Rethinking Social Capital

Earlier this fall, there was a ‘Day of Civic Action’ in Phoenix. What a misnomer. What I saw wasn’t civic action, or even community building. Rather it was a ‘see and be seen’ opportunity.

The event was crawling with notable business and community leaders for the morning press release and the luncheon, but when it can time for the ‘action’ part of the day, the suits were nowhere to be seen. The vapidity of the event was succinctly summarized in the recommendation made at the dinner: “Eat dinner with your family more often.” If we need a major event to remember this, declining membership roles in the least of our problem.

Unfortunately, this type of event—and this type of recommendation—are common among most of the civic organizations that I am familiar with. Despite the stated missions of these organizations, many of their members appear less concerned about helping their community, and more concerned about social statutes and climbing career ladders. Perhaps the very term social capital itself is to blame; ‘capital’ implies, money, investment and accumulation. These are—in many ways—the antithesis of community building.

It hasn’t always been like this. Before Robert Putman and his fellow baby-boomers co-opted the concept of ‘social capital’ and narrowly defined it as joining so-called ‘civic groups’ and bowling leagues, it was a much more open concept. Indeed, in 1916, a school supervisor defined “social capital” as composed of:

“Those tangible substances [that] count for most in the daily lives of people: namely good will, fellowship, sympathy, and social intercourse among the individual and families who make up a social unit… if [an individual] comes into contact with his neighbor and they with other neighbors, there will be an accumulation of social capital, which may immediately satisfy his social needs and which may mean a social potentiality sufficient to the substantial improvement of living conditions in the whole community.” —Urban Tribes, by Ethan Watters (pg. 116)

Nowhere in this definition are press releases, luncheons, membership fees or sign-up sheets. Thus when I hear that our civic health is in trouble because we no longer ‘sign-up for things I get frustrated.

It is easy to pay annual membership dues and sit at the back of a meeting and be considered ‘civically engaged.’ Building real social capital  is not so easy. It requires regular contact and interaction with friends and neighbors, even if it is simply sharing gossip.

By remaining in daily or weekly contact, with our friends and neighbors, we  begin to build the intimacy and trust that are integral to community building. We also get caught up on the small talk that can dominate formal ‘networking’ meetings. When it comes time to help out, there is no need to build trust or get caught up; we are ready to jump right in and do what is necessary to help our friends.

Actively engaging with our neighbors  and friends will build a lot more social capital than sitting in a sterile conference room listening to yet another speech by yet another talking head.  Keep this in mind next time you want to ‘build community .’

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Yuri Artibise

Yuri Artibise is an experienced policy analyst, community engagement practitioner and social media specialist. I have a Master of Public Administration degree with over 10 years of public policy research, analysis, and advocacy experience.