Social Capital

The social capital of a community is its social life—the links of cooperation and friendship between its members. It is the institutions, the common culture and ceremony, the good faith and reciprocal obligations, the civility and citizenship, the play, humour and conversation which make a living community. Social capital is the ecosystem in which a culture lives.

Imagine a society which shares an inheritance of stories and poems which have grown out of its own story and experience; imagine that it consists of neighbourhoods where the adults know each other, where they meet often, where members of families have regular meals together, where people tend to live for a long time in the same place, and where there are numerous interconnected networks—music groups, churches, parent-teacher associations, carnival . . . Almost every society contains this social capital to some extent, but, as Robert Putnam shows in his seminal book, Bowling Alone, a society in which it is strong can draw on the cooperation, energy and brilliance of its people; crime is less, education is better, health is stronger, democracy is more secure.S54

A test of the power of social capital is education. There are many things that can influence a community’s schools; they include racial composition, affluence, economic inequality, adult educational levels, poverty rates, educational spending, teachers’ salaries, class sizes, family structure, religious affiliation and the competitive presence of schools in the private sector. And yet, the single most important factor is social capital. In fact, efforts to improve the performance of schools in the conventional ways, unless backed by effective measures to defend or build social capital in the area are, to varying degrees, a waste of time and money. This is illustrated by a comparison of US Standard Attainment Test (SAT) scores in contrasting communities. In North Carolina, SAT scores are low; in Connecticut, they are high. The critical difference between the two states is not wealth, but social capital: social capital sets up the conditions in which successful education is possible. Putnam makes this point graphically: if North Carolina’s residents wanted their efforts in education to be as productive as those in Connecticut, he writes, they could do any of the following:

increase their turnout in presidential elections by 50 percent; double their frequency of club meeting attendance; triple the number of non-profit organisations per thousand inhabitants; or attend church two more times per month.S55

And it is not just education which grows in the fertile soil of social capital: there is a direct impact on health and happiness, too. The more integrated we are into our community life by networks of friendship, with participation in social events and membership of religious and civic associations, the less likely we are to experience colds, heart attacks, strokes, cancer, depression and premature death. Indeed, the positive contributions to health made by social integration and social support rival in strength the detrimental contributions of well-established biomedical risk factors like cigarette smoking, obesity, elevated blood pressure and physical inactivity. Regular club attendance, volunteering, entertaining and church attendance are at least as powerful as conditions of happiness as getting a college degree, more than doubling your income, and maintaining a successful marriage.S56

There is a sense here that everyone can be a pillar of the community, that citizenship is not just about obeying, and doing as one ought, but about loving one’s society, being comfortable in it and even being stimulated by it—living means participating as a citizen; participating as a citizen means belonging to networks of reciprocal services; reciprocal service means a knowledge of, and regard for, local detail, and a tact and sociability that has the vital function of sustaining democracy. There is nothing intrinsic to democracy to prevent it from imposing tyranny and oppression over the minority, nor from collapsing into a bitter contest of aggressively-asserted and mutually-incompatible rights, nor from reducing all issues to facile populism, nor from betraying itself and giving its freedoms away. To endure, it needs the backing of shared common assumptions about fundamentals; it needs access to expertise—and roots in social capital. Social capital protects democracy, providing the essential foundation on which it is built, and it does this in at least four ways.

First, the presence of social capital means that people tend to meet each other a lot, providing the essential interactions from which it is possible to build mutual trust; it sets up the conditions for friendship, for forging alliances, familiarity, tolerance and understanding where otherwise there would be indifference or rivalry. Secondly, informal networks provide an opportunity for debate; talking about issues over meals, for instance, can enable crude, first-blush prejudice to mature to considered and moderated opinion. Thirdly, the clubs and local activities which are part of social capital can provide training in some of the skills of healthy politics—the skills of organisation, listening and tact. And fourthly, social capital provides a local power base; a locality cannot be pushed around by government with the same ease as individual citizens with no organised backing.

The way in which the local civilities of social capital form the building blocks of democracy has been studied in the case of the twenty regional governments formed in Italy in the early 1970s. Some of them were dismal failures—inefficient, lethargic and corrupt; others were successful beyond expectations. Why the differences? Putnam explains,

The best predictor is one that Alexis de Tocqueville might have expected. Strong traditions of civic engagement—voter turnout, newspaper readership, membership in choral societies and literary circles, Lions Clubs, and soccer clubs—were the hallmarks of a successful region.S57

Another way of thinking of social capital is to see it (with the philosopher Michael Sandel) as society’s “institutions”: here we have the links, loyalties, cooperations and meeting places that make a society: clubs, schools, universities, families, villages, town councils, regiments, choirs, traditions and churches, the structures and detail which seed social capital and affirm freedom. And pubs. Yes, like everything else, excess brings its problems but, by some standards, pubs are the most important hubs of all—places where people get together and talk to each other: that is what civilisation is for. Governments that are really serious about reducing the costs of loneliness and mental health problems could make no better investment than a reduction in the tax on beer.S58

These institutions enable people to develop their potential and to align their aims in a common purpose. Members retain their personalities, identities, friendships, humour, inventiveness, and their ability to think—and they adopt the institutional culture without having to surrender their judgment to it. People make their institutions; the institutions make a society that gives the place and the community that lives there an identity.S59

Given that social capital is essential in all these ways, it is a matter of concern that it is going through a process of attrition which has much in common with the patterns of decline and depletion in oil, water, soil fertility and the biological systems which stabilise the climate.


The decline of social capital

One reason for the decline is the high degree of individual self-sufficiency made possible by the market and by its convenient consumer technologies; voluntary networks of reciprocity are not the indispensable lifeline they used to be before the days of convenience goods and the efficient market.

Other reasons include:

1. A lack of time, particularly for women, who were the mainstays of social capital, but who are now too stretched between careers, their personal and family lives to have any time left over. And men’s lives have not eased up to enable them to fill the gap. Equal opportunity is substantially calibrated in terms of money and incomes, and unpaid participation in the informal economy of the community is not seen to have anything useful to contribute to that contest.

2. The lack of time in schools for education in the skills of social capital, such as music, literature, cooking, acting, debating and sports. The standardisation of education makes people less interesting to each other;

3. Car dependency, which means that people rarely meet neighbours in the street;

4. Inner city architecture, which often provides no space even for a table at which families can conveniently eat together;

5. The decline of crafts and the interesting individuality they brought. The members of a community need to have at least something interesting to contribute if they are to build its social capital;

6. The industrialisation of agriculture, and the waning of the rural economy, with its attachment to the land, and to the people who provide the food.

7. The decadence and infantilism that has overtaken religious services, making them unbearable to grown-ups (Liturgy);

8. Ethnic mixing, which (according to subsequent research by Putnam) tends to cause people of all ethnic backgrounds to “hunker down”, keeping to themselves. In these conditions, trust (even of one’s own race) is lower, friends fewer, altruism and community-cooperation rarer, confidence in local institutions weaker, and TV watching heavier.S60 A darker side of this is “communalism”—communities defining themselves by race, with variable obligations to citizens of other races, which may include the absence of any peaceable obligation within the wider community (Multiculturalism).S61

9. And Putnam’s research suggests that very substantial damage to social capital has been caused by television (see “Circuit Breaker” sidebar) and its close relations such as video games, which mean that many children never learn the principle of playing with real people. There have to be some caveats here: the “circuit breaker” research referenced in the sidebar can clearly not be replicated, and there are those that deny that television has had much effect. Nonetheless, the evidence of the decline itself is telling.S62

Television breaks up the networks that form the basis for social capital

“A major commitment to television viewing”, writes Robert Putnam, “is incompatible with major commitment to community life”.S63 People for whom television is their primary form of entertainment (compared with demographically matched people who differ only in saying that TV is not), volunteer and work on community projects less often, attend fewer club meetings, spend less time visiting friends, entertain at home less, picnic less, are less interested in politics, give blood less often, make fewer long-distance calls, send fewer greeting cards and less email, and express more road rage.S64

A telling casualty of television has been the former practice of visiting neighbours in the evening for gossip, music, stories, dance, food. In the southwest of Ireland it was called “scoriarching”;S65 in Wendell Berry’s Kentucky, it was called “sitting till bedtime”S66—and it ceased in place after place with the arrival of television. The Amish, with their celebrated willpower and foresight, kept television out of their communities on the grounds that it would destroy their visiting practices.S67

A survey of research into long hours of television (more than four hours a day), starting in childhood, has been published by Dr. Aric Sigman. On this evidence, heavy exposure makes people ill-equipped for a positive contribution to social capital. It is associated with attention-deficit disorder, impaired development of the brain, speech and social skills, sleep deprivation, minimal time spent in conversation, reading and play, increased violence and bullying, overeating and lack of exercise—leading to obesity and related conditions: reduced libido, depression and poorly-developed social confidence and critical judgment. The survey finds heavy television watching to be destructive across the range of practical, cognitive, social and emotional intelligences.S68


Putnam’s research refers mainly to America, and no claim is made that it applies everywhere, but within the limits of his research, the results are striking. Participation is in decline across the range of political and civic life. Between the 1960s and the turn of the century, the following fell by around fifty percent (or more): the number of people who took a leadership role in any local organisation, membership in a group with a political interest, newspaper readership, knowledge of politics among young people (e.g., a correct answer to the question, “Who controls the House of Representatives?”), and attendance at public meetings on town or school affairs. At the same time, voting declined by a quarter, and the trend accelerated after 1985, with active involvement in community organisations falling by 45 percent.S69 And there is the same story of decline in religious participation. From the 1960s, attendance and involvement in religious activities fell by between 25 and 50 percent, and the remnants of religion have become personal consumer items: religion’s function as a collective act which defines a community, in the Christian church especially, has been buried.S70 Even picnics declined by half between 1975 and 1995. “Americans are spending a lot less time breaking bread with friends than we did twenty or thirty years ago”, writes Putnam. “We engage less often . . .”S71 He concludes,

In effect, the classic institutions of American civic life, both religious and secular, have been “hollowed out”. Seen from without, the institutional edifice appears virtually intact—little decline in professions of faith, formal membership down just a bit, and so on. When examined more closely, however, it seems that decay has consumed the load-bearing beams of our civic infrastructure.S72

Here is evidence from a different source that social capital, expressed in doing things together, is in trouble. An observer of British society, Bill Bryson, is writing of the Ashington Group of artists—the “Pitmen Painters”, whose members were miners in the pit town of Ashington in Northumberland in the 1930s:

It is quite astonishing, seeing it now, to realise just how rich life was, and how enthusiastically opportunities were seized, in Ashington in the years before the war. At one time the town boasted a philosophical society, with a busy year-round programme of lectures, concerts and evening classes; an operatic society; a dramatic society; a workers’ educational association; a miners’ welfare institute with workshops and yet more lecture rooms; and gardening clubs, cycling clubs, athletics clubs, and others in similar vein almost beyond counting. Even the workingmen’s clubs, of which Ashington boasted twenty-two at its peak, offered libraries and reading rooms for those who craved more than a pint or two of Federation Ale. The town had a thriving theatre, a ballroom, five cinemas, and a concert chamber called the Harmonic Hall. When, in the 1920s, the Bach Choir from Newcastle performed on a Sunday afternoon at the Harmonic Hall, it drew an audience of 2,000. Can you imagine anything remotely like that now?

And then, one by one, they faded away—the Thespians, the Operatic Society, the reading rooms and lecture halls. Even the five cinemas all quietly closed their doors. Today the liveliest diversion in Ashington is a Noble’s amusement arcade.S73


Related entries:

Capital, Lean Economics, Presence, Public Sphere and Private Sphere, Dollar-a-Day Fallacy, Socially Solvent, Social Entropy.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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