Social Capital: From Sad Stories to Happy Endings?

by Ericka Stephens-Rennie

One 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 capital (by playing sports, joining committees and clubs, caring for friends, neighbours and acquaintances, and, basically, living our lives in a way that is repeatedly local).

I also wrote about who is able to build social capital (from kids to soccer moms to geeks to corporate suits to eighty-year-olds who love to lawn bowl). Remember, social capital “happens when we get connected.”

In theory a ‘good’ or ‘healthy’ society should have a large and growing amount of social capital. But how the heck do you track that? Usually social scientists use indicators. Indicators are stand-in variables for when you can’t access the real deal.

How do you measure ‘connectedness’? The same way you measure ‘democracy’, or ‘faith’. By using stand-ins. The indicators often used by social scientists to track social capital include things like: newspaper readership and letters to the editor; number of community events and the percentage of community attendance at those events; membership and participation in organizations; church attendance; perceptions of ‘safety’ and ‘trust’; size of social networks; intensity of relationships outside the family; voter turn-out; etc. Do these things exactly measure social capital? No, but they get at aspects of it.

A lot of the time, social capital research is done at the national level. That is, these indicators are collected and then compiled to make national averages. There’ve even been continent-wide averages, which tend to show, quite impressively and irrefutably that social capital is on the decline. After proving that social capital is in decline, these social scientists inevitably turn to a model that I will (with little affection) call the Disparage the Youth model.

According to the Disparage the Youth model (aka: the Deficit Model), young people are ‘less good’ citizens. Social scientists often report finding that young people aged 18-35 are less likely to have newspaper subscriptions to a national paper, less likely to vote in national elections, less likely to volunteer for the Big Charities (eg. most diseases, United Way, hospitals, etc.), and less likely to be a part of Animal Clubs (eg, the Moose, the Eagles, etc.).

These social scientists go on to note that variables which, in the past, could be correlated with higher levels of social capital don’t seem to have such a strong correlation for younger generations. For example, if our parents and grandparents attended university they were much more likely to be involved in their communities and, therefore, contribute to higher levels of social capital. Now, despite the fact that education levels are rising, we see a decline in social capital.

In summary, the Disparage the Youth model goes like this: Once upon a time people were good citizens, who read newspapers, joined clubs and voted. Then they had kids. And something went wrong with those kids, because those kids read the newspaper less, participate in community less and vote less. Heck, those kids Just. Don’t. Care.

This is a narrative of social capital decline, democratic decay, and, ultimately, an unhappy ending.


But what if we’re measuring wrong? What if this isn’t the case? What if we start with the Hope in the Youth model (aka: the Engagement model), and start to investigate whether or not there’s been a shift in how young people engage?

Maybe the youth aren’t reading the newspaper like Dad did because they’re reading blogs which they trust more because they’re not owned by transnational companies (TNCs) that also own stakes in the military-industrial (and I would add, entertainment) complex. So maybe you can’t count newspaper readership as a legitimate indicator for social capital.

And maybe the youth don’t attend the big denominational churches, but choose to attend small church plants and house churches, where they are challenged, used, and known by and in their communities. So maybe you can’t just count church attendance at mainstream denominations as an accurate indicator for social capital.

Maybe people aged 18-35 homeschool their kids because they have ethical problems with mainstreaming issues like disrespect and bullying, and don’t support kids getting streamed out because the curriculum is boring or irrelevant to their lives. Maybe instead these parents form small associations with other homeschooling parents. So maybe you can’t just count Parent Advisory Councils, and kids’ participation in school sports days if you’re seeking a good indicator of social capital.

And, hey, maybe youth vote less because they feel the process is not inclusive, more pseudo-interactive than interactive, because there are no good choices, or because they know that politicians will just do as they please (or as Big Business pleases) once elected.

Maybe instead they vote (or even run) in municipal elections where they have a hope of making some difference. Or maybe they just say, “To hell with voting,” and just get their hands dirty with community gardens – how’s that for H.O.P.E.? – and community, neighbourhood, and street organizations.

Maybe young people have found other (equally? more?) effective ways of engaging in their city. So maybe national and provincial voter turnouts aren’t great indicators for social capital.

What kind of narrative do these things yield? Well, for starters, it’s a narrative that tells social scientists about an academic imperative to discover and test new indicators for measuring social capital, or else their work (my work – yikes!) may soon be irrelevant. This will not be easy work. But it is important work.

But enough about stories for social scientists – this is a story that pertains to all of us! Turns out if we look through the lens of engagement, we easily find a narrative of civic optimism, and of democracy renewed. A Happy Ending.

Ericka Stephens-Rennie

One Response to “Social Capital: From Sad Stories to Happy Endings?”

  1. Jim

    Small counter-point — A large number of people that I work with (in the “youth” age group) really are not engaged in their communities. They may read the newspapers on-line, but they are not interested in engaging in community groups, or volunteer organizations. Those with kids often use what little free time they have to take their kids to various activities, but they themselved don’t engage. Those that do not have kids, either spend their free time doing house work, or playing video games. I think there has been a bit of a cultural shift, but that is more do to people having even less free time, and not valueing social participation as much as their parents did.


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