Saturday, July 12, 2014

Social wealth

I first saw the expression "social capital" in Putnam's now-classical book, Bowling Alone.  On the one hand, since I'm someone who has always believed that our duty to our communities trumps our duty to ourselves, I fell in love with (what I thought I understood about) that phrase:  social capital.  We'll only be rich if we're social beings.  This is something I believe.  Deeply.
[On the other hand, I might be a miserable example of social connections:  as I write this, my husband has given me the "gift" of taking my sons away for two days and one night, and I spent much of the time so far entirely by myself.  I prepared materials for my fall courses; I wrote reports for committees I'm on, I did some mathematical research, I even started a few blog posts ---  but I didn't spend any of that time with friends or colleagues.  The last time my husband and children were gone, I did the bare minimum of exercise (25-mile bike ride, all by my lonesome) to give myself even more time for writing and thinking on  my own.  I reverted, incontrovertibly happily, to the introvert side of me.]
When I talk with other people about this social capital  (which I don't do much, because I come off all geeky, and they worry I'm going to use that to segue back over to my beloved Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class which put them to sleep when I tried to tell them that it was riotously funny) . . . okay, let's start that sentence over again.

When I talk to other people about social capital, we usually end up taking the conversation down one of two paths:
  • In the long run, having strong relationships with friends and family makes us happier; but buying and owning things has little long-term influence on our happiness.
  • Knowing people who know how to do things or who can loan/give you things lets you get things cheaper than if you have to pay for those things yourself.  [Yay for babysitting swaps, and for friends who cut my hair, and for a neighbor who had so much lettuce she begged me to come take some.]
But both of those happy effects are mere consequences of social capital; they're not social capital themselves.  You could say both of those are "social revenue", instead.  To have true social capital, you need capital, which is "wealth in the form of money or other assets . . . available or contributed for a particular purpose such as starting a company or investing".   In our economic system -- called "capitalism" for just this very reason -- companies rely on machinery (capital) to produce new products, and yahoos like me build a retirement portfolio by investing money (capital) in companies.  In the case of social capital, the "wealth in the form of money or other assets" comes in the form of a strong social structure of some kind.

That social structure might be a marriage.  It might be a friendship.  But for a truly diverse social portfolio, we need more.  Marriages end, friends move away, and sometimes we need more than our friends and family can give us.

Here's an example of the "more" I'm talking about.  My daughter needed some way to figure out how to get the last truck-load of stuff out of her dad's garage, so she could clean up the house and sell it.  She mentioned this to a woman at our church, who organized a crew of other church members to swoop down and help. My daughter was a little bit overwhelmed because she didn't know most of those people -- that church network is a social capital that goes beyond friends and family.

Here's an example of what happens when an important social structure disappears.  A friend recently lamented to my husband that since he retired from his job at a nearby college, he's had lots of time to read but nobody to talk with about what he's learning.  It's not that he's lonely; he has friends (who don't happen to read C.S. Lewis' theological writings) and a good marriage.   But he's lacking the network of like-minded bookworms; he is missing that particular piece to his social capital portfolio.

But you can't just go to the mall and order up a church community to surround you.  You can't buy an intellectual conversation on Amazon.  And that's one argument for why we need to think about investing a bit of our own time and our own selves in social structures, just as we invest our money in our savings and retirement accounts.  That's a big part of why I'm not retiring from my job until I'm allowed to legally "retire" instead of "resign".

Because here, in this picture below, is a story of what kinds of riches the investment I'm making in my college community yields.  The picture shows my family.  You'll notice it came out a lot nicer than this blog's usual photos, and that's because I didn't take this photo myself (yes, my camera is yucky).  We were on campus for my college's reunion weekend, mooching the free food and schmoozing with alumni, and the official photographer wandered by.  He's an amazing guy -- not only a great photographer, but a sweetie who knows our family well.  He took this photo and sent it to us, and it's become one of our favorite photos since.  
K-daughter,  N-son, a proud Miser Mom, and J-son.  Thank you, Nick Gould! 
For me, what I love about this picture most is that it's a story of all of these experiences -- of reconnecting with alumni who are a part of my own past, of breaking bread with others, of celebrating academic achievements, of working alongside talented people, of rearing my family.  It's a picture of being connected in so many ways to something so much larger than myself.

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