Monday, August 20, 2012

What Is Social Capital?

Human beings may be smart, but some scholars suggest that it may be our incredible need to be social and connect with others that has allowed us to take over the world. Some evolutionary biologists, like Edward O. Wilson and David Sloan Wilson (among others), argue that people who bind together into groups that are better able to cooperate with each other will outlast groups less successful in cooperating with each other. The debate on this idea of group-level selection is on-going, but raises a question that is not contingent on group-level selection being empirically-confirmed.

What makes some groups better at promoting cooperation between and well-being among its members? Or, more simply, what makes some groups better for people than others?

Many people throughout history have mused on this idea, but only in the 19th century did scholars interested in the human community start conducting scientific studies to test their theories.

Alexis de Tocqueville studied the young United States of America and stated that "America is an exceptional country where people are engaged and participate in their government in ways that even people in other democracies around the world do not; Americans of all ages, all stations of life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations... In democratic countries knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge; on its progress depends that of all the others." Here, de Tocqueville is suggesting that the US is a remarkable place because of the culture of cooperation and civic participation that seemed greater than in other democratic countries.

Later, French sociologist Emile Durkheim theorized that communities that are socially integrated and that create a moral order where members are connected to each other will be the most cooperative with the happiest citizens. In the book On Suicide, Durkheim reported findings on how Catholics had lower suicide rates than Protestants. He explains that this may be because Catholics have stronger social communities because they are more integrated and that social integration improves well-being.

Durkheim reports that other less-integrated people had higher suicide rates than more integrated people, too. Adults without children commit suicide more than adults with children. Single adults commit suicide more than married adults. Individualistic (Scandinavian) countries have higher suicide rates than more group-oriented countries (e.g., France, Italy). More recent work suggests that conservatives are happier than liberals, and that this may be due to conservatives being more group-focused and liberals being more individual-focused.

Research on the idea of social integration and connection to one's community grew rapidly following the publication of Robert Putnam's book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. In it, Putnam describes the basic ideas proposed by de Tocqueville and Durkheim as "social capital."

Social capital, still loosely defined here, is more or less people's engagement in their community and their trust in each other.

When people are engaged in their communities, perhaps by being active members of voluntary social organizations like bowling leagues (hence the book's title), the communities tend to have lower mortality and suicide rates, higher education levels, better physical and mental health, and more trust in fellow community members. In other words, communities with a lot of social capital tend to be great in promoting the citizens' well-being and improving cooperation among citizens. (Although, as would be expected from the group-level selection-based evolutionary theories, high social capital may also negatively impact interactions among people who belong to different communities. Putnam does not focus much on this, but in Bowling Alone he does present some evidence showing that the communities with the highest social capital are ethnically-homogeneous / segregated. For an interesting take on how to build social capital even across ethnic and other group boundaries, check out Putnam's new book Better Together: Restoring the American Community)

At the Stanford University Summer Institute in Political Psychology, Laura Stoker leveled two strong critiques of social capital research.

First, social capital is measured in lots of ways. Putnam often assesses social capital by asking about people's participation in voluntary social organizations. Others, though, infer it by examining network density, or trust of people in a given community. Some even argue that social capital cannot be assessed at any single level of analysis by asking individuals about how they relate to people in their communities or by looking at aggregate levels of participation in organizations based on community-level census data. Rather, these latter researchers suggest that social capital is an emergent phenomenon that happens between levels of analysis (see this paper for more). According to Stoker, these diverse measurement approaches suggest that the concept is not adequately defined.

Second, Stoker points to problems with some of Putnam's analyses. One issue in them, is that they tend to treat the country as the primary unit of analysis and fail to consider the diversity of communities within a country. This aggregation issue calls into question the validity of his transnational studies comparing countries with varying degrees of social capital. Yet, in other studies, Putnam treats the "state" as the primary unit of analysis and shows substantial variability between states (providing support for Stoker's claim that aggregating across states is inappropriate). Stoker also points out that although Putnam highlights the positive relationship between education and social capital (that is, more educated people have more social capital), yet most of his analyses statistically control for education. When re-running some of his analyses, she claims that the downward trend in social capital (as measured by membership in voluntary organizations) in the United States is only downward when controlling for education. If this is the case, there is some sort of interesting statistical suppression occurring that muddies the story on the importance of social capital.

So, social capital seems to be an important topic to study, as it may help people to find communities where they can satisfy their need to belong and connect with others who share their values, but it is one that needs more specificity. Researchers need to review the methods of the many studies done on this topic and figure out what measurement approaches predict what outcomes. Researchers then need to organize this into a clearer theoretical framework, so that others may contribute to our understanding of human communities and use these findings to improve our communities.

Let's start with you. What do you think social capital is? How should it be measured?

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