Thoughts on the Loss of Social Capital

Spotted Toad posed a question on the loss of Social Capital, my response to which I have been encouraged to encapsulate in a post:

Do you tend to think of reduced social capital as more the result of overgrown education, government, etc “crowding out” other institutions or those institutions withering on the vine of themselves?

Using Toad’s definition of Social Capital as, “the networks of relationships that guide individuals’ behavior and identity (particularly outside of formal economic relationships),” here goes:

First, I’d like to note that Toad’s basic premise is correct. For example, in Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades, researchers found that:

In 1985, the General Social Survey (GSS) collected the first nationally representative data on the confidants with whom Americans discuss important matters. In the 2004 GSS the authors replicated those questions to assess social change in core network structures. Discussion networks are smaller in 2004 than in 1985. The number of people saying there is no one with whom they discuss important matters nearly tripled. … Both kin and non-kin confidants were lost in the past two decades, but the greater decrease of non-kin ties leads to more confidant networks centered on spouses and parents, with fewer contacts through voluntary associations and neighborhoods.

Things have only gotten worse since 2004.

(Of course, Robert Putnam noticed this in Bowling Alone, which I’ll get to in a minute.)

We could look at a number of other metrics of loneliness/connection: number of kids people have; number of siblings; percent of people who are married; age of first married. Spoiler alert: all of the data is bad. We’re so atomized, we make actual “atoms” look positively social.

The causes of our decrease in social capital are obviously multi-factoral, but here are some important elements I see:

Clan House and Totem pole from Saxman, Alasaka (Haida People, I believe)

1. Few people live where they grew up, much less where their grandparents grew up. People used to live in communities (or houses!) with multiple generations of the same family–cousins, 2nd cousins, etc.

For example, the Northwest Coast Cultures, ie the Tlingit, Haida, Eyak, and Tsimshian peoples, built clan houses that held 20-50 people, most extended family members. Clan houses are found around the world, from Pakistan to China and even Melanesia.

A friend of mine grew up in an actual multi-generational household, including grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, (and liked it there.)

Another friend who moved back in with her parents after graduation once received a surprise phone call from an old friend she hadn’t seen since elementary school. That friend had tracked down her grandparents’ phone number from 25 years ago, and as her grandparents had only moved a block away in that time, it only took a few minutes for the house’s new residents to reconnect the old friends.

But today, most of us expect to move across the country for school and jobs. My grandparents live a thousand miles from where they grew up, so do my parents, and so do I. Calling my grandparents’ old house wouldn’t get you anywhere. Many of us go through decades where we move every year.

In a community where you grew up, and your parents grew up, and your friends grew up, and their parents grew up, you get the classic case of “everyone knows everyone.” Sure, that can be annoying–but it’s also useful when you’re looking for a skilled plumber and you can just hire the guy who did a great job on your grandma’s plumbing last year.

Communities have simultaneously become bigger and more transient. What’s the point of learning your neighbor’s name if they’re just going to move out in a few years?

2. On top of that, we have technology that makes staying inside more pleasant than going outside. We used to go on the porch to stay cool in the summer, giving us a chance to meet our neighbors; now we stay in with the AC on and watch TV/Twitter.

I like being outside and am often vaguely surprised when, on a particularly pleasant evening, suddenly neighbors I’ve never seen before are in their yards.

Even when we do go out, we’re often still immersed in our phones, ignoring the other humans around us.

3. Community Breakup

Of course Putnam wrote the book on declining social capital (linked at the top of the post.) Among the many causes he investigated, diversity has what appears to be the biggest negative effect:

Prof. PUTNAM: Well, I’ve been interested in the questions of our connections with one another for a long time. I sometimes use the jargon of social capital to refer to the connections – our ties with our friends and neighbors and community and institutions and so on.

And about seven or eight years ago, at the request of communities all across America – big communities and small communities – we did a very large national survey, trying to measure the level of civic engagement and the number of friends people have and how they got along with their local government and so on, in 40 very different communities, places you’ve heard of like Los Angeles or Boston or Atlanta or Detroit or Chicago, and places you haven’t heard, little rural counties in the South Dakota or up in the Appalachias in West Virginia, or villages in New Hampshire – places all over. …

But what we discovered in this research, somewhat to our surprise, was that in the short run the more ethnically diverse the neighborhood you live in, the more you – every – all of us tend to hunker down, to pull in. The more diverse – and when I say all of us, I mean all of us. I mean blacks and whites and Asians and Latinos, all of us. The more diverse the group around us, ethnically, in our neighborhood, the less we trust anybody, including people who look like us. Whites trust whites less. Blacks trust blacks less, in more diverse settings.


3 main factors: first, people from other cultures are literally not from yours; you don’t have the same cultural background and normative expectations as they do. Often people don’t even speak the same language. For a multi-cultural society to work entails creating a new, meta-culture that includes the norms and background knowledge of everyone involved–and that takes time.

Second, the presence of non-cultural members in your community means your community has been physically split apart. Consider an Irish Catholic neighborhood in which all of the locals can walk to the same church, restaurants, shops, and school, where they frequently meet and socialize. Now consider what happens when a new group moves in–let’s say Lutherans. The physical presence of the Lutherans means some of the Irish no longer live near the church or the shops. The old pub gets bought out and replaced with restaurant catering to Lutheran palates. Now you have to go two miles over to get proper mashed potatoes, and maybe you just don’t feel like going that far. The neighborhood has lots its “character.” It withers.

Third, crime. The end of Jim Crow and Great Migration of millions of African Americans to northern cities was marked by a sharp uptick in crime. There were riots–in 1967, the Detroit riot killed 43 people and burned 2,000 buildings. In 1910, Detroit was 98.7% white and one of the world’s richest cities; today it is <10% white, 82.7% black, and a festering wound that anyone who can escape, has.

Where integration happened, it typically didn’t happen in upper-class neighborhoods, but in working class burgs, notably Irish, Italian, and Jewish ones. For example, Harlem, NY, was mostly Jewish and Italian in 1900. In 1910, it was 10% black. By 1930, it was 70%, due to the efforts of enterprising black realtors who saw an opportunity to move blacks into Harlem. Today it is mostly black and Puerto Rican; the Jews and the Italians fled the violence.

When busing began in Boston, Southie’s Irish nearly rioted, hurling rocks at the buses and spit at the students.

Crime soared; inner-city schools became warzones; white students were withdrawn and sent to private schools across town. As neighborhoods cratered families moved, losing the investments they’d poured into their houses. Now moms, dads, and kids all commuted far from their homes every day. (Moms have to pitch in and work, too, to afford the increased housing, school, and transportation costs–so now kids don’t even get to see them after school.) If you were lucky enough to make a friend, you probably weren’t lucky enough to live near enough to hang out.

Few of us today have ever lived in anything resembling a healthy, organic community. Those of us in the suburbs live in HOA-ruled fiefdoms where neighbors report each other for parking in the street or letting their dogs defecate in the back yard, while those in the city are taught to always be alert and never make eye-contact with anyone they pass.

So there are no more organic communities; people commute to work because jobs and “good schools” aren’t in the same place; people stay inside and watch TV instead of go outside and meet their neighbors, etc.

4. Then there’s the big change in employment, from self-employed farmers to employees of larger conglomerates. People used to have individual skills, products, etc. that they could individually trade with each other. Bob might know how to raise a barn; Sally how to milk a goat. Together, Bob and Sally are a pretty good team. Even 50 years ago, even though barns and goats were less important, there were more small businesses, fewer Walmarts.

Today you trade your skills less directly with other humans and more often with corporations. Bob is “skilled with IT systems delivery” and Sally is an “HR representative.” Together they accomplish… not much.

So social capital itself is less important than “selling yourself to the corporation” capital. Maybe we’ll call that corporate capital.

5. There are probably lots of other factors, too, like increasing atheism (the local church is a good place to meet your neighbors if you all attend and a convenient place for community events.) Even an atheist can agree that churches are a great forum for running community events; they have spaces where dinners and weddings can be held; they host ritual gatherings and reinforce moral and social norms. They do charity and host social gatherings.

Further, religious institutions promote a sense of belonging and duty to the group (and maybe there is some inherent utility to believing in a deity.)

5 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Loss of Social Capital

  1. When I was about 7 years old my parents moved from England where we regularly visited our relatives to New Zealand on the the opposite side of the world as far away as you can go. I absolutely hated NZ for that reason.


  2. “For a multi-cultural society to work entails creating a new, meta-culture that includes the norms and background knowledge of everyone involved–and that takes time.”

    Generally the meta-culture is just the dominant culture imposing itself on minorities. This is certainly the case in Singapore, which remains thus far a successful experiment in multiculturalism. America used to be successful at it. Wildly. It used to be considered a positive virtue for immigrants to learn the language, acculturate, and pass as ordinary Americans. Black American made huge social strides aping the culture and values of “white” (i.e., Anglo) society. The meta- here is the majority culture merely being tolerant of converts to itself. But, now, of course that is the epitome of evil.


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