Social capital and our society

Published as ‘Ethnics rule’, Geelong Advertiser, Monday 20 August 2007, p. 15.

The American social psychologist and political analyst Robert Putnam has had a huge influence overseas with his ideas about social capital and its importance for the kind of society we live in today, but he is hardly known in Australia.

Social capital—the trust and networks of friendship, neighbourhood and organisations on which so much of our lives depends—is the glue which keeps society going, he argues.

His book Bowling Alone examined how school performance, public health, crime rates, clinical depression, tax compliance, philanthropy, race relations, community development, census returns, teen suicide, economic productivity, campaign finance, even simple human happiness are all demonstrably affected by how (and whether) we connect with our family and friends and neighbours and co-workers.

Now he has followed this up with a study which shows that in the United States there is a negative correlation between ethnic diversity and social capital. The more ethnically diverse the society, the less trustful people are. Moreover, this applies within ethnic groups as well as between them.

But before we jump to conclusions about the negative implications of this research, we need to appreciate that ethnic diversity is increasing in all modern societies, and societies which are ethnically diverse also tend to be the ones which have the greatest creativity and economic growth.

Not only that, but the history of countries which have faced large-scale inward migration in the past, like the United States and Australia, shows that they have gone through phases in which there was huge concern about the impact of these strange new people, but very soon these same people became part of the fabric of a changed and more dynamic society.

The first generation of migrants tends to maintain a strong migrant identity, often reinforced by religious difference, which helps maintain self-confidence and reinforce the desire to succeed in the new country.

But then, in a resilient countries like the United States and Australia, both the host society and the migrants change and compromise and learn to appreciate each other’s virtues, and a new social solidarity can be formed.

At a time when some politicians want to foster fear of foreigners, and specifically Muslims, we need continually to keep in mind that we have been here before.

Each time migration has increased as it did in the 1850s, 1880s, 1920s and after the Second World War the most dire predictions were made about the negative effects on Australia.

The reality, in every case, was that Australia benefited from that inflow, and that the migrants did too, and we are all richer, in economic and social terms, as a result.

Putnam’s latest findings show that social capital can be built up by conscious effort and good policy.

Australia and the United States have long, vibrant traditions of volunteering and what might be called an associational culture.

So it’s good policy to sustain the commitment and capacities already involved in community organizations and enthusiast groups, and encourage those who might become involved.

According to Putnam’s analysis, crime can be reduced, educational achievement enhanced and better health fostered through the strengthening of social capital.

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