Monday, February 27, 2006

CAPITAL IDEA: Connecting social capital, cooperation, and democracy

Social networking and collaboration build democracySocial capital is a concept signifying the collective value of social interactions and relationships and the reciprocity that springs from social networks. The sustainability of community and civic life--even, some say, democracy itself--depends upon the continued cultivation of social capital.

Some experts and scholars in recent years have warned that social capital is dangerously in decline. In response, a number of organizations have sprung up to counteract the perceived depletion of social capital and to encourage the nurturing of social and civic connection. These include BetterTogether, the World Bank, and Assist Social Capital.

Surprisingly, however, a recent Pew Internet study (in PDF) found that the Internet, popularly believed to inhibit social interactions, in fact builds social capital:

The internet and email play an important role in maintaining these dispersed social networks. Rather than conflicting with people’s community ties, we find that the internet fits seamlessly with in-person and phone encounters. With the help of the internet, people are able to maintain active contact with sizable social networks, even though many of the people in those networks do not live nearby. Moreover, there is media multiplexity: The more that people see each other in person and talk on the phone, the more they use the internet. The connectedness that the internet and other media foster within social networks has real payoffs: People use the internet to seek out others in their networks of contacts when they need help.
In addition, contrary to the notion that regular Internet users are pathetic social misfits, the study instead found that "Internet users have somewhat larger social networks than non-users. The median size of an American’s network of core and significant ties is 35. For internet users, the median network size is 37; for non-users it is 30."

Journeying from the Internet back to the terra firma of real-world social congress, at least one scholar has argued that the workplace is also a wellspring of social capital, and that there is evidence to support the notion that workplace relationships strengthen civic involvement and democracy. As Columbia law professor Cynthia Estlund observes in Working Together: How Workplace Bonds Strengthen a Diverse Democracy,

In the workplace, and often only there, individuals have to find ways of cooperating on an ongoing basis, over weeks or years, with others who have distinct cultural backgrounds, life trajectories, opinions, and experiences, and racial and ethnic identities. That makes the workplace a uniquely important institution in a diverse democratic society and a central component of any reasonably capacious account of “civil society”.
It is indeed true that the personal is, in the end, political. Dispute resolution professionals whose work brings healing to workplace conflicts should consider their endeavors in a new light: that their efforts may in a big-picture, long-range way promote civic involvement and, ultimately, a re-energized democracy. Makes you think, doesn't it?