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PLUG INTO YOUR NETWORK: Social Capital and the Pandemic

Do you know your network? Not your mobile phone or internet provider or your digital TV company. It’s your social network I’m interested in. Even the anonymous crowd at a sports event is actually a tangle of social networks. Take a moment to write on a piece of paper a list of all the people to whom you have talked today. Consider the list and then add the names of anyone whom you talked to yesterday, and so on, until you have your social contacts for the week. Now, identify those who are family members or live in the same household. Most people will interact with this group most often but if there are others whom you talk to everyday, then they, too, form part of this inner circle. If you work for a business, you may include work colleagues, although one hopes that you take a break over the weekend. This is the core of your social network.
Notice that I said “talk.” You can include phone conversations and video calls, but it has to be a step above email, text messaging and responding to something posted on social media. Admittedly, that may relegate some family members from primary status, but even in the strange circumstances of the pandemic, one hopes that you are still talking to the people you live with and reaching out to those you really want to hear from. Most lists reveal an inner circle composed of just a handful of names, and a longer list of people to whom they have spoken at some point in the last week. However, if you discover from this exercise that you have no names on the first list, you may want to ask yourself: why? At the very least, it leaves you vulnerable.

Human beings are social animals and isolation has been linked to a variety of health risks. Anyone paying attention to the news will know that there is growing concern that the measures taken to reduce contact in order to limit viral transmission have coincidentally boosted social problems and mental health issues. They have certainly aggravated the isolation, already identified as a source of distress and difficulty, particularly among the elderly. Mapping your contacts is one way of checking the health of your social network, which governments of different stripes have increasingly seen as a neglected factor across many policy areas from employment to health and crime. There have been specific programs designed to reduce “social exclusion.” Governments around the world have concluded that “throwing money at a problem” is not the answer; tapping social capital is. A road map out of the pandemic will have to take this into account.
I suspect most people believe they have very little capital: a house, maybe, and a little money in the bank. According to economists Gary Becker and Theodore Schultz, your employer (if you have one) may regard you as capital: human capital. Collectively, the workforce holds skills and expertise that benefit the company; assets that enable it to function. More broadly, economists have recognised that education and training produce a workforce with up-to-date skills that increase productivity. When politicians lament that recent school closures have set back student attainment during the pandemic, they are not just sharing the pain of parents stuck at home with disgruntled children. They are also reflecting their concern over the future supply of skilled workers. Nations also rely on socialised citizens whose educational experiences place them in a range of social networks.

Another form of capital that you have, probably without fully realising it, is cultural capital. The term, coined by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, refers to the habits you acquire mainly through your upbringing: all those ideas and actions that you internalise so deeply that you take them for granted. Bourdieu was mainly interested in the traits that enable middle and upper-class children to do better at school than working-class ones and thus preserve their superior status and assure themselves a good career (yes — we all know of exceptions to this general rule). Teachers and others involved in running schools typically have this kind of cultural capital so they are likely to respond positively to parents and children who share it. In Britain, this mutual admiration society can circle around the overused word: “nice.” In the crucial sense of lacking cultural capital, working-class children, who don’t get on well at school, are often thought of as not just “unintelligent” but “not very nice.” And their poor grades, relative to their middle-class contemporaries, confirm this prejudice. This cultural capital can also permeate key institutions so that the attributes associated with it — manners, style of speech, or dress — are taken as signs of professionalism.

Closely associated with cultural capital, but rooted in a much larger part of our daily lives, is social capital. This has fascinated me professionally because it reveals the genuine significance of social networks. Followers of Bourdieu largely fold social capital into cultural capital and see it as yet one more way in which inequality perpetuates itself. For them, it boils down to the old phrase: “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” Social capital means having social networks that give you preferential access. There is also an American school of “social capital” theorists, which enjoyed popularity across the social sciences after Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone (2000). Putnam reported that just as many Americans went bowling, but they no longer chose to belong to bowling leagues or clubs. The rest of his book elaborated on the many negative consequences of this decline in social association. It isn’t good for individuals in terms of their health, and it isn’t good for nations either politically or economically.
What interested me was Putnam’s evidence that groups that were seen as having less of other forms of capital might still have quite a store of social capital. I’ve spent most of my academic career researching the African American freedom struggle, and racism has historically reduced their ability to accumulate wealth in the simplest terms of financial capital or real estate, the physical capital that is often a key part of inherited wealth. In many states it was illegal to teach the enslaved to read and write, and after Emancipation, segregation, whether legally sanctioned or indirectly created by racially separate residential neighbourhoods, presented a barrier to African Americans acquiring the kind of human capital through education that was increasingly crucial to social mobility. Thus, when I read Putnam’s book what intrigued me was the fact that the same racism had paradoxically increased African American social capital in some ways.
This reminded me of the standard Marxist line that the conditions of oppression also give rise to the conditions for revolution. It also made sense when I looked at the practicalities of organising African American protest, not just in terms of the predictable role of a church leader like Martin Luther King, but in the less acknowledged role of other institutions. A white sheriff in the Deep South was less likely to spot the voter registration classes that were held at the black beauty parlour because he never went in there! When organisers went into communities, they learned that one of the best ways to begin was to identify the people (typically women) who were known locally as the individuals who knew how to get things done. These were the gatekeepers, so to speak, and if you could get them on your side, doors would open, because if they vouched for you, people trusted you.
Putnam did offer a caveat about the positive effects of social capital. He warned that it came in two kinds: bonded and bridging. Racial, ethnic, and economically marginal groups, in his view, were forced to rely on a narrow group of internal contacts and the frequent, often daily, interactions produced bonded social capital, which he described as crucial to their ability to “get by.” Bonded social capital was thus a survival mechanism. The bulk of Putnam’s work, however, celebrated the social capital of individuals who were skilled social networkers; what he called the bridging social capital that enabled them to reach beyond their immediate circle to a far wider field of association. In some sense the gatekeepers within a community always possess bridging as well as bonded social capital, although the larger society can limit the bridges they can span. Part of the bridging process has always rested on the communication skills that are often garnered from formal education since they make the task of speaking or writing to people outside the familiar social circle less intimidating. Interviews or business meetings may still bring butterflies to the stomach but you know what to wear, how to present yourself, and what style of language to use. This is the script for a Grammarly commercial. Thus, we can see how Bourdieu’s cultural capital and Putnam’s social capital mesh together.

At first glance, the need to limit social interaction due to the pandemic would seem to have pushed all of us back onto our reserves of bonded social capital, back into our primary social circle. Business lunches and flights are cancelled; schools and bars are closed; and we are all spending more time in our own households. The media spotlight falls everywhere on those, particularly the young, who gather to socialise in breach of the rules, or on the emotional anguish experienced by families unable to visit loved ones who do not live in the same home. At the same time, however, the data on infection shows that the transmission rates are often highest in poorer neighbourhoods. Typically, this is attributed to congested housing; large or multi-generational families living in homes with small rooms and little private space. The same data also highlights the disproportionate incidence of disease among Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) groups in the UK, who are also more likely to live in these neighbourhoods. Bringing the concept of bonded social capital to this problem deepens our understanding of how transmission occurs. The daily tasks of life in such places are often done face to face in closed spaces with extended family members, young and old, assisting each other and their neighbours. Lest we romanticise the lives of the disadvantaged, we should add that these areas often also witness a higher incidence of personal violence and street dealing in drugs and other commodities. Cutting off contact is practically difficult in such places since it is precisely these interactions that help people with few resources get by. To cite one obvious example: the job they have as a cleaner or a shop worker depends on them interacting directly with people and they cannot work from home.
In contrast, consider the practicalities of surviving the pandemic within middle-class households. Working from home may bring its own difficulties but it is far more feasible for white-collar workers than for others. Even the new pandemic pressures of home schooling and on-line meetings are lessened by not just the likely presence of multiple computers, tablets and phones, but also by a social network that is accustomed to bridging distance. The new world of Teams or Zoom meetings cannot replicate past practice but it builds upon it. Food delivery services and the consumption maw that is Amazon cannot replace the pleasure of dining out nor the serendipity of a morning spent shopping, but it often extends a pattern of online shopping that was already there and already accommodated by a middle-class salary, and one no longer drained by the cost of commuting. Even the need to exercise is more easily met in homes where the number and size of rooms and the likelihood of a private outdoor space both increase. As long as your broadband holds and your phone is charged, bridging social capital is all you need to survive the world in lock down.

Another key aspect of social capital is that the relationships within it embody a trust that reduces what economists call transactional costs. You are more likely to go through with a deal if you feel you know and trust the person you are dealing with. This pattern has been evident in countless businesses from nineteenth century Quaker enterprises that once dominated chocolate manufacturing in the UK — Cadbury’s,Terry’s and Fry’s — to the orthodox Jewish networks still active within the New York diamond trade. In the context of the pandemic, this trust factor has health implications. Precisely the communities that have higher levels of infection are those with the least positive contact with, and therefore least trust in, the authorities. Official messages urging people to take up the vaccines will not get the same response as they do from people whose social capital makes them more comfortable in professional settings. If you want vaccination rates to increase in poorer or BAME communities, you need to find a messenger they trust; in short, someone already seen as part of the community.

At this point you might want to go back to your list. What does it tell you about your social capital assets? Are you more heavily invested in bonds than in bridges? You will thrive if you have both. We all need an inner circle of people we talk to, and automatically turn to, when the going gets rough. But they are more able to help us and we are more likely to secure the help we need if we have contacts that link us to a wider range of life experiences and professional expertise. We may not have the answer to our questions but we need to know how to ask the question and who and where to ask. Such exchanges are typical of bridging social capital. The post-pandemic world will be different, but its inequalities will continue to follow the structures of our social networks. Take the old advice. You can never have too many friends.

Historian and biographer but thankfully with a sense of humor