does “social capital” mean?
Social networks have value – that is the
central premise of social capital. Social capital refers to the collective
value of all “social networks” [who people know] and
the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for
each other [“norms of reciprocity”].
Why the name "Saguaro Seminar "?
The saguaro [pronounced sah-WAH-ro] is a cactus
that grows in the Sonoran desert in the Southwestern United States.
There are rich parallels between the saguaro and social capital (or
civic engagement). Saguaros were for some time undervalued by modern
American society and often razed. Saguaros are bellwether indicators
of the health of the ecosystem. The saguaro also plays the role of
welcoming host for an environmentally-rich community: vines grow on
its trunk; birds make nests in the saguaro; Native Americans have lived
off its fruit and celebrate its blossoms in festivals; and animals
use saguaro for precious shade. Saguaros have an invisible root system
that is multiples of the visible height of the cacti. And like most
social capital, saguaros grow slowly (husbanding what nourishment the
ecosystem provides) and are tough, long-term survivors.
Seminar, meaning a set of meetings for the exchange
of ideas in an area, comes from the Latin seminarium which means
a seed plot or a nursery.
How does social capital work?
The term social capital emphasizes not just
warm and cuddly feelings, but a wide variety of quite specific
benefits that flow from the trust, reciprocity, information,
and cooperation associated with social networks. Social capital
creates value for the people who are connected and – at
least sometimes – for bystanders as well. Social capital
works through multiple channels:
a) information flows (e.g. about jobs, AIDS, college, etc.) depend on social
b) norms of reciprocity (mutual aid) are dependent on social networks.
· Bonding networks sustain particularized (in-group) reciprocity.
· Bridging networks sustain generalized reciprocity.
c) Collective action depends upon social networks (e.g., the role that the
black church played in the civic rights movement) although collective action
can also foster new networks.
d) Broader identities and solidarity are encouraged by social networks that
help translate an “I” focus into a “we”.
What are some examples of social capital?
When a group of neighbors informally keep
an eye on one another's homes, that's social capital in action.
When a tightly knit community of Hassidic Jews trade diamonds
without having to test each gem for purity, that's social capital
in action. Barn-raising on the frontier was social capital in
action, and so too are e-mail exchanges among members of a cancer
support group. Social capital can be found in friendship networks,
neighborhoods, churches, schools, bridge clubs, civic associations,
and even bars. The motto in Cheers*"where everybody knows
your name"* captures one important aspect of social capital.
What has been happening to Social Capital
in America in last 2-3 decades?
We have found a disconcerting, precipitous
decline in social interactions over the last three decades across
all forms of social capital--formal and informal, high-minded
and leisure, public and private. [A much more thorough exploration
of this subject appeared in Robert D. Putnam’s book
Bowling Alone, Simon & Schuster (2000). ] We start at the civic epicenter: We are bowling alone.
While a record number of Americans bowl today, bowling in organized
leagues plunged 40 percent from 1980 to 1993. Lest you think
this a trivial factoid, over 25% more Americans (91 million)
bowled once or more in 1996 than voted in the 1998 congressional
Our point is not that bowling is critical to America’s
future, but that in bowling leagues, fraternal organizations,
choral societies and thousands
of other places where Americans regularly meet, fellow citizens talk periodically
about issues of civic importance and learn to trust others and work together.
And alas, these civic watering holes are drying up. Civic do-gooding organizations
also have met hard times. The League of Women Voters has lost 42 percent of
its members since 1969. In the domain of schools, PTAs nationwide plummeted
from a membership high in the early 1960s of almost 50 members per 100 families
with school-age children to less than 20 members per 100 in 1997. (This decline
can only partly be explained by the movement of parents from the PTA into Parent
A composite graph of the market share of 30 mainstream civic organizations
(i.e., the percentage of Jewish women in Hadassah, the percentage of blacks
in the NAACP, the percentage of Catholic men in the Knights of Columbus, the
percentage of youth in 4-H, etc.) shows that composite membership market share
has dropped from its peak in the early 1960s to levels not seen since just
after the Great Depression. And alas, it’s not just these particular
organizations. In 1975-76 the average American attended some club meeting once
a month. By last year, that figure had dropped 58 percent to only five meetings
annually. Almost two-thirds of Americans attended at least one club meeting
in 1975-76, but only 38 percent did in 1997-98.
Informal associating also has declined. In 1975, the average American
invited friends over more than 14 times yearly. By 1998 that had
dropped 60 percent
to only eight times a year. Perhaps most alarmingly, the family meal--a ritual
practiced for millennia--may within our lifetimes enter the nation’s
endangered practices list. The fraction of married Americans who definitely
say "our whole family usually eats dinner together” has declined
a third, from about 50 percent to 34 percent in just the last two decades,
and this decline ignores the rapidly dwindling fraction of intact married couples
over this period.
One often hears that we are giving more than ever, even in real dollars, but
this is not the relevant statistic. Although philanthropy has doubled since
1960 in real dollars, real spending on cut-flowers has tripled and real spending
on all forms of entertainment has nearly quadrupled. We are simply far better
off now than then. What is more relevant is how big a share of our income we
give to philanthropy; that is, after all, what tithing is all about. And while
the share of our national income we gave to philanthropy roughly doubled from
1929 through 1964 (rising almost continuously year to year), it has since dropped
by over a third to approximately our 1940 level.
Generalized trust also has evaporated. While 55 percent of American
adults in 1960 believed others could be trusted most or all of
the time, only 30 percent
did in 1998, and the future looks bleaker because the decline was sharpest
among our nation’s youth. Roughly three-quarters of Americans trusted
government to do the right thing most or all the time in 1960, a figure that
sounds quaint today when less than 25 percent trust the government. This disappearance
of trust has huge ramifications for our ability to cooperate and work with
strangers: a citizen at a town meeting or a new neighbor, businessperson, classmate
What caused it?
This is far too complicated a question to
consider briefly. The interested reader is referred to Professor
Robert Putnam’s forthcoming Bowling Alone. After considering
a whole host of reasons, it is most likely that the cause is
probably: 10% sprawl and the increased geographic complexity
of our lives; 10% two-career families and the fact that men haven’t
picked up the civic slack created when more women entered the
paid work force; some 30% television (which seems to cause viewers
to increasingly be less civic and which has absorbed more than
100% of the increase in leisure time from the 1960s); and roughly
30% generational trends (as those born after 1930 have increasingly
been far less civic than those born before 1930). The final roughly
20% is probably a combination of many other factors.
What is the
role of the internet in all this?
A much more thorough answer to this question
will be found in Professor Putnam’s book Bowling Alone,
so this answer will merely scratch the surface.
The internet definitely
did not cause our civic disengagement. Our civic disengagement
began in roughly 1965 and was well underway
when Bill Gates was even in grade school. However, is the internet
now a part of the problem or the answer to our civic engagement?
Probably both. [We note that predictions of how new technology
will come to be used have almost always been way off – the
radio was envisioned only for ship-to-ship communication, and the
telephone was seen as only a business-to-business communication
tool – so any forecast should be taken with many grains of
It is hard to believe
that if America is civicly re-engaged by the year 2020 (and we
hopeful that Americans
can do this), that technology won’t have been a significant
part of the solution. That said, there are major hurdles to overcome.
First, the digital divide means that until access to computers
and the internet is universal, it can’t truly be a tool for
building diverse ties in American communities. Second, we communicate
huge amounts of information non-verbally, and it may be a long
long time until our virtual communication is as information-rich
as our face to face communication. [Note: even high definition
television videoconference conveys far less information than face
to face communication and hence is less efficient at building trust.]
Third, the technology encourages cyberbalkanization: ever more
specialized groups talking about a very specific problem. In such
groups individuals are flamed for off-point comments. One of the
great virtues of more traditional group get-togethers (like Bowling
Leagues) is that no conversation was considered off-point. This
makes it much harder for our conversations to have peripheral community
vision. It makes us communicate more with those like us who are
geographically distant, and thus causes us to know our neighbors
less. This is a real concern if we need to rally our neighbors
to deal collectively with place-based problems: schools that aren’t
working, zoning issues, crime, or even local environmental issues.
Finally, the issue is whether the internet becomes
more like a nifty phone or a nifty television: i.e., whether it
is used more for enhanced person-to-person communication or more
for enhanced entertainment. There are many incentives for industry
to steer the internet towards a nifty TV and if so, this could
have far more negative impact on civic engagement than even the
Most experts agree that if technology is to succeed,
it will have to be used to reinforce face to face ties. We think
that this issue of technology and civic engagement is a critical
one and we hope that lots of citizens and experts spend a great
deal of time thinking about how we can use the technology to do
While the technological solutions have not yet emerged,
there are already examples of people trying to use the technology
to facilitate social capital building. Examples of this can be
found at sites like www.egroups.com (that tries to make it far
easier to form groups), evite.com (that makes it easier to send
invitations for social events), and www.neighborhoodlink.com (that
helps neighborhoods communicate electronically). Some groups like
www.volunteermatch.org have tried to use the technology to make
it much easier to find out about volunteering opportunities. Still
other examples that are in development are the creation of neighborhood
directories using the latest technology, experiments to residents
of poor neighborhoods to get free computers if they share them
with neighbors, and software that makes it really easy to form
latent groups (mothers of kids in a specific 3rd grade class, state
park users, etc.) that one can activate when needed.
forms of social capital increasing? [Things like youth soccer,
Yes, some things definitely are increasing and youth soccer, evangelical religion,
and youth community service are among them. But it has always been true at
any given period that some forms of social capital and social connectedness
are increasing while others are waning. The question is what is the net impact
on social capital when you add up what's increasing and what's decreasing.
And all the examples proffered are small compared to other declines in those
same subject areas. For example, evangelical religion is increasing dramatically,
but mainline Protestant and Catholic church going is declining even more rapidly.
Similarly, while youth soccer is growing, most other forms of youth athletic
participation are on the decline. And counter to popular myth, youth soccer
has not made up the decline in bowling: bowlers' ranks are roughly triple the
number of soccer parents. Even if every soccer mom and dad religiously attended
all their children's games, it couldn't make up for the drop in league bowling.
In short, some forms of social capital are growing, but simply not enough to
stem the decline. [A much more thorough treatment of all the possible counter-examples
are explored in Professor Putnam's book Bowling Alone, which finds no evidence
of increases in some things commonly asserted to be
countertrends: e.g., book groups, connections at the office, local civic associations,
crime watch groups, and eating out other than at fast food restaurants.]
Increases in groups like youth soccer or evangelical
religion or youth community service haven't yet reached the magnitude
to stem our civic declines, but they may be harbingers of an important
civic resurgence that lies below the surface. In addition, they
may well yield insights into what kinds of civic or social capital
opportunities are attractive. Robert Putnam and Lewis Feldstein's
Together: Restoring the American Community (September 2003),
discusses 12 promising examples of social capital building across
the United States and what can be learned from those examples,
in the hopes of catalyzing an increase in our nation's social capital.
How can we build social capital?
We build social capital by creating new ties
and strengthening old ones. These connections may increase individual
well-being and opportunity by linking people more strongly to
their local community and to larger societal resources. Or they
may build community by strengthening bonds that link community
members or by bridging divisions between them. The new ties may
be formal, like a club, association, or civic institution, or
informal, like a group of friends talking or colleagues collaborating.
There is no limit to the number of specific pathways to social
capital creation. How to build social capital in each community,
family, block, or neighborhood is best left to community-based
Is all social capital good?
No. Just as some forms of human capital (like
knowledge of chemistry) can be used for destructive purposes
(like building a bomb), so too some forms of social capital (like
the Michigan militia) can have bad social consequences. Fortunately,
malevolent uses of human and social capital are relatively rare,
which is why we continue to teach chemistry in public schools
and why we should continue to try to build social capital.
social capital too diverse to be captured in one term?
Capital is an abstract concept that encapsulates
huge diversity. Economists wondered whether you could talk about
physical capital (which covers everything from a hammer to a
computer to an automobile assembly plant). Similarly, human capital
covers everything from piano lessons to a vocational course in
cooking or automotive repair, to a graduate degree in Philosophy
and covers education of widely differing quality. So too, social
capital covers a wide diversity of relationships: a team at the
workplace, conversations with one’s neighbors, relationships
with the teachers of one’s children, an alumni network,
people you volunteered with a couple of times. The point in all
these cases (physical, human, and social capital) is that these
underlying attributes can have real value to society and that
someone embedded in social networks that foster reciprocity can
be more effective than someone who is not in such networks, the
same way as someone possessing physical or human capital can
be more effective in a hour than that same person without this
physical or human capital.
Are all forms of social capital good for
Not all social capital is for everything or
everyone. Just as two different forms of physical capital (a
screwdriver vs. a hydroelectric dam) are useful for different
purposes, so two different forms of social capital (a group of
friends at the local bar vs. a group of colleagues at the local
bar association) serve different social purposes.
What are the different types of social
We won’t try to summarize all the different
types of social capital, but as an indication of some of the
ways in which social capital differs, there are social ties stemming
from informal networks (ordinary socializing, work-place ties,
relationships with neighbors, personal support networks) and
those from formal networks, such as being a member of an organization.
Group membership in such formal organizations consists of both
private-minded organizations (primarily designed to produce fun
or fellowship, like a choral society, a baseball league) and
public-minded organizations (designed to tackle an issue of public
concern, like a crime watch group, or a community service organization).
The social ties produced can be analyzed both according
to the strength of those ties (with strong ties being ones that
are regularly used, where the individuals consider each other to
be very close friends, and which often provide personal support
to each other) and weak ties (where the ties are used only occasionally
and tend to be used more for the flow of information). Similarly,
the ties can be analyzed as to whether they are bridging social
capital (bringing individuals together with others who are unlike
them, by race, class, ethnicity, education, religion, age, or gender,
for example) or whether ties are primarily bonding (that bring
individuals together with others like them). [Most groups are bridging
in some ways and bonding in others: the Knights of Columbus is
bonding in terms of religion (since all the participants are Catholic
men) but bridges across dimensions of class and income.]
Why is social capital important?
A growing body of hard-nosed literature over
the last several years shows that social capital enables many
important individual and social goods. Communities with higher
levels of social capital are likely to have higher educational
achievement, better performing governmental institutions, faster
economic growth, and less crime and violence. And the people
living in these communities are likely to be happier, healthier,
and to have a longer life expectancy. In places with greater
social connectedness, it is easier to mobilize people to tackle
problems of public concern (a hazardous waste facility, a crime
problem, building a community park, to name only a few examples),
and easier to arrange things that benefit the group as a whole
(a child-care cooperative among welfare mothers; a micro-lending
group that enables poor people to start businesses; or farmers
banding together to share expensive tools and machinery).
Why Measure Social Capital?
Quite simply we believe we should measure
social capital for 3 reasons:
1) for people who find social capital a difficult,
abstract concept, measurement helps make the concept more tangible;
2) it increases our investment in social capital: in a performance-driven era,
social capital will be relegated to second-tier status in the allocation of
resources, unless organizations can show that their community-building efforts
are showing results; and
3) measurement helps funders and community organizations build more social
capital. Everything that involves any human interaction can be asserted to
create social capital, but the real question is does it build any social capital,
and if so, how much? Is a specific part of an organization’s effort worth
continuing or should it be scrapped and revamped? Do mentoring programs, playgrounds,
or sponsoring block parties lead more typically to greater social capital creation?
Measurement will help funders and community organizations increase their mix
of activities into more things that are a 9 or a 10 on a 10-point scale of
social capital creation, and fewer zeroes, ones or twos.
How can social capital be decreasing when
the non-profit sector is booming?
There is simply said no one-to-one relationship
between the non-profit sector and social capital. While on the
margin, non-profit organizations may be more interested in fostering
social capital than for-profit organizations, one can’t
conclude that because an organization is non-profit, there is
thus a lot of social capital being created. Imagine a non-profit
hospital that becomes privatized: it is hard to imagine that
suddenly the social capital associated with the organization
disappears. Similarly many non-profit membership organizations
with regard to social capital among its members are mere check-writing
organizations (like the AARP) that are surprisingly devoid of
social capital, since its members don’t meet or know each
other. Moreover, many forms of social capital (neighborhood block
parties, pickup basketball, etc.) don’t rely on non-profit
organizations at all. In short, while there are many terrific
non-profit organizations that are actively building and strengthening
community connectedness, it is a big mistake to conflate non-profit
organizations with social capital.
I’ve heard a lot of controversy
over whether Putnam and the “Bowling Alone” thesis
is right. Is our civic disengagement a point of agreement?
Much of the controversy surrounding “Bowling Alone” the article
concerned the fact that the article focused significantly on group memberships
and also focused on memberships in specific organizations (the Elks, bowling
leagues, the PTAs). Three key criticisms were: 1) that it didn’t include
informal schmoozing; 2) didn’t include new more innovative organizations;
and 3) didn’t look at the full range of political forms of participation.
Professor Putnam knew at that time that these other forms of social capital
were equally important, but couldn’t find reliable data source(s) that
would tell us about these civic trends over the last 2-3 decades. Since then,
he accessed data from the Roper Organization and learned about and got access
to the DDB Needham Lifestyle database. Both of these massive data sets, asked
of tens or hundreds of thousands of Americans over the last 25 years, directly
answer these earlier criticisms and show that these trends of civic disengagement
extend both to organizations in general, to informal schmoozing, and to 12
forms of political participation. No academic has called into question the
reliability of these data. Since the publication of Bowling Alone (the book),
there has been far greater acceptance of the fact that we are less civicly
engaged than a generation ago.
Is volunteering increasing?
Yes volunteering has been increasing over the last quarter century. Nevertheless,
it is important to look at this increase by age group. More than all the
increase is captured by those over age 60 whose volunteering has exploded
over the last 25 years (from slightly over 6 times a year on average to well
over 10). The vast middle of the population (those 30-59 years of age) are
actually slightly less likely to be volunteering now than back in 1975. Finally
there is some evidence that the young Americans are slightly more likely
to be volunteering than a quarter century ago, even if some of this volunteering
is required to graduate from schools.
These stark patterns suggest that it is the senior
population that is holding up our volunteering spirit (part of
a long civic generation that has been especially civic all their
lives, from when they were born in the 1920s and early 1930s all
the way through a Great Depression, two World Wars, and up to the
current day). Thus, we are facing less of a Springtime of volunteering
and more of an Indian Summer of volunteering. Despite advances
in modern science, it is only a matter of time until the Grim Reaper
removes this population from the stage. And it will take very impressive
gains among the remaining parts of the population to make up for
their loss since the 30-59 year olds are only volunteering at 60%
the rate of the seniors, and the under 30 crowd is only volunteering
at 40% the rate of these seniors.
How does social capital compare with asset-based
Much of what Kretzman and McKnight term “community assets” are
lodestones of social capital. There is obviously significant benefit to their
approach, in observing that all communities have social capital assets on which
they can build, and in helping communities identify their community assets.
It is also the case that many successful grassroots organizing strategies,
like the Industrial Areas Foundation, have built upon already existing stores
of social capital. Having said this, we also think that it is important to
examine whether the amount of social capital in communities is increasing or
decreasing, and not to assume that simply because there are community assets,
that the stock of social capital is adequate, plentiful, or growing.
How social capital measurement compares
with sustainable development?
Sustainable development and sustainable communities typically
measure indicators that show the overall health of the community:
i.e., looking at measures of
the economy, health, crime, in addition to human and social capital levels.
We completely agree that a community’s stock of social capital is not
the sole measure of a community’s health. Nevertheless, we believe that
social capital is important in that it is a key driver for these other indicators
(economy, health, crime, etc.) rather than merely a goal in and of itself.
Is social capital building an end in itself
or a means to an end?
Often social capital building is not the central activity of
a program: a bowling league is about bowling not socializing,
choral singing is about music not
forming social ties. The social capital built is critical, but often considered
incidental to those running such programs. However, if something like a mentoring
program is not building social capital, it can’t be succeeding since
building these trusting ties is at the heart of what mentoring is all about.
Social capital measurement could be used either to see whether a mentoring
program is actually working, or to measure how much social capital was being
created by a program focused on something other than social capital, such as
a tutoring program. The measurement in the latter case could be used to determine
how to optimize the program so that it achieves its goal of choral singing,
tutoring, or soccer, at the same time as it builds as much social capital as
What is the role of government in all
this? Is government our curse or our salvation?
The field of social capital has attracted
strange bedfellows: folks on the political right who believe
that if we just got government off the backs of the average Joe,
we could usher in a civic rebirth, and folks on the political
left who believe that social capital building is a clarion call
for a new activist role of government.
We think there is no simple one-to-one relationship
between government and social capital. There are clear historical
examples where government directly caused a decline in social capital:
for example, the slum clearance programs in the late 1950s (from
which we are still paying the price), or even the rise of government
funding of kindergardens which caused an entire movement of supportive
and involved mothers to disappear. Conversely there are examples
that showcase how government has built more social capital or capitalized
on what existed: for example, the development of the county extension
service, the key role of postmasters general in curing polio through
the March of Dimes, etc. In fact, Prof. Theda Skocpol has written
that the postal service in general played a signal role in the
nation's early social capital building.
Moreover, if you
compare across states or countries of the world, places with
government per capita actually
have higher levels of social capital. It is hard to determine which
way the causation runs; it probably runs in both directions, but
if nothing else, it is inconvenient for those who like to demonize
the role of government. Probably what’s clear is that government
could be aided by a more thoughtful screen on whether government
programs are likely to augment or decrease the role of citizens.
Do the trends of social disengagement
differ by race?
Yes and no. The declines in social connectedness are an equal opportunity employer.
While levels of various forms of social capital differ by race (e.g., religious
observance is higher among blacks, and some forms of civic engagement are higher
among whites), the trends are down among all races and social classes. More
blacks are in the middle class now than a generation ago, but the decline in
civic involvement is actually greater among college-educated blacks than in
any other group.
Does the social capital decline impact
economic classes differently?
Yes. Social capital is more important for poor people than for
middle and upper class Americans (who have more financial and
human capital). One legacy of
slavery is a social capital deficit, especially in bridging social capital.
Thus the same objective collapse of social capital has greater impact on the
inner city than the suburbs, since the inner city, as Prof. Xavier de Souza
Briggs has noted, lacks bridging social capital to the suburbs to enable it
to “import clout” that would connect the inner city with job opportunities,
political influence, access to capital, etc.