Category Archives: bridging ties

Guest Post: Want to bridge? DISRUPT! (UPDATED 6/1/2013)

[Guest post by Patricia Brandes, Executive Director of the Barr Foundation. Brandes talks about the ways Barr has used disruption as a tool to spark bridging across difference among social change leaders – with clear positive effects for the leaders themselves, their organizations, and their city, but first a couple interesting videos about the Barr Foundation Fellows:

The first video discusses the network among  leaders, and the power of disruption (by fellows learning by exploring the less developed southern world) to accelerate relationship and trust building among members of a very diverse group.

The second video talks about the power of connectivity (social capital) – and what happens when it bridges boundaries of race, sector, geography.


Patricia Brandes post: I met Tom Sander in June at the annual meeting of Associated Grantmakers in Boston. The topic was social capital and Tom keynoted. David Crowley of Social Capital Inc. was there too, moderating a panel to which I was a last-minute addition (you can find David’s excellent roundup here on the SCI blog). I was invited after the Barr Foundation appeared in the Stanford Social Innovation Review  – in a case study on the Barr Fellowship (see “The Currency of Social Change”), which is a story about the remarkable return we are seeing in Boston from an investment in social capital.

In his remarks, Tom reminded us that social capital comes in two types – bonding (i.e., with others like me) and bridging (i.e., across difference). Typically, building bonding ties are easier. Bridging is hard. Yet, bridging is vital. More often than not, new ideas, new approaches, and new solutions to persistent challenges come from leaders able to break out of silos and “groupthink” of homogenous networks.  Bridging is also an essential capacity for urban leaders of the 21st century, who must cross boundaries of race and class to create community. This is what makes the Barr Fellowship so special. It is a tightly woven network of bridging connections. After seven years and four classes of twelve fellows each, the Barr Fellowship network represents a remarkable cross section of Boston. Its members are diverse in age, race, sector, geographic focus, and more. Few even knew each other before being inducted as Fellows. The few exceptions were those who knew each other from being on opposite ends of pitched battles over neighborhood projects, or funding, or politics. Now, they know and trust each other deeply, and Boston is reaping the benefits of their boundary-crossing collaborations. Just to name a few examples, there are Barr Fellows behind the scenes of two exciting new Boston Public Schools opening their doors this fall (the Dudley Street Neighborhood Charter School and the Margarita Muñiz Academy), and behind the new community garden that opened in the Bromley-Heath Public Housing Project last year.

The secret to forging these powerful, bridging connections? In a word…disruption.

The Barr Fellowship begins with a three-month sabbatical. In itself, this is a beneficial disruption for social change leaders, who typically have never had such an opportunity for personal growth and rejuvenation. As the 2009 report, “Creative Disruption,” noted, sabbaticals turn out to be highly beneficial to leaders’ organizations as well. Yet from the perspective of social capital, it is critical that each class of twelve Fellows spends the first two weeks of their sabbatical traveling together to the global south (for example, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Brazil, Haiti).  In later, years, members of different Fellows’ classes come together for similar journeys – as this group who traveled together to Haiti in March, 2012:

Fellows Alumni group picture, March 2012, Haiti

Stefan Lanfer, who manages communications for Barr, traveled with an earlier group in January, and documented the trip here.

On these “learning journeys,” Fellows are immersed in experiences that open minds and hearts. They interact with social and environmental activists, who, despite scarce resources and great challenges, provide living examples that stir the imagination, inspire and confirm big aspirations, and bolster confidence for Fellows to achieve what they may never have considered possible. Conversations and connections happen among Fellows in many casual and unplanned ways during these journeys. A facilitator from Interaction Institute for Social Change also joins each group to provide more structured opportunities to debrief, reflect, and imagine together.

Barr has a detailed logic model (which you can see here) outlining our thinking for how this investment in disruption translates into big change for the leaders themselves, their organizations, Boston, and even the world. Here is the idea in brief:

When the boundaries are real and seemingly impenetrable, it takes disruption to get to authentic relationships. It takes authentic relationships to build trust. Only when you have real trust can people bridge across difference. And when you have a network of gifted leaders bridging across all kinds of differences, powerful change starts to emerge. This dynamic is best expressed in the words of one of the Barr Fellows, who shared this reflection on his first Barr Fellows learning journey with our evaluator, Claire Reinelt of the Leadership Learning Community:

We were able to open up to each other and state what we thought, what our fears were personally and professionally, where we thought we were going. That was fantastic! To have someone to whom you can say ‘I’ll call you at three in the morning,’ or ‘I’ll be over at your house,’ or, ‘I need some time to debrief, a mental health break,’ or ‘my spirits are low.’ Those are opportunities that were created. You can overcome any obstacle whatsoever if you have someone to fall back on.


Patricia H. Brandes is Executive Director of the Barr Foundation. To learn more about the Barr Fellowship, visit


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

Flickr photo by DStreet


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

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)

Innovations in social capital and housing

Two interesting things to watch on the intersection of social capital and housing:

1) The claimed growth of “pocket neighborhoods” (a handful of houses around a shared common yard) to reduce the necessary land for a house but still leave homeowners and children with a safe outdoor space to play in and entertain in.  (See USA Today article.)  This obviously could increase social interaction since there is far less private space.  I haven’t seen any studies of this, but it would be hard to test, because families that move into pocket neighborhoods undoubtedly desire greater interaction than families moving into houses with private yards. So, even if there were more social capital in pocket neighborhoods, it is hard to disentangle how much is the shared yard and how much is the community-mindedness of the residents. [For more examples of pocket neighborhoods see Ross Chapin, Cottage Company, and this blog post.]  A wikipedia article describes pocket neighborhoods in other areas like Boston (MA), Duluth (MN), Beloit (WI), Redmond (WA), among others.  Pocket neighborhoods are somewhat related to other attempts to engineer more social capital through physical design, such as co-housing or New Urbanism.

2) Bob Putnam has written about the challenges of building social capital amidst greater diversity.  One interesting approach to this challenge, is Singapore’s policy of rough ethnic quotas in public housing at the block and neighborhood level, begun in 1989, In theory this policy could be quite successful in building social cohesion and trust across the 3 major community groups in Singapore: the Malay (14%), the Indians (8%) and the Chinese (77%).   Given the fact that 82-86% of the Singaporean population lives in public housing, the impact could be quite widespread.  We’re not aware of good, careful studies of the social consequences of this mixing, and one should be wary of declaring victory based on the chastening US experience with HOPE VI.  Mixed income housing under HUD’s HOPE VI program may be successful along some lines, but hasn’t led in general, in the studies we’re aware of (or see this report), to strong cross-class mixing in these neighborhoods.  Read this Singapore Online Citizen piece for an update on Singapore’s Housing Integration (2/17/11).

Should College Freshmen pick their roommates?

Roommates - Flickr photo by Adam Sacco

The New York Times reports that more colleges are enabling freshman to fill out a questionnaire about “study habits, overnight guests, tidiness, politics, sexual orientation and religion, among other topics” and in the case of NYU or Syracuse University, freshmen then get back a ranking of the most compatible roommates from  The freshmen then mutually select which roommates they want.

What’s not to like about an approach that puts college students in the driver’s seat about their dorm-mates?  Two things: bridging social capital; and equalizing advantages.

Bridging social capital:  Bruce Sacerdote has demonstrated how one’s roommate alters one’s GPA things like which groups are joined.  Sacerdote is able to look at Dartmouth, since they randomly assign freshman roommates.

Giving freshman the choice of roommates is sure to minimize bridging social capital (basically ties with people unlike you along some important dimension, like race or social class or religion).  Humans were born to “bond” and our natural inclination is to hang out with others like us (“birds of a feather flock together”).  There’s nothing morally wrong with that, and when we’re sick or need social support, we’re most likely to get it from our “bonding social capital.”  Nonetheless, colleges are a rare opportunity to mix youth across our differences: many colleges, especially elite ones, are more diverse than the K-12 schools we attended or the neighborhoods in which we lived.  College students will no doubt form plenty of bonding social ties while at school, but colleges could and should try to help us build more social bridges.

Why?  These social bridges help shorten the social distance, not just in those diverse friendships themselves,  for all their  friends and friends’ friends.

They help break down stereotypes; it’s much easier to hold incorrect stereotypes in the absence of bridging ties and much harder when these stereotypes don’t comport with the reality of one’s diverse friends.

And bridging ties teach us valuable skills in working with others  unlike us along some important dimension, skills increasingly called upon in the workplace and the world.

In a society where connections often matter mightily, bridging social ties often help those from less fortunate backgrounds get access to jobs, collaboration partners, political influence, and the like.  It is one reason why thoughtful  conservative Glenn Loury ultimately called for the continuation of affirmative action, because, without increased diversity in elite institutions of higher education, formerly disadvantaged populations would never be starting from an equal point in terms of their social capital/networks.  And Xavier de Souza Briggs has written about how ties of the poor to other poor folks offer critical links for “getting by”, but that links into more wealthy social networks or more powerful political networks are often how the poor “get ahead” or “import clout.”

Dalton Conley, a leading scholar on inequality is a critic of freshmen picking their roommates: “‘Very quickly, college students are able to form self-selected cliques where their views are reinforced…Getting rid of the random assignment of freshmen roommates is going to impoverish the experience of the residential college.”

See “Roommates Who Click” (NYT, 8/22/10 by By Lisa Foderaro)

Other web-based services for helping freshmen choose roommates are: Lifetopia’s RoommateClick and RoomBug.

Social networking: a social “eden” or dystopian tool?

Freakonomics convenes an e-forum of various researchers of the social effects of social networking sites. As we’ve noted on this site, research on the social impact of these sites is still in its infancy, and we’ve blogged before on what’s interesting and the limitations of Nicole Ellison’s MSU study. On balance, most of the researchers see that there will be both desirable and undesirable byproducts of these social networks.

I agreed with some of the interesting comments of Will Reader (we blogged about his study earlier): “Some doom-mongers have suggested that social networking technologies will eventually lead to a society in which we no longer engage in face-to-face contact with people. I don’t see it. Face-to-face contact is, I believe, very important for the formation of intimate relationships (and most of us crave those).” But since close friendships require large investments of our time and emotion, we want to make sure that others are worth this investment, and non-verbal cues obtained from face-to-face interactions are one of the best ways to gauge this.

Reader notes that “talk is cheap” on social networks. “Anyone can post “u r cool” on someone’s “wall,” or “poke” them on Facebook, but genuine smiles and laughs are a much more reliable indicators of someone’s suitability as a faithful friend….To return to the notion of social capital, we know that people are increasingly “meeting” people on social network sites before they meet them face to face. As a result of this, when many students begin university, they find themselves with a group of ready-made acquaintances. Given people’s preferences for people who are like them, it could be that friendship networks become increasingly homogeneous. Is this a bad thing? It might be if, by choosing potential friends via their Facebook profiles, it means that folk cut themselves off from serendipitous encounters with those who are superficially different from them, ethnically, socio-economically, and even in terms of musical taste.”

Reader believes that social networking will change our society but one’s own preferences will dictate whether it is a utopian or dystopian future.

We’ve written earlier about how the Internet is an especially efficient way to maintain social ties that were made face-to-face, but Reader is undoubtedly true, that for geographically based networks (like Facebook, generally centered on college campuses), Facebook activity prior to coming to college campuses may accelerate the process of making new friends and may also exacerbate our tendency to form bonding friendships at the expense of bridging.

And Judith Donath makes the point that we have made earlier that social networking sites often “cheapen” the currency of friendships.

See whole forum here. [Freakonomics asked Martin Baily, Danah Boyd, Steve Chazin, Judith Donath, Nicole Ellison, and William Reader:” Has social networking technology (blog-friendly phones, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) made us better or worse off as a society, either from an economic, psychological, or sociological perspective?”]

Does Facebook help enhance your friendships?

Three researchers at Michigan State University (Nicole B. Ellison, Charles Steinfield, Cliff Lampe) have published The Benefits of Facebook “Friends:” Social Capital and College Students’ Use of Online Social Network Sites.

The study purports to find that (at least on MSU campus), more Facebook use is associated with higher levels of social capital, but especially useful for maintaing social ties to high school friends and to building bridging social capital. I’m less persuaded by these latter two findings. For “maintained social capital” all the reports of “maintaining social ties” that they use are self-reports and more hypothetical and less behavioral. So the study asks whether you would have a person you could stay with from high school rather than how many times in the last year (if ever) you did so. I think the measures encourage inflated perceptions of whether e-connections are valuable, without any tethering to real world behavior to test whether these inflated perceptions are valid. I’ve written earlier on how Facebook can cheapen the currency of “friendship” and simply calling someone a friend doesn’t necessarily afford the same benefits as comes with friends made off-line.

“Bridging” social capital in the study really just means an imagined connection with the MSU community and the ability to make new friends. I would find the results more powerful if the questions referred to actual friendship networks with people who were different than the respondent (with regard to race, ethnicity, religion, etc.) or questions on trust of different ethnic groups as we’ve done in our 2000 Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey. Even in our surveying where we ask people how many close personal friends they have who are African American, Asian, Hispanic, etc. we find that people enlarge their circle of “close” friends to find bridging relationships. So we know already that there is response desirability (people want to be able to report bridging relationships) and this tendency is fueled by loosely worded questions. I’m confident that people using the Internet think it increases their social bridges (the folk wisdom that “the Internet brings us all together”), so it requires more tightly worded questions to sort out fizzle from fact.

One of the more interesting findings from the paper was their finding, contrary to some of the “rich get richer” Meetup analysis I have done about what type of users benefit from participating in Meetup, was that the “poor get richer” through Facebook. [They use the terms slightly differently than I did; I was referring to people who were richer in “social capital” (already more socially connected) benefitting more than the people who were less connected. By the “poor get richer”, they mean that those with lower self-esteem and life satisfaction, may show the biggest gains by using Facebook more.] Nevertheless, the finding is still interesting.

Conclusion: it’s more serious research than I’ve seen on Facebook, but still leaves me hungering for better measures that are more behavioral and less ethereal.

Postscript: There is an interesting, more rigorous study of Facebook by Nicholas Christakis and Jason Kauffman at Harvard, but the results for now are largely limited to verifying homophily (the fact that “birds of a feather flock together”) on Facebook.