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Monday, July 13, 2020

The Pandemic and the Social Capital of Local Neighborhoods

While biking on local trails early in the pandemic, I mused that people seemed "nicer" and hoped that one of the pandemic's long-term benefits that it would help bring Americans together after years of political polarization ("People Seem Nicer"). Unfortunately, some of our leaders (one in particular) have used the pandemic to divide us even more than we were before. Still, I have hope. I have hope because anecdotal evidence suggests that "social capital" may be on the rise in many of our local neighborhoods. If so, this could signal a reversal of several decades of decline, at least according to the political scientist Robert Putnam ("Bowling Alone").

What's social capital? It is generally thought to be the quantity and quality of resources that we can access through our various social networks. By social networks I do not mean social media outlets such as Facebook or Twitter, but rather the connections we share with our friends, family, co-workers, and so on (Note: the analysis of social networks dates back at least to the 1930s, long before Facebook was a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg's eye -- see Freeman 2004). Social capital is generally seen as a function of the number of ties (i.e., connections) we have with others AND the level of trust present in those ties. Put differently, the more ties of trust that we have (and continue to invest in), the greater our social capital.

Many scholars believe that social capital is positively associated with a number of instrumental and expressive rewards (e.g., higher paying jobs, better mental health), increased participation in various types of collective action (e.g., voting, volunteering, charitable giving), and the functioning of democratic institutions. It is also positively associated with healthy neighborhoods:
Consider a neighborhood with high social capital. In that neighborhood, the neighbors know each other, talk to each other often, and trust each other. In that neighborhood, a mother might feel comfortable letting her child walk alone to a nearby park. In a neighborhood with lower social capital, where the neighbors do not know or trust one another, the mother would either have to walk with her child to the park or hire someone to do it for her. (Pamela Paxton, 1999, p. 89)
So why do I think social capital may be on the rise in local neighborhoods around the country? Well, our own neighborhood has begun holding "social distancing" gatherings (which really should be called "physical distance gatherings"), such as movie nights where we play a movie on an outdoor screen and neighbors gather by households to watch. And when I mention this to others, many say their neighborhoods are doing similar things. And such activities typically increase the number of social interactions and level of trust between neighbors, thereby increasing not only the social capital of people within our neighborhood but the social capital of our neighborhood itself.

Of course, anecdotal evidence is only that. We can't know that such activities are systematically happening across the U.S. (and the world) without better data, which we won't have for a few years. However, if it is happening, then maybe, just maybe, we'll emerge from this pandemic with resources that we can use to "rebuild" the U.S. from the bottom (neighborhood) up into a less polarizing society. We can only hope.


Freeman, Linton C. 2004. The Development of Social Network Analysis: A Study in the Sociology of Science. Vancouver, Canada: Empirical Press.

Paxton, Pamela. 1999. "Is Social Capital Declining in the United States? A Multiple Indicator Assessment." American Journal of Sociology 105(1):88-127.

________. 2002. "Social Capital and Democracy: An Interdependent Relationship." American Sociological Review 67(2):254-77.

Putnam, Robert D. 2000. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

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