Social Capital :: The Cure-All For Social Ills?

by Ericka Stephens-Rennie

I’m generally a fan of such academically fluid (and often disparaged) concepts of ‘civil society’ and ‘social capital’. To me it seems self-evident that our ‘connectedness’ – and the derived norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness – is important to community. Unfortunately, my research, and the research of other social scientists has been chronicling the ‘demise’ or ‘decline’ of social capital, and even of democracy for decades.

What’s all this mumble jumble mean?

Robert Putnam, author of the book Bowling Alone, describes social capital by first pointing out the agreed on value of a screwdriver – physical capital – or a college education – human capital – to increase productivity. Physical capital is made up of physical objects, and human capital is made up of the soft skills individuals have.

Social capital refers to “connections amongst individuals” that include both networks and norms such as reciprocity, neighbourliness, and trustworthiness. Why is this important to community? One reason it is important is because it is only the individuals who are networked and who share norms who are able to share human and physical capital.

Another reason is that communities seem to function “better” when there are high levels of social capital – crime goes down, kids do better in school, marriages are healthier, people self-identify as ‘happy’ or ‘fulfilled’, poverty goes down and even health indicators go up (who knew voting was so good for you?).

Social capital has even been known to cause a whole social network to quit smoking en masse! It really does appear to be some sort of cure-all for some social problems we’ve been trying to sort out for years. Best of all, there’s no contraindications, and it’s safe for all ages!

Anyone can build social capital from kids to soccer moms to geeks to corporate suits to eighty-year-olds who love to lawn bowl. It happens on the playground, in the church, at the grocery store, in the office, or in the public square.

It happens when I meet you, and you tell me you’re interested in issues of poverty, and I introduce you to my friend Joe who works alongside low-income folks in Parkdale, and he introduces you to his friend Phyllis who works through various arts mediums to help street-involved young people, who introduces you to some guys who were streamed out of the education system and now use hiphop to get in touch with students to change mindsets

It happens when I spend time at my fav local wine bar where I not only enjoy fantastic food and wine, but make a connection with the owner, his brother, the guy who always sits at the bar, and random Parkdalians who do really cool things. It happens when you help a local business person carry an armful of stock down the street to the store, and when one of those business people feels like he knows you well enough to act as a neighbourhood reference for you on a job application.

The point is, it happens when we get connected. It’s these connections that link individuals into, throughout, among and between community(ies).

Since moving to Ottawa I’ve realized just how connected I was in Toronto…and the converse, how unconnected I am in Ottawa. I feel this frenetic urge to ‘plug in’ somewhere (anywhere?!), to find a place where I can get connected, get my hands dirty and get to work. But where do I start? Ottawa’s so big, and I don’t know my way around, or what kinds of organizations live here and might need my help. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed.

But where did I start in Toronto? With a few small faith communities. With shopping almost exclusively at small local businesses and the local farmers markets. With eating at local restaurants. With baking, caring for, and loving neighbours. With the garden in the back yard.

It started with repeatedly living locally.

Connectedness – social capital – by its nature is best created in a small geographic area in which you can repeatedly meet the same people. One of the key proofs of this is that people in rural areas tend to have higher levels of social capital. So how should we create social capital in the city? By constraining the area in which we live, shop, eat, take walks, and, yes, go to church. Attending a local church is, I think, a key part how to effectively create higher levels of connectedness in our communities.

So don’t just do it for gas prices, do it because even in exile, you believe in the importance of seeking the welfare, peace and prosperity of your neighbourhood. Pray for it – yes! – but embrace it, join organizations in it, walk through it, buy groceries in it….

Live in it.

Ericka Stephens-Rennie

3 Responses to “Social Capital :: The Cure-All For Social Ills?”

  1. lisa

    Ericka, this essay was fantastic! I seem to have some sort of allergy that prevents me from digesting “acedemically fluid (and often disparaged)” terms like Social Capital — way to boil it down to practical terms.

    I’ve been sitting in Holland for almost a year wondering how to plug in, and (honestly) wishing I had the energy and pluck of an Ericka or a Liz while making slow, *embarrasingly laborious* progress. Soooo…i’d be intested in hearing some more dispatches of how you guys are doing with living-locally and plugging-in, in Ottawa. I might even write some more of my own…

  2. Matt M

    As a worker in the IT field, it continually distresses me that the more connected we become from a technological point of view, the less connected we become in meatspace. I’m a little ashamed to be part of that.

  3. Social Capital: From Sad Stories to Happy Endings? « Empire Remixed

    […] of the reasons social capital is academically disparaged (see my last post) is because it’s so hard to measure. I posted recently about some of the ways we build social […]


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