Tag Archives: bridging ties

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 URoomSurf.com.  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.