Monthly Archives: April 2011

Robert Putnam on Australian Radio: “Heathy, weathy and happy”

Flickr photo by DStreet

Excerpt:

James Panichi: So Generation X is less involved socially than the baby boomers before it?

Robert Putnam: That’s right. Now of course that’s not the end of the story, and in fact that generational engine which has been running to kind of drive American social capital down for 30 or 40 years, actually recently reversed and so actually I’m a little more optimistic right now. But when I wrote Bowling Alone that engine of generational arithmetic, every year the most civically engaged Americans leaving the population by death, adding another slice of people at the bottom of the age are people who are much less civically engaged, that was inexorably driving down various measures of social connection….” [See "Still Bowling Alone?"]

James Panichi: Is there a dark side to social capital?…[L]let me give you an Australian example. There are the old school networks of people who’ve been to private schools; there’s Masonic Lodges, there are social clubs which the old establishment social clubs in both Melbourne and Sydney which are more or less anti-semitic, I mean there are real institutions which a lot of Australians would have problems with, and who they would say, ‘Look this is an example of social capital that is not necessarily good, it’s about people doing deals behind closed doors’.

Robert Putnam: I don’t disagree with that at all. I don’t disagree with that at all, I mean after all, I’ve not said all networks are good, I just said networks are very powerful and they can have powerful positive effects and powerful negative effects. But all the examples you used of what I would call bonding social capital, and this is a very clear distinction made in the literature, bonding social capital refers to my ties to people like me, so my ties to other white, elderly, male, professors, that’s my bonding social capital, and bridging social capital are my ties to people unlike me, to people of a different generation, race, a different religion, different ethnicity, I’m not saying always bridging good, bonding bad, but in general examples that you used are negatively used social capital; social capital is used to the detriment of other people, are mostly bonding social capital within the upper class, and one of the things we’re currently working on actually in America, is the apparent discovery that while social capital is rising among kids from upper middle class backgrounds, my grandchildren are connected… but they’re connected with other people and they’re dressed for success, they’re going to do just fine. But our research shows that working class kids or kids from lower classes, white and black, this is not a matter of race, kids from lower class backgrounds, increasingly in America, are isolated, they’re less likely to go to church than working class kids used to, they’re less likely to belong to organisations like the Scouts than working class kids used to be. They spend less time with their parents, they have fewer friends at school, they’re much lower in social trust, trust in their environment, they are in short, increasingly socially isolated. Actually that’s the problem here that I’m most concerned about at the moment, because I think after 9/11 there was kind of a burst of social capital, or interest in civic life among American young people. I think the basic Bowling Alone trend has now begun to turn, but in a way it’s begun to turn in the worst possible way in the sense that it’s the upper class kids from upper class backgrounds who are more connected and working class kids are really left entirely on their own, and that’s a serious problem.

Listen to Robert Putnam interview with James Panichi on the “National Interest” ABC Radio International “Healthy, wealthy and happy

Americans far less trusting than per capita wealth would predict

Catherine Rampell has a couple of interesting charts describing the relationship of trust, income and equality (among countries).

The US is 10th most trusting of the 30 countries examined (with 48.7% saying that others can generally be trusted).  Norway and Denmark are the most trying with almost 90% saying that others can be trusted; Turkey and Mexico are the least trusting with only 20-25% of residents saying that others can be trusted.

Since wealthy countries generally are more trusting, it’s surprising that America is only ranked 10th.


The U.S. is the country in the top center of the graph, way above the black regression line with median equivalized income of $27,000 per person (y-axis) but trust just below 50% (x-axis).  If one moved the US over to the right until it hit the regression line it would have social trust levels of 90%, like Norway.  [better picture here.]

The reason for America’s low level of trust can be seen by looking at the levels of inequality in the US.  More equal countries tend to have higher levels of trust, and viewed through this lens, Americans are just as trusting as one would expect, down around the levels of trust and inequality of a Portugal or a Poland, which while far poorer than the US has similar levels of equality to the US.

The implicit conclusion seems to be that income equality trumps wealth when it comes to trust, which makes some sense as it may engender a “we’re-all-in-this-together” esprit de corps.  But the regression line, if anything, seems to better fit countries for the graph of trust against income per person than the level of trust maps onto levels of equality.  And notably, Denmark and Norway, have higher levels of trust than one would expect from their level of equality.

Food for thought…

See NY Times Economix, “Trust Me, We’re Rich” (Catherine Rampell, 4/18/11)

Best friends may provide the most new and valuable info

Flickr photo of BFF from nokapixel

Mark Granovetter in a famous 1973 article “The Strength of Weak Ties” observed that it is our weaker social ties that are most likely to provide us access to information we don’t already know about: job leads, cross-fertilizing information that we can use to great advantage in our jobs, new opportunities, etc.

A recent paper by Sinan Aral and Marshall Van Alstyne says that Granovetter neglected to include frequency of contact.  Yes, our weak ties are more likely per contact to provide us new information, but we contact our strong ties so much more often that a majority of novel information actually comes through those strong and demographically similar friends.

Aral and Van Alstyne analyzed nearly a year of e-mail from an executive recruiting firm (heavily dependent on e-mail for communication and where novel information was critical in finding the right candidates) and found that those with a tighter group of friends (which they define via less network diversity) actually got a higher ratio of new information per unit of time and produced higher revenue for the firm.  As the authors hypothesized, recruiters with more diverse networks suffered a big drop in the volume of communication (what they call “channel bandwidth”).  “Interestingly however, reductions in channel bandwidth associated with greater network diversity do not seem to be driven solely by time and effort costs of network maintenance, but also by the nature of the relationships in sparse networks.” Van Alstyne concludes:  “a smaller number of high-bandwidth relationships can be good for you.”

So no need to jettison your best friends for now…

Read “Buddy System” (WIRED May 2011, by Clive Thompson)

See Sinan Aral and Marshall Van Alstyne, “Networks, Information & Brokerage: The Diversity-Bandwidth Tradeoff” (2010)

Social trust important to social and political stability

Flickr photo by sp8254-catchingup

A new paper by Ken Newton and Sonja Zmerli called “Three forms of trust and their association” finds, counter to the assertions of Eric Uslaner or others, that social trust is important to modern democracies and is positively associated with other types of particular trust.

From seven questions relating to trust, factor analysis revealed two dimensions, one largely related to generalized social trust (the canonical, “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people,” and three other trust questions: trust in 0people one meets for the first time, trust in people of other religions and trust in people of other nationalities.  The second dimension that emerged related to particularized trust, covering questions like trust in family and people whom one knows personally.  Some variables like trust in neighbors loaded positively but less strongly on both the “generalized” and “particularized” factors.

The measure of political trust employed an index composed of 6 measures of confidence in political organizations like parliament, government, political parties, justice system, civil service, and police).

The paper uses World Values Survey (WVS) data from 2005-2007, choosing the 22 countries with the highest democratic scores on the Polity IV variable (New Zealand, Australia, India, US, Sweden, Finland, Great Britain, The Netherlands, France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Cyprus, South Africa, Mexico, Peru, Chile).

High political trust is positively related to high generalized trust and political trust even exceeds levels of generalized trust in half of the WVS countries examined: South Africa, Switzerland, Spain, Finland, Slovenia, Italy, Cyprus, Germany, Chile, Mexico and India.

Their results best fit the “conditional” model of trust, namely that there is no incompatibility of generalized social trust and particular trust, but instead that particular social trust tends to form a conducive environment in which both general social trust and political trust can develop.

Newton and Zmerli’s analysis also contravenes a notion that people either trust or don’t based on their personalities; they find instead that individuals “choose whom and what to trust and combine varying degrees of trust or distrust in different objects.”

Finally, their results support what social capital would expect about the importance of generalized social trust on political well-workings and find something of a positive tipping phenomenon — what they call a “rainmaker” effect — that high aggregate levels of trust in society help influence individual trust levels.  [This "rainmaker" effect is less persuasive for me, since unless I'm misreading something, this is not panel data.]

See: “Three Forms of Trust and Their Association” (European Political Science Review 2011)

Call the White House: Avoid a sad day for service

President Obama and Speaker John Boehner agreed to $37.6 billion in cuts for FY11.  Details are now leaking out of where those cuts will come from.  Apparently while they would largely save AmeriCorps, they would completely defund Learn and Serve America, which is the arm by which the government encourages service learning.

Service-learning integrates community service into school curricula so students learn about scientific measurement by measuring the pollution in a local streambed, or learn about the Depression or WWI through oral history projects with shut-in seniors.  The projects obviously vary depending on the underlying tie to the curriculum and the age of the students, but service learning is effective for students as young as kindergarten or as old as college-aged.

Defunding service learning ignores the fact that it is a highly cost-effective “four-fer”.  First, studies show that students learn skills better where the underlying skills that teachers want to teach are inherent to a task that students need to perform; what is called an “educational pull” rather than “educational push” approach to teaching.  Second, service learning is very inexpensive; students don’t need to be stipended, and teachers are already paid, so it is usually just the cost of materials or transportation or a part-time organizer/coordinator.  That is why the $40 million in savings from defunding Learn and Serve America represents just 3% of the Corporation for National and Community Service’s budget but generates 70% of the community service participants! Third, it gets valuable service accomplished (feeding the homeless or turning an abandoned lot into a playground).  And finally, it pays life-long returns.  Studies show that youth who engage in community service at a younger age are much more likely to be actively engaged in volunteering and other forms of civic engagement throughout their whole lives.  In that sense, down the road it likely leaves less of a need for future government since more of it is being done by active citizens; consider it preventative community maintenance.  As the maxim goes:  “As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.”

For more information on the cuts and what you can do see YSA’s page.

For more information on the benefits of service learning, see the National Service Learning Clearinghouse or this Kellogg Foundation report.

Shrinking Detroit while retaining its social capital

Flickr photo by buckshot.jones

Detroit faces a painful decision.  Its population has crumbled over the last decade, shedding 25% of its residents (or 235,000 people).  What was once the fourth largest city in America in 1920 and which had nearly 2 million residents in 1950, now has only 713,777 residents.  As the NY Times observes, “Detroit is now smaller than Austin, Tex., Charlotte, N.C., and Jacksonville, Fla.”

The challenge is that people, as one might expect, are not neatly leaving from one or two neighborhoods, instead leaving vacant lots scattered throughout a 139 square mile city.  This complicates government’s ability to police, educate, collect trash, etc. all with lower tax revenue.  (Vacancy rates are obviously highest in general in the downtown area and in the east side, areas generally inhabited by poorer and less educated residents.)

The Mayor is trying to figure out how to demolish 10,000 structures, given that there is a 20% vacancy rate in housing across the city.

The challenges are two-fold: 1) the city lacks any power of eminent domain to force these people to leave but the city plans to focus its investments on neighborhoods it considers more vibrant and healthy; and 2) the city doesn’t seem to focus on what the “social capital” consequences will be of all these people moving.  In fact, they seem to be measuring almost everything except for that, tracking “population densities, foreclosed homes, disease, parks, roads, water lines, sewer lines, bus routes, publicly owned lands, and on and on.”  The city may also cut back services to these less “viable” neighborhoods.

We should bear in mind the horrible lessons of slum clearing in the 1950s where “slum” neighborhoods like Boston’s West End were razed to build new housing.  Herbert Gans in his book Urban Villagers details the high social cost of this ill-conceived experiment as thousands of social ties and the vibrant life of this community was extinguished.  It seems like Detroit Mayor Dave Bing would be wise to hire some ethnographers or social networks students to map out people’s social networks and identify sociometric clusters of individuals that could be encouraged to move together; this would maximize the happiness and sense of engagement of those who moved and minimize the social costs from dislocated friendships.

Of course, even if Mayor Bing does this, one overarching question of the Detroit plan is whether poor residents will largely be asked to move to more affluent neighborhoods, and if so, how they will be able to afford this, and what the city will do to try to build more bridging social capital between the existing residents and the new in-movers.

See “The Odd Challenge for Detroit Planners” (NY Times, 4/5/11)

See maps of where demolitions are proposed: (NY Times graphic, 4/5/11)