Brother, Can You Spare a Social Capital?

Is there a way to measure the social resources of individuals and groups – and does the effort to do so distract us from the real causes of poverty and inequality?

"If only we were more connected..."

Not long ago, liberals found a new lodestar in their endless search for some kind of political direction. This was in the 1990s, when the Reagan-Gingrich consensus was in full force and the left seemed to be lost in the wilderness of political irrelevance. Bill Clinton and other politicians seized on the theme of community (most prominently championed by the sociologist Amitai Etzioni) as a salve for the problems of crime, broken homes, failing schools, widening inequality, and diminished economic opportunity. If American society seemed to be going to the dogs, then it was a declining sense of community that was to blame.

How these problems were supposed to be solved with Community™ was never exactly clear. It had something to do with family values, the V-chip, school uniforms, and locking up every pot dealer from Santa Barbara to Sheboygan. Like most political shibboleths, it was better used as a banner and a cudgel in campaigns than as a hard-nosed policy prescription. But like the most successful clichés, there was also something about the rhetoric that resonated with the public, which seemed to comport with lived experience in a way.

Then came Robert Putnam. The sociologist’s 2000 book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community was a smash success, drawing as it did on an impressive array of empirical data to make a simple point: Americans were less involved with their communities than in the past. Whether it was membership in the Elks or the Rotary Club, or simply having your neighbors over for dinner, Putnam argued that Americans were doing much less of it. Like the Greatest Generation mania of recent years, Putnam’s thesis tapped into a deep well of feeling that society used to be healthier, more wholesome, and just plain nicer back in the old days.

For scholars, the key part of Putnam’s analysis has to do with social capital – “that is, social networks and the norms of reciprocity in contemporary postindustrial societies,” as he put it. He has elsewhere described it as “the very fabric of our connections with each other.” The novelty of this idea (though Putnam certainly did not claim to have invented it) was that there was some elusive quality in people and communities that had a genuine value, albeit one that did not directly register in terms of dollars and cents.

In other words, looking at tax returns or home values for a community would not necessarily tell you everything you need to know about the wealth of the people who lived there. As Putnam and Kristin Goss argue, “The single most common finding from a half century’s research on the correlates of life satisfaction in countries around the globe is that happiness is best predicted by the breadth and depth of one’s social connections.” This can have a narrowly material meaning, in the sense that “who you know” has a hard economic value when you’re looking for a job and you have great connections. But it can also refer to an individual, family, or community’s ability to cope with stress and solve problems by relying on reciprocal bonds.

Certainly, it seems reasonable enough that communities where people know their neighbors and can turn to them for help would be happier and more successful than those where people live in isolation from each other – alone as they fret over bills and the evils of the world on the 11 o’clock news. Individuals who can reach out to friends and relatives for advice on how to deal with a broken down car, a financial problem, or how to get their kids into college would seem likely to fare better.

Things get trickier when you consider the real world implications of this idea. Are poor people poor because they lack social capital – that is, they do not have a sufficient network of friends, neighbors, and family to support them? We have heard this argument before in a different guise – the pathology of poverty, particularly among African Americans who migrated to the cities of the North in the mid-twentieth century. According to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Nick Lemann and others, the breakdown of the traditional family and community networks led to the poverty and violence of Pruitt-Igoe and Cabrini-Green.

Many scholars challenged this interpretation, pointing to devastating job losses in the course of deindustrialization, the racist war on drugs, and the inadequacies of public housing and other services as cause for the despair of inner-city life, particularly in the North. In a broader sense, it is not clear at all that low-income communities have an inferior web of social connections when compared to upper-income nuclear families who live in gated suburbs and send their kids to private schools. If anything, social networks are part of what makes it possible for families to survive in the face of economic and legal conditions that are heavily stacked against them. (The work of Sudhir Venkatesh on networks in poor urban communities is worth considering in this respect.)

The problem may lie in Putnam’s understanding of social capital as a public good. He has treated it as a measurable quantity, an asset that an individual or community can have more or less of – more connectedness, or less. And although Putnam acknowledges that social capital can have negative “externalities” like any other capital, it mostly seems to be a good thing. The more social capital, the better.

One wonders if the same people who joined the Elks lodge in 1920 were bolstering their social capital when they attended Klan meetings. Is racist violence a negative externality of Klan capital? When a Yale grad has his pick of cushy jobs in Los Angeles because his dad knows the head of UCLA Law School, is his enjoyment of social capital hurting other job seekers? His competitors also know people, but the capital they have just isn’t worth as much.

In other words, not all social connections are created equal. The work of Pierre Bourdieu comes in handy here, as the French sociologist saw social capital as not just “more of a good thing.” He emphasized that social capital, just like financial wealth, is accumulated over time, and he recognized that one person’s gain in social capital could disadvantage another – as when a wealthy family passes on the benefits of its own web of connections to its progeny, while a person who is a first-generation college student may struggle to negotiate the terrain of schooling and the job market. For Bourdieu, social capital is “the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition… which provides each of its members with the backing of collectively-owned capital.” This capital defines the group but also “reaffirms the limits of the group.”

It is through social connections – the ability to live in certain neighborhoods, belong to certain cultural organizations (like churches), and gain access to certain schools and jobs – that people acquire cultural capital. This kind of capital encompasses the assets that privileged people can deploy to navigate the system, the savoir-faire that includes how to dress, how to speak, how to fill out a college application. As Bourdieu has shown, the acquisition of skills, knowledge, and good taste makes it possible for middle and upper class people to perpetuate their own privilege. In this view, inequality results not from a lack of connection to others but from a lack of access to the networks through which privilege and distinction emanate.

Of all institutions, schools are probably the most important factories of cultural capital. In a post-industrial society where earning a decent living seems impossible without an education – and sometimes very difficult with one – schools are the engines of both opportunity and inequality. Hence, today’s twin obsessions with gaining access to the upper end of the educational system (for the elite and wannabe elite) and fixing the public schools (for the poor and middle class).

Ironically, many in the professional class devote their tireless energies to providing “the best” for their children – the best private schools, the best shot at an Ivy League education – by working 60-70 hours a week and becoming less connected to their families and neighbors. In the process, they impoverish the social connections that Putnam holds dear. On the other end of the spectrum, working-class parents take on two or three jobs just to keep body and soul together, unable to participate in school and community in ways that would give their own children a better chance at success. Either way, the chasm between those who can provide entrée to social privilege and economic opportunity and those who cannot continues to broaden.

Why does this happen? Is it because prestigious colleges and universities can ensure their cultural capital remains much desired (and expensive) by keeping it scarce? This certainly benefits the proud parents of Harvard grads, since the prestige that cost them so dearly continues to pay dividends on the job market. Is it because economic policies (like tax cuts and deregulation) have enriched the wealthy and privileged, who can afford to pay more and more for an elite education – leading to an escalating sort of educational arms race?

Perhaps we would do better to consider structural economic factors that exacerbate inequality and make family life difficult if we want to understand why Americans are more stressed and pine for better days. The risk in Robert Putnam’s work on social capital is that it diverts our attention from causes to effects. Is it not more comfortable to talk about why people don’t belong to the Elk Lodge any more, instead of tackling the much thornier problems of Americans working more for less, lacking the time to be parents, and sending their children to broadly unequal schools? Putnam rues the fact that “having friends over” has dropped 35% in the last twenty five years; this change certainly has something to do with the narcotic of television and the divisions imposed by cars and suburbia, but it also has a whole lot to do with the daily struggle of the poor and the middle class to survive in today’s economy. Why do we not have people over anymore? Are we just a bunch of jerks?

Critics such as Barbara Arneil (in her excellent book Diverse Communities: The Problem with Social Capital) have called Putnam out for his nostalgia, arguing that the rosy past of civic participation was not so great for women and people of color. Certainly, the narrative of declining social capital seems to run parallel to the increasing entrance of women into the workforce since the 1960s, as well as the emergence of civil rights and multiculturalism. Homilies about “togetherness” and “community” seem to mask some kind of yearning for a more harmonious, homogeneous past – and, if this is so, they seem to imply that the inequality and despair of recent decades is somehow tied to the changing politics of gender and race. Conservatives have often decried the hyperindividualism of the generation that demanded all kinds of rights and self-fulfillment, and the social capital thesis provides them with a sophisticated intellectual defense of their views.

In my view, focusing on social connectedness is the wrong approach. Although Putnam found a wide variety of measures to quantify a drop in social capital, it remains possible that people have simply changed their ways of being connected. The rise of online social networking since Bowling Alone was published provides one possible example. More importantly, this analysis shifts the blame for society’s woes from the economic and political changes that have made people’s lives more difficult and toward their own failure to connect with each other. Deindustrialization left those without white-collar skills and education with few prospects of decent pay, creating a widening gap between low-paid service jobs and professional work; policies such as the drug war and mandatory minimum sentencing have ensnared millions in a losing battle with the criminal justice system; perceptions of failure have gutted public institutions, as those who can flee to charter schools and private education.

All of these factors mean that people from various walks of life struggle harder to keep their heads above the water, and have less time for the good things in life, which Robert Putnam and his followers wish we would pursue. Perhaps it is a lack of access to cultural capital – education and other markers of class – that most disadvantages many Americans today, rather than a functional measure of how connected or disconnected we are from each other. Or maybe it is human capital, human potential that is most wasted in a country with the world’s highest incarceration rate, where the intelligence and skills of millions are lost on the unemployment line or behind a cash register. In the dynamics of a competitive capitalist society, where one missed paycheck or one arrest can send you down the road to ruin, who has time for the Knights of Columbus?

Alex Sayf Cummings


  1. the best example of accumulated social and economic capital as almost perpetually self-sustaining are the minor major league schools (mostly liberal arts colleges: smith, kenyon, skidmore, etc.) that educate the students who largely attended prestigious private schools (brearley, collegiate, etc.) and public schools (townsend harris, stuyvesant, etc.), but still can't get into the major league schools (ivy league, univ. of chicago, mit).they're not particularly intellectually gifted students but are able to continue their privileged upbringing because their parents have enough money to socialize at the local yacht club. meanwhile, their kids memorize facts about art and think about how precious they is self-destructive for the usa to allow so many americans to tread in the shit of their sink-or-swim financial obligations/constraints without (a lot of the time) ever having an affordable and quality opportunity (it shouldnt be privilege) to study. solution: marxist revolution?what does professor cummings suggest?next post, professor reft should write about wade-giles vs. pinyin or hugh grant's increasing resemblance to a lima bean or david miliband's spray-on white hairs.

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