is split: within each bloc, there are robust systems of trust. The decline of social capital, then, means the growing distrust and antipathy between the divergent tribes. There are multiple—and antithetical—systems of shared values.  

We have devised interventions into the capitalist system to stimulate and regulate the economy, to attempt to smooth over shocks to the business cycle or to otherwise mitigate the ill effects of economic recessions. As we have seen during the pandemic, governments have instituted policies to help deal with unemployment and other economic calamities.  

Might we also consider policies that could encourage the development and accumulation of social capital?

Such policies might be aided if we devised a method for measuring social capital. Perhaps we will invent a comparable figure like Gross Domestic Product to measure the amount of social capital in our polity? In the future, we might listen for new metrics of the state of social capital that are publicly announced like the monthly unemployment figures or the daily fluctuations of the stock market.  

Governments—whether city, state or federal—might develop policies designed to invigorate social capital. Think of how the Lieutenant Governor of Ohio is the chief economic development director for the state. It is a matter of government policy to seek out and lure businesses to Ohio—usually with the promise of tax breaks and other incentives. What if it were a matter of state policy that the Governor charged a cabinet-level director with building the social capital of the state, to enact policies that increase links, values, associations, trust and mutual benefit between its citizens?  

In the same way that the President has a Council of Economic Advisors, might a future President convene a Council of Social Capital Advisors?    

David Staley is an associate professor of history, design, and educational studies at The Ohio State University. He is host of the “Voices of Excellence” podcastCreativeMornings Columbus and is president of Columbus Futurists. 

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