Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Discounting Social Capital

Discounting Social Capital

Robert Putnam's latest research begins to show the limits of the social capital concept, to put it kindly.

If you believe that rural South Dakota represents the American Dream and San Francisco is a nightmare, then you might be interested in the recent research findings of Harvard professor Robert D. Putnam (of Bowling Alone fame). He found in survey results that included over 30,000 people in 41 communities throughout the US that various measures of trust in one's neighbors and other indicators of what he calls social capital (a term he uses to mean social networking) decrease as ethnic diversity increases. These preliminary findings were reported in the journal Scandinavian Political Studies earlier this year.

The report certainly presents the statistical case that ethnic homogeneity is a good predictor of whether people express a great deal of trust in people of other races. We are told (but not provided the data) that this correlation extended to other factors like:

  • Lower confidence in local government, local leaders and the local news
  • Lower political efficacy – that is, confidence in their own influence.
  • Lower frequency of registering to vote, but more interest and knowledge about politics and more participation in protest marches and social reform groups.
  • Less expectation that others will cooperate to solve dilemmas of collective action (e.g., voluntary conservation to ease a water or energy shortage).
  • Less likelihood of working on a community project.
  • Lower likelihood of giving to charity or volunteering.
  • Fewer close friends and confidants.
  • Less happiness and lower perceived quality of life.
  • More time spent watching television and more agreement that ‘television is my most important form of entertainment’.

But it seems like something is missing in this analysis. Looking at the chart for the question about trusting one's neighbors (page 12 of the report, if you're reading along), the highest values are registered in rural South Dakota, Bismarck (North Dakota), York (central Pennsylvania), and Fremont (rural Michigan). The lowest values are in San Francisco, the East Bay (across from San Francisco), Boston, Los Angeles, and North Minneapolis. Montana and Central Oregon beat out San Diego and Silicon Valley in the trust rankings. Detroit and Cleveland are better than Chicago, Phoenix, or Denver.

The conclusion that I would draw is not that diversity depresses civic engagement: it might be unfair, but I think it shows that surface measures of civic engagement increase in places where there aren't better things to do. People get to know their neighbors (and thus trust them more) when they don't have other places to hang out.

When rural South Dakota tops the list for civic engagement and San Francisco ranks near the bottom, I am more likely to question the measurement tool rather than lament the condition of the City by the Bay. Why, I wonder, does social capital by these measures seem to be inversely proportional to real estate values?

The whole concept of social capital seems quite backwards to me. The question is not why social capital is declining, the question is why places that suffer from a lack of bowling leagues and fun events like neighborhood barbecues still seem to attract a disproportionate number of immigrants. It appears that there must be something going on in these lonely, unhappy places that makes the whole world still want to live there. Prof. Putnam needs to find out what that is, rather than pine over the passing of outmoded means of political expression.

Another thought. At the end of the article, Prof. Putnam suggests that the US needs to take action to encourage more social networking in our newly diverse communities. One of his suggestions is to expand public support for English language training to help immigrants acculturate. More helpful, it seems to me, would be to accelerate the trend (already well advanced in some parts of the US) toward a completely bilingual US in English and Spanish. If Prof. Putnam could put aside his aversion to modern media, he might see that our shared experience watching telenovelas could replace bowling leagues in the twenty-first century, bringing us all together in civic harmony.

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