What’s all this I hear about ‘social capital’?

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the LeRoys

David and Judith LeRoy are co-directors of TRAC Media Services, a Tucson-based service to public TV stations that performs research, analyzes audience data and provides tools for monitoring fundraising.

Can you remember when you first heard the word “paradigm”? All of sudden everything was “paradigms” — shifting, evolving or disappearing . . . paradigms. Well, “social capital” is in much the same state these days. Everybody is using the term, and its meaning seems to be intuitive. When Bob Putnam penned his now-famous “Bowling Alone” article (and later a book), it resonated with many different people — politicians, pundits and preachers — because it named something that many had felt and experienced, such as the decline in voting or the disappearance of neighborliness.

As you would expect, with such a concept there are many different definitions, mostly depending upon who is doing the defining (sociologists, political scientists, educators or economists, to name but a few). And most of those definitions are oddly abstract, like trying to define the concept of irony. You almost have to experience it to “get” it.

So let us start with social capital among the poor, the really dirt poor. The poor do have something to lose … each other and their few possessions, their social capital. The poor depend upon their familes, their neighbors and perhaps their churches.

“Intuitively, then, the basic idea of social capital is that a person’s family, friends and associates constitute an important asset, one that can be called on in a crisis, enjoyed for its own sake and leveraged for material gain,” according to one of the simplest definitions, by international development specialists Michael Woodcock and Deepa Narayan. “What is true for individuals, moreover, also holds for groups.” One’s social connections, networks of friends and associates, constitute “assets,” in this case social capital. Naturally, it can get more complicated than this.

Types of capital and social trust

We learn our social skills literally and figuratively at our mother’s knee. How should we behave with our siblings, with the neighbors, in school, in the Girl Scouts or at soccer practice? Sooner or later, we grow up and leave the nest, and have to function outside the family.

Modern societies function as well as they do because we have internalized how we should behave toward others and expect them to treat us likewise. These norms of behavior are characterized by their reciprocity between people. One of the key factors is trust. It develops slowly, and we extend it cautiously, but society could not function without it. Clearly, not everybody obeys the “rules,” so we have laws to discourage the running of red lights and other offenses. If people did not follow the rules, we literally would need police on every street corner, and the cost of maintaining such a society would be astronomical. So we trust each other to stop at red lights and follow other rules, and this trust has enormous economic consequences for a society.

As we mature, we develop social networks of friends and associates, and in due course, build up social chits (favors owed and returned). “What are friends for?” is a common refrain when someone helps us out. Some of us are better at this networking than are others. We have these links (in the sociological jargon) in a variety of situations — at work, in our neighborhood, with our old school chums and so on.

Social capital can be accumulated or used at the “micro” level of individuals, or at the “macro” level of cities and states. The two levels are interrelated, but distinct.

Social capital has consequences in how well one’s “local” community functions. Communities rich in social capital (that is, having citizens who participate in society) have higher levels of personal economic wealth, happiness and health, as well as less crime and so on. The lubricant that makes all of this work is, of course, social trust. No trust, no social capital.

Wisconsin has more social capital than Alabama, as Putnam has pointed out. How to determine the levels of social capital in a community is the subject of much discussion. In most recent studies, individuals are surveyed and asked about such things as: voting in elections, reading newspapers, having friends of a different ethnicity, being officers in civic associations, attending church, trusting others, volunteering for good works, giving to a charity and so on. Another set of indicators is community spending on schools, health services, assistance programs and other programs that benefit the citizenry.

Touching at touchpoints

One key feature in all this is that we are human, flesh and blood, with physical desires that demand to be satisfied — eating, sleeping, reproducing and so on. Thus, social capital is anchored in our very humanness and functions because of it. The celebrated rationality of the species shares a body driven by hard-wired instincts and emotions that have not changed in 200,000 years. Society evolved, we did not. The species survived, and in some instances prospered, because it developed tools and rules. We are labeled social creatures because we developed methods of cooperation.

A current buzzword in marketing circles these days is “touchpoints.” Meeting and greeting another person is one common touchpoint. Supposedly, when we interact with a company on the Internet, or purchase a product in a supermarket, these events are touchpoints. At each touchpoint, we use all of our senses to evaluate the other person or company. Note the important words “touch” and “senses.” We use the same perceptual equipment when we build or expend social capital.

Our ability to survive these many millennia is rooted in our neocortex, an astounding piece of flesh that is the best “people reader” and calculating machine that the world has ever known. Today we are inundated with notions of cyber-communities and broadcast audiences, but these electronic gatherings do not create or sustain the human aspect of community. Research shows that people need to literally touch each other before community emerges. Blame it on our neocortex, but this is the way we have to function. Just sending an e-mail is not enough. Or as an African American woman said in a recent focus group, “you got to be on the ground, in the community.”

So one crucial feature about touchpoints is that, sooner or later, there has to be “touching” to close the evaluation loop, which means that, sooner or later, the relationship must be confirmed locally — in a place, “on the ground.” In some instances, the research literature suggests, there needs to be only one instance of “touching.” Once this has happened, most of the other communications can occur via TV programs, phone calls, e-mail or other media. In a Berkeley study of cyber-communities, the people clustered into Internet “clubs of shared interests” and eventually they all had to meet each other face to face. They met at potluck suppers in a local park, and they continued to meet afterwards on the Internet.

Sometime, somehow, somewhere we need to “touch” to close the human communication loop.

Types of social capital

One kind of social capital is easy to develop — bonding social capital. This develops among people who share the same characteristics, be they religious faith, club membership or home neighborhood. People with bonding social capital tend to be similar in race, taste or gender.

Bonding social capital sometimes develops among public broadcasting members. They share an appreciation of the programming. Just as someone who loves classical music can join the symphony society, these viewers become public television members. Bonding social capital is laced with emotional overtones — positive and long-lasting — and creates social chits between people and institutions. Thus institutions can develop reservoirs of social capital that reside in their viewers and listeners. (Bonding social capital can also have negative effects, when bonding occurs in gangs or Nazi youth groups.)

The other form of social capital is the most sought-after — bridging social capital. Here people and groups reach across the divisions of race, religion and neighborhoods to bridge and develop social capital with members of different groups. This is the engine of democracies, where diversity and division are overcome for the common good of the community.

Bridging social capital is the realm in which public broadcasting can flourish (and prosper) by fostering and supporting a civil society. It can accomplish this goal simply by using what some call the social capital lens when it makes programming decisions.

The lens of social capital

An example or two should suffice. Suppose you are sitting on a community planning committee, and a developer proposes a new subdivision where there are no sidewalks, parks or green spaces. Will this encourage the development of social capital? On the opposite end of the spectrum, what if the committee mandated that all new homes have front porches so that people could sit there on summer evenings and talk with passing neighbors?

You also use the social capital lens when you ask yourself, how could this program or story or pledge drive promote social interactions that could foster social capital? Certainly not every decision needs to be or deserves to be assessed through the social capital lens. But you would routinely consider social capital consequences when you make decisions.

For example, how can the station be better organized so that it fosters social capital within its staff? Is it possible for your employees to volunteer in the community? Do they get time off for volunteering? Who or what communities does the station reach out to in some regular form?

Outreach is the litmus test of the station as an incubator of social capital. When we say that outreach should be professionalized, we mean that outreach, as a station activity, should have the full-time staffing and resources to be “on the ground,” creating sustainable contacts in the various communities that the stations serve. The Ready to Learn effort by many stations is an example of their positive community impact.

Outreach is an important story that has not been properly communicated by many stations to community leaders and viewers.

It marks a significant difference between public broadcasting and commercial broadcasting or cable.

Station management can have enormous effect on their communities by subtly shifting their vision and reallocating resources for genuine and continuous outreach into their communities.

Depending on their levels of social capital, communities may experience either vicious cycles or virtuous cycles. When they fail to develop social trust, they can enter into vicious cycles of escalating distrust, and positive developments grind to a halt. We have seen this happen in racial relationships, in Africa and the Middle East and closer to home. How a vicious cycle gets started sometimes remains a mystery, and how to break the cycle is often unfathomable.

When there is no social trust, qua social capital, people and society suffer. But when it is present we have virtuous circles, where neighborhoods work, people are safe to walk the streets, the schools educate and enlighten our children, and happiness is possible.

Public broadcasting’s role is clear in both instances: its programming and outreach can do enormous good when it focuses its lens on fostering social capital and building civil society.


Public Television in Civil Society, a site created by the LeRoy’s research firm, TRAC Media Services.

Bettertogether.org, featuring Putnam material.

World Bank material on nonprofits and civil society and social capital.

How communities are built and sustained. (Rural communities are discussed, but the concepts apply elsewhere.)

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