Monthly Archives: August 2008

Almost invisible, everyday acts of compassion

“The world is never saved in grand messianic gestures, but in the simple accumulation of gentle soft almost invisible everyday acts of compassion.” says Chris Abani, a storyteller of interpersonal humanity. He recalls the S. African phrase of ubuntu: the only way to be human is to reflect your humanity back on me. “There is no way for us to be human without other people.” Hear him tell about others, including stories of his mother who once said, “anything a man can do, I can fix.” His mother never cried through the horrors of dealing with years of Nigerian oppression and destitution but wept openly when a stranger in Lisbon, hearing of her woes, offered her and her children the clothes and toys from her suitcase. His mother commented: “You can steel your heart against any kind of trouble or horror, but the simple act of kindness by a stranger will unstitch you.”

Chris Abani tells remarkable stories of everyday people on TED. A useful reminder of the what City Year refers to as “ripples” (from the RFK quote) or what I like to think of as a multiplier effect of goodwill.

Each time a man stands for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance. (Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.)

Within each of us, lies limitless seeds of goodwill, waiting to sprout into acts of giant beauty if we only release them and let nature grow them. And the laws of social capital suggest that what goes around will eventually come around.

Chris also reminds us of the power of stories to move us, call us to a higher place, create strong social norms and connect us with our ancestors. It was for this reason, that we employed a wonderful storyteller, Jon Spelman, to tell a lot of the sidebars of social capital in our bettertogether report in 2000.

Would I lie to you? (Engineering trust with your face)

Spurred by the ever-more-bizarre case of impostor Clark Rockefeller, the Boston Globe featured a very interesting story on Aug. 17 on how con-men engineer trust.

The article talks about how mimicking the speaker’s movements creates trust (even when the speaker is unaware of this mimicking), how minutely small bonds between individuals (like claiming that you used the same amount of paint in a recent paint job) makes one’s recommendations in a paint store be taken more seriously, and how MIT-researchers have been able to use sociometers (measuring the intonation of one’s voice, distance away, which way one was facing, etc.) to be able to predict which business pitches people would find persuasive or not.

Some of the most interesting research is on facial features (which brings to mind a very interesting story a while back by Malcolm Gladwell called “The Naked Face“).

Author Bennett notes that things as small as the slope of the eyebrow or the thickness of the chin send signals about whether they are to be trusted. “According to recent work by Nikolaas Oosterhof and Alexander Todorov of Princeton’s psychology department, we form our first opinions of someone’s trustworthiness through a quick physiognomic snapshot. By studying people’s reactions to a range of artificially-generated faces, Oosterhof and Todorov were able to identify a set of features that seemed to engender trust. Working from those findings, they were able to create a continuum: faces with high inner eyebrows and pronounced cheekbones struck people as trustworthy, faces with low inner eyebrows and shallow cheekbones untrustworthy.

“In a paper published in June, they suggested that our unconscious bias is a byproduct of more adaptive instincts: the features that make a face strike us as trustworthy, if exaggerated, make a face look happy – with arching inner eyebrows and upturned mouths – and an exaggerated untrustworthy face looks angry – with a furrowed brow and frown. In this argument, people with trustworthy faces simply have, by the luck of the genetic draw, faces that look a little more cheerful to us.

“Just as in other cognitive shorthands, we make these judgments quickly and unconsciously – and as a result, Oosterhof and Todorov point out, we can severely and immediately misjudge people. In reality, of course, cheekbone shape and eyebrow arc have no relationship with honesty.”

It appears that for evolutionary purposes, it was important to be able to make relatively rapid judgments of whom could be trusted. It seems weird that over millennia, genes wouldn’t have had a hereditary advantage that came up with better heuristics for assessing trust than this one commonly used (if it had no relationship with honesty). Then again, it may be that facial expressions in concert with other signals from the speaker (tone, style, affect, excitement, sweat, etc.) were actually relatively good proxies for truth-telling. For sure those who weren’t very good at judging who was going to stab them in the back, generally didn’t live long enough to be able to pass on their genes.

Read the whole interesting article “Confidence Game” (Boston Globe, 8/17/08 by Drake Bennett)

Use of technology in the 2008 Obama-McCain contest

Howard Dean’s presidential run in 2004 unlocked politicos imagination about the power of online politics to shape the race.

While Dean’s bid imploded with his Iowa rant, Dean’s rapidly growing Meetup.com following in the campaign’s early days convinced the media that Dean was a rising force. The Economist in a story this week notes that Dean “changed the way campaigns are organised. Using social-networking tools, Ron Paul’s supporters generated a “money bomb”–$6m in one day, shattering the previous record. Huck’s Army, an online network of Mike Huckabee’s supporters, rallied 12,000 campaign volunteers. Both networks meant that Mr Paul and Mr Huckabee stayed in the race a lot longer than they might otherwise have done….

“Mr Obama took it another step, raising more money–seen in real time–from the grassroots than any campaign ever. In June alone he raised a near-record $52m, of which $31m were donations of $200 or less. Arianna Huffington, co-founder of the Huffington Post, says that he has “succeeded in translating what was happening online to getting the vote out”. Mr Obama has 1.3m supporters on Facebook, a popular social-networking site; John McCain has only about 200,000…The Democrat is using Twitter, a social-networking and micro-blogging service featuring instant messaging (each answer, or “twit”, is limited to 140 characters). By signing up to Mr Obama’s twitters, the campaign at once signs up to yours.”

And this go-round, YouTube is placing a newly important role. Will.i.am’s (of the Black-eyed Peas) “Yes we can” video has gotten some 9m views in six months

and the McCain Girls’ “Raining McCain” video got 1.9 million hits in 4 months. Obama’s videos on his YouTube channel garned 52m views to McCain’s 9.5m on his channel. Several million of McCain’s hits came from his sleazy campaign comparing Obama to Paris Hilton ; which inspired Barack to launch his “Low Road Express” (mocking McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” mantra). Even Paris Hilton hit back at “white-haired dude” McCain with her bikini-clad bid for the “pink house.”

Barack’s speech on race in America has been viewed 4.7m times on YouTube in its entirety, while Jeremiah Wright’s incendiary sermons have also been seen by millions. YouTube moderated highly interactive debates among Republicans and Democrats during the primaries, and has now asked YouTube users to submit 2-minute videos explaining why they support McCain or Obama (with the prize being a trip to the convention).

And it is not just YouTube. The conventions promise to also feature”Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, My Space profiles and Flickr…” Obama sent an e-mail one week ago to supporters indicating that they could sign up to be the first (several million?) to receive an email or a text announcing his choice for vice president.  The real benefit of getting this million person list will come near Election Day: “What Obama is creating is this army of individuals, these grass-roots activists, who are out there trying to change the world in 160 characters or less,” said David All, a Republican techno-political strategist.

It appears clear that something transformative is happening, but not enough careful research has helped us to understand the social consequences of this media, other than the fact that YouTube and cellphone cameras mean that future candidates will have ever diminished chances of privacy without one mistake being aired for everyone to see.

But will the new technologies help to stoke the 9-11 Generation’s interest in politics (that Bob Putnam and I have written about). Will the technology enhance people’s ability to make connections with others active in the campaign or weaken those ties relative to “old-world” technologies of political parties and rallies and door-knocking? Will the technology make us more likely to stay involved after the campaign or not (evidence on the latter front may come from a September poll issued by the National Conference on Citizenship’s Civic Index for 2008)? And will the new technology exacerbate class and racial gaps in the patterns of political participation (or see this link) or ameliorate them? Brave new worlds indeed….

For full article, see Economist’s “Technology and the campaigns: Flickring here, twittering there” (August 16, 2008), including the fact that more of the online role comes from the millennials (those born between 1978 and 1996) who comprise 50m voters, are 90% online and two-thirds of whom are on social networking sites.

Do Olympics spur patriotism, xenophobia or civic engagement?

I haven’t seen any surveys that show whether patriotism rises during periods of Olympics although people anticipate this to be the case (at least in the UK). Even my daughter wants to know for every competition (*who are the Americans?*). I myself am a bit skeptical of the survey numbers during the games since it requires that those of us bleary-eyed from late night Olympics watching are alert enough to answer the surveys. Richard Posner, a man with whom I rarely agree, writes: “When a sport or other game is played all over the world (chess for example, or soccer), it is natural that there should be international competition. The oddity of the Olympics is that they are presented as athletic competitions between nations, rather than between teams each of which presumably would have a permanent residence in one nation yet might recruit team members from other nations as well. Nations in the grip of nationalist emotion or wanting to advertise their power to the world (nations such as Hitler’s Germany, which made the 1936 summer Olympics, held in Berlin, a major propaganda event; East Germany and other communist countries; and now China) invest heavily in training their Olympic athletes. China is estimated to have spent as much as half a billion dollars to train their athletes for the Olympic games now underway in Beijing. The heavy investments that nations that regard Olympic competition as a propaganda opportunity in turn spur other nations to invest heavily in training their own Olympic athletes. The nationalistic fervor and great-power aspirations that Olympic competition stimulates seem to me a negative externality….”

But does this rise in patriotism, assuming it exists, spur more xenophobia (distrust of outsiders)? Very similar to the assumption that in-group bonding and trust must come at the expense of out-group increased distrust. So many citizens and scholars assume some zero-sum relationship where bonding must be offset by less bridging. While we haven’t done work on the Olympics, our general research of diversity and social capital shows that bonding and bridging are mildly positively related, not negatively related. In other words, those who trust or identify with Americans more doesn’t necessarily entail a distrust or dislike of “outsiders”.

Along these lines, I’ve been moved by images of pan-ethnic unity during the game (e.g., the Gerogian and the Russian pistol shooters who exchanged kisses after a match).

Some of the images are like the optical illusion of the outline of two faces and a vase. For example, the general embracing of the moving story of 21-year old first-time Olympic-gold US wrestler Henry Cejudo, the son of illegal immigrants who slept on the floor growing up and was proud enough to wrap himself in the US flag upon his victory; but even on this “feel good” story, there are rants of American nativists who want him deported). Nothing makes one more proud of that inclusive American spirit. (cue sarcastic music)

In the Michael Phelps relay team that had Cullen Jones, the African-American relay swimmer , or Raj Bhavsar (the Gujarati member of the surprisingly good American gymnastics team), is one impressed by the diversity, or by how largely white these teams are?

And are we more inclined during the Olympic games to feel our competitive edge on hyperdrive or reach out through common acts of kindness to help others? Let’s hope the latter.

And in an interesting side note, the Washington Post reports that on a study that found bronze medalists were happier with their performance than silver medalists. A study found that “The silver medalists couldn’t get the gold medalists out of their heads, whereas the bronze medalists compared themselves with athletes who didn’t win anything.” Silver medalists and those finishing fifth were, on average, equally happy. Brings to mind Dan Gilbert’s talk on happiness.

The Scramble for Evangelical Votes in 2008

Evangelicals, who have voted solidly Republican since Jimmy Carter ran for President and talked openly about his being “Born Again” and the “lust in his heart”, may be in play this November, and tip the election decisively.

Standard bearers Barack Obama and John McCain have been invited this Saturday by Rick Warren, the Hawaiian-shirt-wearing, most successful megachurch pastor ever, to air their views before evangelicals. (Warren’s Purpose Driven Life, has sold more copies than any book in American history with the exception of the bible and Warren runs a network of several hundred thousand megachurch pastors who have been trained by Warren or Warren disciples in how to run a purpose-driven church). Warren was here at the Harvard Kennedy School several years and gave a speech in which he disassociated himself from the political Right and said “I’m not for the Right. I’m not for the Left. I’m for the whole bird.” Warren has also gotten his networks increasingly involved in issues that in the past would have been Democratic issues, like AIDS in Africa, through the PEACE plan, or environmental issues or world poverty. That Warren himself is increasingly open to courting ties with Democrats is symptomatic of the crumbling of the Republican-evangelical marriage that was solidified starting with Ralph Reed and the Christian Coalition.

Almost 8 of 10 white evangelicals supported Bush in 2004 exit polls and they made up a third of Bush’s total votes. A Washington Post-ABC News poll of registered voters last month showed McCain with a lead among this segment, but the ratio was only 3:1: McCain with 67% vs. Obama with 25% among white evangelical Protestants. It’s especially true that the younger white evangelicals are far more likely to be Independent or Democrat than their parents were, but evangelicals are also coming to realize either that Bush didn’t deliver them the promises that he made or that the issues that Republicans have stood for (strong military, tax cuts for the wealthy, etc.) are less in tune with how Jesus would have lived his life (caring for the sick and poor).

In a historic reversal, Democrat Obama appears far more comfortable talking about his faith than Republican McCain, despite the flap over Barack’s pastor Jeremiah Wright, than past democratic nominees. And Obama on Saturday will unveil the Believers for Barack website.

For more on evangelicals in the 2008 election, see “GOP Loyalty Not a Given for Young Evangelicals” (Wash. Post, 8/15/08) or Pew Research report on McCain’s weaker connections to evangelicals in 2008 election. And this Pew Research Report shows drop in white evangelicals attached to Bush and Republicans from 2001-2007.

For a fascinating discussion of how Rick Warren builds community (social capital) through his church (Saddleback), read Better Together (by Putnam and Feldstein).

The on-line threat of Meetup to voluntary associations?

Meetup.com used to be the only Internet-driven game in town where Americans could find others who shared their interests and meet regularly with them face-to-face (F2F) locally. [BTW: Meetup.com's home page has an interesting feature for anyone wanting to watch social capital growing -- it shows real time as people across the world sign up for a group or RSVP to attend one, or a new group is formed. Mesmerizing.. Well, actually less mesmerizing than Jonathan Harris' "We Feel Fine" project which scans the blogosphere for how blogophiles are feeling and portrays it with beautiful visuals, but the Meetup data is capturing real civic engagement instead of raw emotions.

Meeup also has a neat video on their home page that shows how Meetup helps individuals find others to meet with.] Meetup has also expanded in new directions, providing resources for Meetup organizers to help them to recruit others, run good meetings, etc.

In addition, Meetup is trying to mimic some of the resources of pre-Meetup groups, to federate with each other, form alliances, etc. Say that the chihuahua group in Denver and the poodle group in Denver (and other Denver dog Meetups) want to collaborate to fight a new proposed leash law in Denver, Meetup Alliance helps them do this. MeetupAlliance, in any interesting approach, actually lets groups ally with each other, not limited to Meetup groups: one can include Google groups or Yahoo groups, Facebook Causes, or MySpace groups. One can see a dynamic list of the largest alliances to-date (at this point Ron Paul, and an alliance of women-helping-women groups).

In the same way as Craigslist has caused newspapers to hemorrage cash (as they used to get a lot of money from want ads that are now often listed instead wtih Craigslist at free or reduced rates), one wonders whether Meetup might be the nail in the coffin of bricks-and-mortar chapter organizations.

Voluntary associations used to do several things:

1) provide options for individuals to meet regularly about their shared interest

2) have political clout through numbers

3) select officers/leaders through their members

4) meet annually or quarterly at conferences to learn about what was happening in a field, form social capital, etc.

5) provide educational activities: books, pamphlets, courses, etc. that are offered to members to further their knowledge about the topic of the voluntary association (be it nursing, or home-schooling, or …).

Meetup used to just do #1 (arranging meetings). Now they do #2 (enable political clout through affiliation). #3 seems somewhat of a no-brainer (it would be easy to have electronic votes of members and position statements). #4 might be a challenge, although presumably there may be good event-planners and coordinators that would collaborate with Meetup to offer #4. I’m less clear about whether #5 is easy to contract out, but with a more transparent platform that shows how many members there are in each alliance or group, it may be easier for freelance writers to market their books or materials to Meetup groups that share an interest in what they are writing about.

Meetup writes in their FAQs for MeetupAlliance: “Can existing Chapter-based organizations use MAP [Meetup Alliance Platform]? Absolutely! MAP removes many of the headaches of running an organization with chapters. To learn more e-mail us.”

But the key question will be what the value proposition: how much bang do members get for the buck? Members of Meetup chapter organizations presumably will pay a lot less in dues than the old bricks-and-mortar chapter organizations?.The real question is the quality of the meetings, the social entrepreneurship and political clout that these groups can have, the quality of their social capital and what they continue to learn through educational activities.”

Of course, there are always countless claims of how technology is going to do away with the old. Remember the “paperless office” we were going to work in? So I certainly wouldn’t count chapter-based organizations out — there are probably more people meeting in Texas in a given month through bricks-and-mortar voluntary organizations than worldwide with Meetup in a month. But if Meetup is really smart about figuring out how to teach others to run efficient meetings, how to aggregate political clout on-line, how to run organizations well, how to outsource efficient annual meetings, there could be something transformative going on here. I know Scott Heiferman (Meetup.com) founder aspires to this. What’s important about Scott is that he is wise enough to realize that there are lots of things that people cannot do on-line that require face-to-face contact which is why Meetup was all built around regular F2F meetings (Meetups).

One final note: while Meetup seems way ahead of the curve in thinking about how on-line groups might start to replace bricks-and-mortar voluntary associations or chapter groups, the “finding your tribe” space has become more crowded recently along with sites that enable one-time get-togethers. Facebook‘s causes enables people to form looser tribes and use this to spur philanthropy; and Facebook has launched its own events services to enable simple confabs (and has the advantage that users already have some of their friends listed on the site). MyPunchBowl (like evite) enables people to plan simple events and invite others on-line but seems less focused around regular meetings. Yelp (primarily focused on user ratings of restaurants, services, things to see in a city, etc.) now also features a service “Invite Friends” that enables users to plan events. Meetup obviously has a huge head start on these other groups but it will be interesting to see whether they are as smart about trying to offer a deep civic alternative (as the bricks-and-mortar chapter-based voluntary associations do).

Memorials and the healing of the spirit

I was at New England Yearly Meeting over the weekend.

While there, I had my first chance to see the AFSC’s Eyes Wide Open exhibit, or a piece of it. They have a collection of military boots of the soldiers killed in Iraq, in addition to a memorial to the Iraqi civilian casualties. The number of boots has become large enough that the boots no longer travel as an exhibit together but now appear in regional form, and I saw the boots from the New England soldiers.

Each boot listed the soldier’s name, military rank, age, hometown and state. Some of the boots had notes written by the families, or an American flag stuck in a boot. One had a teddy bear. Another, a member of an Eastern religion, had a little shrine to the soldier’s god. Some boots were pristine. Others muddied and scarred. It was a somber reminder of the horrible costs of a war that we never had to wage that has disproportionately taken the lives of “volunteers” with fewer other economic options. I took in the boots in prayerful silence and the shame for national bellicosity that has condemned so many innocent Americans and Iraqis to die.

One of the NEYM participants spoke later in a meeting for worship of a recent visit to Virginia Tech (Viriginia Polytechnic Institute), site of the horrible massacre in April 2007 by a student, Seung-Hui Cho, who took 32 lives and wounded many others before taking his own. The campus in Blacksburg, VA, sits close to a quarry and many of the buildings are made with hokum stone from that quarry.

The speaker told how she learned that in the days following the Va. Tech tragedy, mysteriously overnight a makeshift memorial appeared with 32 hokum stones in a semi-circle, with a ribbon for the name of each person who died in the shooting spree. Then a few days later, a 33rd hokum stone appeared with a ribbon for the perpetrator, Cho Seung Hui. There ensued some debate among the Va. Tech community about whether the perpetrator should have a stone at the memorial or not. Some argued that the stones should be only for innocent victims and ultimately the 33rd stone was taken away. The speaker and others discussed the Quaker view that there is that of God in every person, Cho included, and how this could have been a time for still deeper healing. Another wondered where the mother or father of Cho can now go to mourn for the loss of her son and the tragedy.

Va Tech makeshift memorial (on right of photo)

Va Tech makeshift memorial (on right of photo)

I recalled Randy Pausch’s view that everyone has their good side, but it takes longer to emerge in some people than others. (Incidentally, Randy didn’t make much of his religion but was a Unitarian Universalist who came to this faith as a member of the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh; I don’t know, for example, whether he believed in God.) In any event, the NEYM experience and the Va. Tech memorial debate evoked a narrative that played out among comments in this blog surrounding Randy Pausch. De Selby (whom I have never met) was very critical of Randy Pausch in blog comments, claiming that Randy was not sick and was using his claim of pancreatic cancer to sell millions of books. At some point I cut off debate between De Selby and supporters of Randy since it no longer seemed constructive. De Selby asked why I was no longer posting his rants; I said I disagreed with his views, knew Randy and that Randy was a decent person, but that he was entitled to his anger and his views. I urged De Selby to channel his energy into leading his life in way that he thought was inspirational if he felt Randy wasn’t. There were many nasty posts of blog readers against De Selby which I chose not to post since it seemed unconstructive. Then Randy died. Some readers posted nasty blog comments mocking De Selby for his earlier views that Randy’s cancer was a fraud. I didn’t post those but I did post the blog comments of a few who gently asked whether De Selby wished to comment now and another who said alas De Selby’s claims of a fraud apparently had not been true. De Selby took this opening to apologize for his comments and noted that they came from having had family members who died from cancer who appeared far sicker than Randy. He thought Randy (who looked in good health) was just using cancer to get publicity. A circle of support opened around De Selby after his admission of wrong to show how he was proving Randy’s point that people do show their good side if you wait long enough. I don’t know what De Selby will go on to do, but I hope it will be worthy of Randy. You can read the original post here and the comments here.

These incidents made me reflect on when death and memorials are healing and when they are embittering. I’m reminded of the wise words of a cousin who said that she wanted the death of a loved one to be a point of growth, not the beginning of a drawing in, a calcifying depression and a disengagement from others.

Faith is the bird that that feels the light and sings

When the dawn is still dark.

– Rabindranath Tagore

Advances in social capital measurement (UPDATED 4/12/12)

Here is an update on our great progress on social capital measurement.

We should begin with a word about the concept of social capital measurement in general. Since social capital refers to the value of social networks, in principle if you were going to measure social capital, you’d ask everyone to detail all their friends, contacts, acquaintances and then ask them all sorts of questions about these folks (the demographics of each friend, how frequently they contact each person, for what purposes, what they could use these ties for, etc.). It is an interesting approach employed by social networks academics and practical for a business work group, or a university class but far too time-consuming for a city or a country. [One interesting area, on which I have blogged before in "Life In The Network" and "Life In the Network II" is the emerging field of digital traces, where digital footprints like one's e-mails, call logs, locations recorded through GPS/bluetooth devices in cellphones, etc. might collectively reveal our social networks on a grand scale without requiring such detailed surveying. It raises lots of privacy concerns, but it is certainly an area to watch. In principle, one could watch them dynamically change over time, and with demographic information about each person could figure out which links are social bridges across various dimensions or how social patterns differed by demographic groups. Some interesting work of David Lazer has at least found that one can use some of this information to quite accurately gauge who work and social friends are. But these data are not generally available.]

Thus, for now, we have gathered social capital data at the individual level by gathering proxies for social capital: volunteering, religious involvement, neighborliness, trust, participation and leadership in voluntary associations, philanthropy, political participation, etc. For more on the dimensions of social capital, click here. One can then aggregate random individual-level social capital data at a neighborhood, or town or city or state to understand social capital strengths or weaknesses of places and which places have overall greater connectedness. Of course, since there are differential benefits of being in the networks (job leads, lifetime earnings) from the spillover benefits of networks to isolated individuals (lower crime in areas, better performing governments, lower corruption rates, higher public health, etc.), not all the residents in a community with high social capital will necessarily get the same benefits if they are relying on others’ social capital rather than their own.

One of the things we’ve been pushing (given the strong connections of social capital with so many of these public goods), is government measurement of social capital.

The good news is that the US government has started annually measuring social capital on the Current Population Survey (the largest government survey other than the Census). While we’ve been urging this for a while among high level government contacts, the 2 key breakthroughs were a meeting of Robert Putnam with President George W. Bush where he personally committed to make this happen, and then the extremely diligent work of Robert Grimm and Nathan Dietz at the Corporation for National and Community Service, working with the folks at the Bureau of Labor Statistics with background help and reinforcement from the Saguaro Seminar. It is a terrific step forward for policy makers, civic leaders, academics and citizens.  [We're also grateful to the Ford Foundation and a consortium of about 3 dozen community foundations that partnered with us to measure social capital in 2000 and 2006 as the lessons learned from those surveys helped provide the answers to many of the questions that CNCS and the Bureau of Labor Statistics had.]

The US government began measuring volunteering annually (on the Current Population Survey September supplement in 2000), included questions on attending a public meeting and working with neighbors to fix/improve something (starting in 2006), but are now expanding the list by some 20 items starting with Fall 2008. This CPS is the gold standard as far as measurement and has a national sample size of about 57,000 households annually (although they obtain approximately 110,000 responses since they ask about other folks 15+ living in the household). The data is primarily used to construct monthly unemployment rates and has oversamples of larger cities. They plan to ask about volunteering and social capital every year (volunteering on the September CPS supplement and social capital mainly on the November CPS supplement).

As to the questions they are asking beyond volunteering, they ask about attending family dinners, working with neighbors to fix/improve something, attending a public meeting, talking to neighbors, talking to friends/family via the Internet, exchanging favors, and participation in various types of group (school, religious, service/civic, sports/recreation, other). The survey does NOT contain some key social capital items (like religious attendance, generalized social trust, inter-racial trust, subjective wellbeing, etc.). These may be asked in future years, but no guarantees.

Much of this past social capital data has been made available on the Corporation for National and Community Service-sponsored website Volunteering in America [See blog post on that terrific new resource here.] or on the Civic Life in America website.

If you click on Select a City/State and then choose *All*, you can see all the cities that they have enough volunteering data on which to develop reliable estimates. Over the next several years, they will have reliable social capital measurement for similar middle sized cities, states, or regions of states.  This will function, as Robert Putnam calls it, as a “social capital seismograph”, always going in the background, that will be very useful to researchers who want to produce natural experiments:  seeing how baseline levels of social capital affect the ability of two similar communities experiencing different events (a major plant closing or a hurricane or…).

For those of you dealing with smaller level geography (rural areas, cities with populations of under 100,000), I’m not positive that the CPS data even when 3-4 years are lumped together will produce reliable estimates for you. You may, if you want to measure your social capital, have to figure a way to band together with some other community foundations or other local groups to commission social capital surveys in your community and to commission a national survey to compare these data to. You can also always e-mail the Corporation for National and Community Service and make a request for a lower level of geography if they have it. They might be able to provide you with data they have already run but didn’t put on the website.

Three researchers at Penn State University (Anil Rupasingha, Stephen Goetz, and David Freshwater) developed county-level social capital measures that are reasonably good based on the density of civic and non-profit organizations, voting turnout, and census completion rates, among other factors. [You should note however that we found higher correlations, r=.37, between our social capital measures in 2000 Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey and RGF county measures than the Corporation for National and Community Service did in their analysis of their own social capital measures with RGF data at the MSA level.]
- These data are available for 1990, 1997 and 2005.  If you want the RGF data, you can download these county-level data here:

A note to the wise: I would urge that you NOT try to compare local social capital data that you gather to these CPS measures. CPS numbers are typically far LOWER and LESS civic than what you would get in a phone survey (both because the government survey is not about community or civic engagement and because they garner a far higher response rate, they hear more from people who are uninterested in civic engagement). The CPS numbers are probably more accurate but thus hard to compare with what you would get from the phone survey.

If you are interested in doing your own survey, you can, as always, find a copy of our Short Form Social Capital Survey on our website. We ask you e-mail us if you do use the Short-Form so we can keep track of who is using this.

The latest Social Capital Survey we administered was the 2006 social capital community survey. The national benchmark banners (what proportion of total, men, women, etc. gave various answers to the questions) is also available.  We also asked a lot of social capital questions (with lots of questions on religion) in our 2006 Faith Matters Survey, available here.

For more information on social capital measurement in general, visit here.

See related blog post “US expands social capital measures