The importance of building social capital accidentally (UPDATED)

Mario Luis Small, (University of Chicago, Sociology), who spoke this summer at our SCHMI 2010 workshop, has a compelling recent book that we commend.  Mario is a wonderful person and a smart applied researcher, undertaking research with societal implications.

In his ground-breaking recent book Unanticipated Gains (Oxford University Press, 2009),  Small both focuses on how important social capital is to the health of mothers but also uses the book to explore “how social capital is built” since he thought there was a lot of research on the importance of social capital and a dearth on how to create it.  It represents a major advance in our collective knowledge.

He studied new mothers and daycare centers in the New York City area for two reasons:

  1. Daycare centers are diverse institutions (they come in for-profit, non-profit, state-run, privately-run, and religiously-run flavors);
  2. They are prime place for observing new ties being formed since many American parents deal with these during in their lives, they have high turnover, and catch mothers at a phase of their life when they are often interested in and likely to make new ties (children are an important channel through which we make new ties).  Daycare centers also come at a time in mothers’ life when they have big responsibilities (children) but low knowledge, which also makes networking very important (e.g.,  Who is a good local pediatrician? When do you worry about a rash?  When should you start on formula?  How warm does it need to be? What museums are child-friendly?).

Part of his research was about how social networks at daycare centers helped make mothers healthier and less depressed; he found significantly less depression in daycare centers where parents made more social ties and the quality of their information was much better.

But equally important was his conclusions about how social capital was built.  This is an excerpt from a piece he wrote for RSA about his research.

Levels of commitment

We interviewed the directors of many different kinds of childcare centers – 23 in all, ranging from the commercial to the nonprofit, the secular to the religious, the corporate to the standalone – and observed what staff, children, mothers and fathers (though few of the latter were visible) did over the course of operations.

At the end of our study, nothing surprised us more than how much the centers differed in their social capital. In some, most mothers forged new friendships among the other parents; together, they organized parties, arranged play dates, attended movies and dinners, and developed what many of them referred to as a new community. Joining the center had measurably transformed their social networks…. In other centers, mothers knew few, if any, of the other parents; they did not party or dine with them, or babysit their children. These centers served as little more than drop-off and pick-up locations. In one rare example, the director had even tried to build social capital but failed: she threw a pizza party for parents to socialize and almost none of them attended.

Flickr photo by Jason L Park

Mario’s central question is “why” did some succeed when other centers failed in building social capital?  He concludes that social capital was often the unintended consequence of an administrative policy.

The socially effective centers did not differ from the others in the amount of leisure time the mothers had at their disposal; in all of them, most mothers worked full-time. Race, class, lifestyle and neighborhood did not explain the difference, and nor did these centers have particularly heroic directors committed to creating a sense of community among the parents. On the contrary, few directors displayed any interest in building social capital for its own sake. Like the rest of us, they were busy; they had a center to run.

Instead, social capital typically emerged when directors were trying to accomplish some other task, one that gave parents opportunities to interact or incentives to cooperate. For example, many directors believed strongly that children should be exposed to zoos, museums, libraries, children’s parks and farms. But trips to these locations require many more adults than are needed in the classroom, to prevent children from sticking their hands in monkey cages, wandering off in parks or slipping into ponds at apple-picking expeditions. Since hiring more staff for these occasions was costly, the centers needed parents to attend. No parent volunteers, no field trips. Centers needed volunteers for other activities, too, such as sanding and painting playgrounds at the end of the year, contributing food for various ceremonies and raising money to keep tuition fees moderate. In some centers in low-income neighborhoods, mothers were expected either to raise a certain amount over the course of the year – usually about US$300 – or pay it out of pocket. To avoid paying the fee, parents had to volunteer for group fundraising activities, such as selling baked goods or holding raffles.

All of these activities – field trips, clean-ups, ceremonies and raffles – required interaction and socialisation with others; they obliged parents to meet, talk, exchange phone numbers, arrange schedules and get organized. As a result, the centers that imposed greater demands on parents provided opportunities and incentives that, over the course of weeks and months, stimulated the formation of social capital.

Mario also talks about how the daycare schedule helped build social capital.  Some centers had strict drop-off and pick-up times, with fines often running at rates as high as $10 a minute for every minute that one was late.  Other centers had lackadaisical attitudes toward drop-off and pick-up times.  The centers with rigid times, in turn had parents all arriving at nearly the same time to drop-off and pick-up their children.  Invariably, that time (just before or dropping off children) was a social capital gold mine: parents would ask other parents whether their child had had a certain behavioral problem, or would arrange playdates or would get advice about equipment, toys or books for their kid.  Mothers would seek out useful connections to tap if they were unavoidably detained at work, got a flat tire, or were stuck in a train, to have that other parent to pick up their child.  They might ask other mothers to babysit their children some time during the week in exchange for reciprocal favors.  This is another example of administrative policies designed with no attention to social-capital-building that had big consequences.  Every parent who didn’t form a social tie with others in a daycare center, regardless of their social class, cited flexible drop-off and pick-up times as the number one cause (and this was confirmed by the data).

Mario also found that the existence of a parent-teacher organization in a daycare center was a strong positive predictor of how much social capital was built.

The implication of Mario’s book is regardless of one’s organizational post, one should be more attuned to ways to build (or not destroy) social capital in the everyday policies; this is far more important than the intentional but infrequent organizational group get-together or pizza party.  The pizza party is not counter-productive, but since it is a rarity, it’s unlikely to be as consequential as the daily rhythms and patterns of the organization.

Mario notes that other research comes to broadly similar conclusions about the importance of organizational features in the building of social capital:  for example, Mitch Duneier’s work on restaurants; Maureen Hallinan’s work on schools; Frida Kerner Furman’s work on barbershops and salons; and work by Omar McRoberts and Chaeyoon Lim/Robert Putnam on houses of worship.

One of Small’s interesting findings was that one of the reasons that the daycare centers were so successful in building social capital was their homophily: they tended to draw other parents of similar socio-economic backgrounds, partly through where the centers were located, through their pricing structure and through who was eligible for government-supported programs.  Small speculated in a visit to Harvard (October 4, 2010) that the social capital gains exhibited by daycare centers would be less successful for a hypothetically new daycare center located in a mixed-income housing center and available only to its residents.  He also speculated that it would lead to more task-oriented conflict, of the kind that he observed in researching Unanticipated Gains.

We highly recommend the book for those interested in rebuilding our stock of social capital.  The book focuses much more on inter-organizational variance in building social capital (i.e., which organizational settings are more successful) than on within-organization variation in building social capital (i.e., who within a daycare center succeeds in building social ties).  He agrees that more research is needed on this second question:  the “mating” part of “meeting and mating.”  His book focuses more on what about the organization creates an important opportunity structure for building social capital.

Small also noted that the ties generally being created at these daycare centers are a strange hybrid of strong and weak ties.  Scholars like Granovetter focused on the strength of weak ties for accessing information (job leads, etc.) and the importance of strong ties for getting social support.  In general, Small finds daycare centers produce “compartmental intimates”; daycare parents use these networks both for exchanging important information relating to their children, but because of the fact that young children share all kinds of private information about parenting and because parenting often relates to many other intimate things like the quality of one’s relationship with one’s spouse, these daycare friendships often provided strong social support and friends felt comfortable talking about many personal items that directly or indirectly related to their parenting.  In this sense, these compartmental intimates offered some of the best of strong and weak ties.

Small engaged in an interesting dialogue with Robert Putnam about to what extent the focus on daycare centers obscures the role of agency (individuals’ efforts to build social capital).  Does the existence of these daycare centers substitute for personal agency and effort?  Does it compound inequalities in social capital creation.  Small thinks in general that they daycare centers are likely to reduce the class-based inequalities in social ties and Putnam’s instinct is the opposite.

From a policy perspective, Mario Small’s work suggests that if one were hypothetically figuring out how to invest $5,000 in childcare per low-income resident in an area, one would be far better providing a voucher to be used for childcare in an organizational setting, rather than a voucher for family daycare or a $5000 voucher to the mother.  Small found that the publicly-run centers also tended to maximize the social capital building:  they typically had parent associations (founded in their Head Start roots) and ran a lot more field trips.  They were also better about connecting parents to things like assistance if there domestic abuse issues, or access to dental and health exams.

Chapter 1 of Unanticipated Gains can be read here.

Video of Mario discussing his work.

An article Mario wrote on his research for RSA Journal available here.

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