The Importance of Social Capital

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Relative Measure of Social Capital by US States

I am now near the end of my reading of Robert Putnam's seminal work on Social Capital, Bowling Alone. Social Capital is one of those very hard to define subjects, but my interpretation is that it measures the level of trust, connectedness and mutual reciprocity in society. This is important for a wide range of issues from child rearing to economic development to how individuals (or communities) respond to a crisis situations. Social Capital could be the defining characteristic of communities that pull together in the face of high oil prices versus those that tear themselves apart in the ultimate tragedy of the commons.

Looking at a map of the US you can start to understand why North Dakota and Vermont, despite their cold winters may be better places to live than Mississippi or Alabama. And this is only state level averages - each state will have within them communities that are stronger than others. And each community will have individuals that have more social capital than others because of their level of civic involvement. Those individuals and those communities will be one of our greatest assets as peak oil forces us out of our private cocoons - McMansions and SUVs - run on high levels of energy consumption and forces us to live in more shared living spaces, carpooling, etc.

What is the state of social capital and what are the major measures available?

One of the best measures, is involvement in community based volunteer organizations. You can see the first half of the Century represented a dramatic rise in the membership of these organizations, which was interupted by the Great Depression and then accelerated greatly in the World War II era all the way to the late 1950s. Then it reached a peak in 1960, a plateau during the 60s and declined steadily from from there to the present day.

This can also be seen in the number of people serving as an officer in an organization...

...Club meeting attendence...

...Which appears to be associated with less trustful individuals and even less trustful teenagers...

...and less philanthropic giving.

Putnam also shows how this is linked to declines in all types of political participation from voting to signing a petition to running for office.

So, Does this matter? Well if you want well educated kids...

better public health

and lower crime, it seems to be pretty good.

And for those of you who think in even more Hobbesian terms, people with less social capital seem ready for a fist fight

But many of you may think that this may all have to do with the level of ethnic or religious similarity which leads to social cohesion. But the best indicator of tolerance for differences lies in states with higher social capital.

Maybe that's because there is more economic equality...

...and civic equality

Based on this I would say that high levels of social capital seems like a good thing to have in your area. The main causes of the decline in social capital based on the statistical data from Putnam's book are:

  1. Generational Change - The slow replacement of the highly participatory WWII "greatest generation" by the more individualistic Baby Boom and cynical Gen X & Y kids. (50%)

  2. TV - The dramatic rise in TV viewing hours per day crowding out civic participation in many ways. (20%)

  3. Sprawl - Increasing distances between home, work, shopping, friends, etc have decreased local involvement because of time pressures and less feeling of local attachment. (15%)

  4. Work - The pressures of time and money, two career families, loss of the local merchant class through nationalization and globalization have removed many pillars of the community from their position of status in return for low everyday prices. (15%)

I haven't completely made up my mind about what the answers are at a societial level, but at a personal level I plan to do the following:

  1. Try to watch less TV by going out in the evening more with friends, to civic meetings, and may join a sport that I can commit to regular participation.

  2. Never move more than 10 miles from my office (currently am about 2 miles away). Continue to work in a job that has a good life-work balance.

  3. Continue to live in a downtown area instead of the suburbs - consider moving to a small town with higher levels of civic participation if things get bad. Small towns are better than inner city and inner city is better than the suburbs.

  4. Challenge other members of my generation to become more civic minded and involved in their local community institutions. Strengthen my connection to my friends and relatives through more direct contact.

[editor's note, by Prof. Goose] And here is a link to a story and a list of resources that was done on this topic.

This is fascinating - and as I was looking at all the data, it just kept screaming "TV and sprawl" at me.

Then I look at the summary of proposed causes and see:

1. Generational Change - The slow replacement of the highly participatory WWII "greatest generation" by the more individualistic Baby Boom and cynical Gen X & Y kids. (50%)

To me, this is not really explanatory, but merely shifting blame.  I read it and see "generational behavioral change caused by generational cultural change."  It doesn't really explain much for me.  It's like saying smaller soda cans cause less soda to be contained within.  Sure, but what's making the soda cans smaller?

So, I have to wonder, what's causing the "more individualistic and cynical" baby boom and gen x/y kids?

Could it be - let's see - TV and sprawl?

The embrace of which has mostly been caused by, I think, the wider political and cultural shifts in America over the past 60 years, what with McCarthy, the cold war, Goldwaterism, etc.

That "greatest generation" messed up and gave their children a paranoid, militaristic, suburb-worshiping nation, which their children have rejected and felt alienated from, choosing to avoid it at all costs, hence the drop in civic participation and social capital.  We retreated into mass culture.

Yeah, that's simplifying a bit, but I think it's rather fair.  So basically, I blame the generation that gave us the Cold War and suburbs-as-ideal for eroding the American social fabric.

I think there are signs of change afoot, though.  See blogs, DailyKos activity (and related, YearlyKos), and meetups, etc.  It'll take time, though, and only time will tell.

It's not so simple - TV and Sprawl may be contributing factors to the generational divide, but even controlling for those factors statistically you still get a lot of variation that you can't explain. For instance if you look even at people who live in a small town and watch about the same about of TV as the past generation did in 1960, they still participate a lot less. The baby boomers were the first generation really "raised" with TVs and Gen X & Y had even more electronic gadgets for them to "zone out".

There may be a cumulative effect too - take for instance someone who meets all the right criteria (lives in a small town, doesn't watch much TV, enjoys participating in group activities) - if there are few people for that person to have a meeting with, they are an island of participation aspiration that goes unfulfilled.

Sometimes children just don't want to be like their parents - which is why I agree, we are starting to see a turn for the better with some of the electronic meet-up political sites. But there is a long way to go before we create a true national culture of participation.

Either way, the point is to reverse the trend. I'm thinking about joining a bowling league myself! I had a 183 average in High School!

All good points - and I should also acknowledge that my blame-laying just shifts the question of causes one more generation back.  One could then ask the question, "what made the baby-boomer's parents choose paranoia and suburbs?"

In any case, enough with the blame, I have to say to myself.  I'll focus on positive shifts in my own life.  Your list is a good place to start, especially #1 which seems the toughest, since it's a number of different things that all require overcoming habits...

I don't think they conciously chose "Paranoia and the Suburbs". I don't get very upset about the choices of prior generations (but I do get upset at the continuing obsession with the automobile lifestyle in the face of all the facts about global warming and PO). The WWII generation chose affordable housing, quiet streets, comfort, good schools, open space...all good things by themselves, but all of those together in the middle of nowhere without strong social cohesion created an isolated existance in which neighbors were alienated from each other.
I don't think they conciously chose "Paranoia and the Suburbs".

Well, of course not, that was just my own value-laden label for a broad swath of choices made by millions of individuals.  I take back the whole "blame" thing - it's neither correct nor productive.

And it's not as if all suburbs are bad; just as there can be poor city design, there can be good suburb design... or maybe I'm just thinking of actual small towns which aren't really suburbs but are what the suburbs were trying to imitate?

So, yeah, they made choices based on cultural assumptions of what would bring them good neighborhoods and a good life, and every generation makes the same assumption-based choices.

Like they say, "culture happens."

I wonder if practices and habits that build social capital could be protected in society in some way?  Guess I should go pick up the book!

Damek wrote:
"So, yeah, they made choices based on cultural assumptions of what would bring them good neighborhoods and a good life, and every generation makes the same assumption-based choices."

You just did a great job of summing up a key part of the theory of periodic American culture change proposed by Professor Jack Lessinger in the book "Schizomania".

He labels our shared vision of the good life a 'mania'. (We usually call it the American Dream.) He shows how this shared vision alternates over time in a sequence of overlapping waves. During the time when a new rising wave (a new American Dream) starts to become as powerful as a fading falling wave (a fading American Dream) the shared vision becomes split - and another word for split is schizo. So "Schizomania" refers to a time period when our shared vision of a good life is split and in flux.

He discovered this pattern when studying the historical mass migrations of Americans from region to region and then from countryside to city to suburbs.

According to him we have already begun our fifth mass migration, though you do have to know what you are looking for to see it. The evidence is compelling...

He has nicknamed the mania that was born back around 1900 the 'Little King'. The Little King vision is centered around the individual rather than the community (like the trends detailed in Bowling Alone), it is focused on the short-term (Buy now - Pay later!), is driven by consumerism and considers it's castle to be the suburban home. (Of course this is all simplifying some complex concepts into a small message, so it may sound like stereotyping)

Here's the fascinating part: Each mania runs about 120 years with the the replacement mania being born at the height of the preceding one, and it is born to counter the excesses of it's parent mania by being an opposite vision.

So the individualistic Little King was born in 1900, reached it's zenith around 1960 (look at the peaks of those charts from Bowling Alone again...) and if the theory holds will fade into history around 2020. At the Little King's zenith was born the next mania - called the "Responsible Villager".

The Responsible Villager is driven to counter the excesses of it's parent - it is community focused rather than individualistic, it looks to the long term rather than the short, it loathes the suburbs and consumerism (though like every 'teen' still living in their parent's home they are still tied to situations and habits and infrastructure they wish to escape).

According to theory, the rising Responsible Villagers have reached a level of strength enough in balance with the declining Little Kings for each to frustrate the heck out the other (seem familiar?) and we are in the schizo-mania period right now. Around 2020 the Responsible Villagers will be the ruling mania and will be at their zenith...

It fits in interesting ways with some of the predictions for post Peak Oil culture doesn't it?

The book Schizomania can be found at:

More info on the theory can be found at:
(look for the little "NEXT" icons at the bottom of each page - IMO the book does a much better job of presenting the theory than the summary on the website, but it's a decent intro.)

Greg in MO

The WWII generation chose affordable housing, quiet streets, comfort, good schools, open space

I disagree -- what they were after was something different -- something we are still striving for. The goal of the post-WW2 generation was Star Trek. It was total automation through technology in a sterile environment. Have you ever seen stairs on Star Trek? Does Spock ever go on walk down a quiet street after a few beers?

Similarities between suburbs/post-WW2 and Startrek:

  • Alcohol: StarTrek has synthahol. Suburbs are void of dive bars.
  • Travel: StarTrek has beaming up and down. And turbolifts. Suburbs have driving up and down and expressways.
  • Entertainment: StarTrek has the Halodeck. Suburbs have TV. Society pretends that neither are used for anything more beyond than PG-13.
  • Militarism: StarTrek presents us with an extremely militarized society -- everyone has ranks and all ships are well-armed. You see an arms race between the Klingons and Starfleet. The Klingons are just war-mongers, and our real goal is science. Kind of like the pretense of the cold war, eh?
  • Personal space: Cushy, all furniture has rounded corners. And everyone has the exact same stuff. (This goes for both.)
  • Identity through consumption: Captain Pickard likes Earle Grey. I like double-mocha-latte. Go to Wal-mart/replicator and get yourself something that says, "I'm Ricker and I'm kind of wild."

I'm being somewhat facetious here, but my point is real. How often do we think of Star Trek has being dystopian and bad? But really, the goals of the surburbs are the same goals as Star Trek -- and they are largely REALIZED goals.

Open space? Unless unreasonably sized yards is open space, you don't see that in the burbs? Affordable housing and good schools? Debatable. The real goal of suburbia is total automation of the human experience.

I get my holodeck programs from a Ferengi website. :-)

BTW: holodeck, Picard, Riker, Earl Grey

It's not so simple - TV and Sprawl may be contributing factors to the generational divide, but even controlling for those factors statistically you still get a lot of variation that you can't explain. For instance if you look even at people who live in a small town and watch about the same about of TV as the past generation did in 1960, they still participate a lot less.

Sure... But it's not just a question of how many hours a week you watch TV - it's about what you watch. There's a big difference between the likes of"I Love Lucy" and "Little House on the Prairie" and the modern fare of "CSI" and "24". The interesting question is why has the general tone of TV programming changed so much... Personnally, I suspect that paranoia-inducing programming makes for a much better advertising vehicle.

Oh yeah, there are a number of psychological studies that agree that memories are best preserved by a shocking or traumatic event. For instance if you see someone get murdered in real life, it's likely you will remember every detail surrounding it until the day you die. It seems advertisers have latched on to that hook as a way to make their ads memorable. Perhaps contrasting good with bad makes the good seem that much better...
I REALLY question the criteria to make that map !

In fact, I think it just flat WRONG !

AZ is just below "high" and they are dominated by the soulless Phoenix (about half the population), where everyone lives behind walls, one does not know their neighbors name, nor even what they look like, but what they drive.  "That red Acura two doors down".

Meanwhile, Louisiana which has New Orleans, numerous small towns and several 100,000 to 250,000 cities with stable families with roots, ranks at the lowest possible rating.

At one of the Louisiana planning sessions, an interactive computerized feedback was set-up.  One question was "how deep are your family roots".  53% had been there for 3 or more generations.

The greatest single factor in social capital is multi-generations living nearby (minimal mobility would be an indicator) with church/synagogue/mosque attendance a close second.  That map surely ignores both prime factors.

I live in a disaster zone now and there are many expressions of social capital between friends and strangers now.  If someone is getting a new refrigerator in the house, strangers off the street will help out, etc.

A single example.  I am part owner of a rental house in the Lower Garden District.  We were renting short term to a series of movie production professionals when Katrina hit.  We rented our 1,100 sq ft 1 bath house to a flooded out family (at a small decrease in rent despite the VERY tight market).  They asked after moving in if some friends that were flooded out and desperate for housing could move in,  We said yes, and at no increase in rent.  6 people, 1,100 sq ft, 1 bathroom.

The map is, IMO, just another expression of anti-Southern bigotry, something for which New York is noted.

Alan, I'm sensitive to the charge of regionalism. And Frankly, I don't think NYC would score very high in a city by city rating of Social Capital. But I think social capital (whatever your measure) is extremely important

What is your basis for rejecting this data? The book is pretty good at making the case about social capital. Family longevity in an area is important no doubt, but so are many other factors - how do you explain why folks despite their long standing family ties to are statistically less likely to be involved in civic life? How do you explain the state correlations with outcomes?

Rather than reflexively rejecting the data because you BELIEVE it to be wrong, please offer an alternative interpretation other than regional bigotry.

I suspect that the methodology reflects regional and perhaps ideological bias.

Are religious tithes included in charitable giving ?  (I know that local Baptist churches do not report their offerings to anyone).  Is being a deacon or Sunday School teacher in the local church considered being a "club officer" ?

From distant memory, I recall that Mississippi had the highest per capita religious giving.  Not bad for a "white" state.

Newcomers often join local organizations in order to "fit in".  Those that already "fit in" by growing up there and knowing everybody only join if they want to/enjoy the activity.

Alan, you're probably thinking of the Urban Institute's study back in 2000. Bible Belt states (including, it should be noted, South Dakota) were at the top of the list in charitable giving. New England states were generally the worst.

I sympathize with your suspicious attitude. I'd want to know a lot more about the assumptions of this study before I trusted it. I think it's important to distinguish between cultures that are unfriendly to outsiders, but very protective of one another, versus cultures that are friendly and open to outsiders in a nominal sense, but wouldn't be willing to devote personal resources to aiding them. Small town rural America (particularly in the deep South) is at one extreme, and suburbia/exurbia is at the other.

I also doubt social capital is a universal function. It seems likely that relative demographic correlation issues are quite important. If you are a Baptist and can join the local Baptist church, I'd bet Baptist churches in Alabama are as good or better than Baptist churches in San Francisco, and there are way more of them to choose from. On the other hand, if you're a Buddhist, San Francisco is going to give you a much deeper pool of resources.

There is more to social capital than mere church attendance and charitable giving. If you are a die-in-the-wool southern Baptist/Muslim/Buddhist/Catholic/Rastafarian/Zeus worshipper and you belong to no voluntary associations that have members of other faiths, how likely are you to trust a person not of your faith? History shows that absent the presence of these organizations the chance is not very high.
Right, there is "bonding" social capital, which strengthens the bonds within a group like an extended family, religious group or tribe. However this can breed a in-group versus out-group mentality that creates the seeds of conflict.

Then there is "bridging" social capital which emphasizes links between different groups and communities. A bowling league or a military unit can have the same impact of making people who would have never come together meet each other and build a relationship based on a shared activity goal. These bridging links are especially good at reducing intolerance and creating more mutual understanding.

We will need a lot of both to survive Peak Oil, IMHO

What is your basis for rejecting this data?

In the past Alan has claimed that the only cities worth saving is New Orleans, NYC and San Francisco.    

This data puts Lousania in a 'bad' light, ergo the data must be wrong.   Happens alot here.   Harsh possibilites like violence over oil and population die-off are shouted down because its not an answer people are willing to accept, lest they are part of that die-off.

Same with powerdown.  Powerdown leads to less work, less work leads to less cash, less cash leads to economic crash, crash leads to 401K sadness.   So  powerdown is an unacceptable answer also.

To state it more correctly than I was paraphrased above, the only US cities that I know of with cultural value so high that they MUST be preserved for their cultural value alone are New Orleans, SF & NYC.  The loss of any of these three cities will create a large cultural void that will affect the world.  

If Phoenix disappears, it will no negative cultural impact upon the citizens of Tokyo & Hamburg.  Losing Los Angeles WILL have a cultural impact, but whether the impact of losing Hollywood would be negative is debateable.

This study states that the sun rises in the West and sets in the East.  Since this contradicts a lifetime of personal observations, it must be wrong.

The most likely cause for this "Sun rises in the West" conclusion must be anti-Southern bigotry common in some East & West Coast intellectual circles, with which I have a life time of experience.

One personal story.  In junior high & high school, I would read "Science", a high prestige scholarly journal.  I would ask my father about articles that I did not understand (and was interested in.  Many I did not understand but ... :-).

One paper did a statistical correlation between tornado fatalities/reported tornado vs church attendance and came to the conclusdion that those that went to church more would "trust in God" and not take proper safety precautions in a tornado warning,  I was aghast at the "conclusion".  I could think of 100 other reasons why the fatality rate woudl change (as you go further north, there is less solar heating and tornados are weaker.  Since population densities are higher in the north, and heating is more expensive, more homes have basements, etc.)  My father, a Professor of Statistics. explained that the study was EXTREMELY faulty and the only reason it got by peer review was due to anti-Southern bigotry.  One intellectual bigot wrote the paper and a couple more bigots reviewed it.  Since then I have seen many more cases of intellectual bigotry and this "study" just reeks of it.

BTW, my father was the first faculty sponser of the Black Student Association when it was formed at the University of Alabama.

On another level, the anti-Southern bigotry is so strong that my sister has to change her accent when she moved to Manhatten.

What is your basis for rejecting the data?

Mostly, I'm wondering how this "social capital" index was derived. I haven't read the book so I don't know, but I suspect the author started with the states he liked then picked the data (club membership, education, etc) to fit. In other words, we see the high correlation because the author used those factors to create his social capital numbers.

I've created a chart showing the relative goodness of ice cream. Rasberry vanilla swirl is white, cookies 'n' cream is pale green, fudge swirl chocolate with chocolate chips is dark green in my chart. And hey, look at the charts showing the correlation between chocolate content and goodness! Must be related. Of course it's related because  in my world "goodness" is measured by chocolate content. It's all circular and self-reinforcing, kind of like blogs tend to be.

The map was bugging me, too; while the concept of declining social capital just seems "correct" to me, it did seem strange that southern states were so light.  It does seem that, in gathering and analyzing the data, certain biased assumptions were made about what sorts of activities create social capital, and what sort of social capital is desirable.

I found this given some voice in a review at Amazon, and focused on it a bit in a post on my own blog.  The reviewer mentions church affiliation shifting to mega-churches, which I think are probably a bit shallower than the traditional, older, smaller, local churches, but I could be wrong.

Nevertheless, I think it's unwise to throw the baby out with the bath water here.  It's true, we volvo-driving, latte-drinking, elite northerners with our heathen atheistic ways, we tend to ignore religion as a social activity of redeeming value, and that may indeed be reflected in the assumption of what constitutes social capital.  I think I'd have to read the book to really form my own opinion there.  But even correcting for that, I think there's still a real problem being described.

It may even be that it's more just a problem for the left, for the "blue states," for the cities.  Perhaps that explains some of the political weakness of the left, and conversely, the strength of the right, as social capital has dwindled in the cynical, post-60s left, and bloomed in the evangelical, post-60s right.  Or maybe not, that sounds pretty simplistic to me...

state by state obviously leaves out incredible variation. Willets CA has a bit more social capital than Los Angeles, etc. But at least its a step in the direction of understanding social capital.

The Kalahari San Bushmen have great social capital but I doubt many of us will be moving to Botswana soon. Social capital must be taken in context. I am a 6-5 white guy with a Wisconsin accent. Social capital is who you know what youre comfortable with and how altruistic your neighbors, friends and relatives are. I know some peoples relatives that Id rather move to Botswana were they mine.

Willets CA has a bit more social capital than Los Angeles

And parts of LA probably have more social capital than other parts of LA...

Hello Damek,

Please do not overlook the social capital south of San Diego!

Mexico will soon be voting on just how much social capital they want versus how much investment capital they desire.  The coming elections could be pivotal in determining future Mexican energy isolationism to sustain only themselves as long as possible, or welcoming foreign investment to continue fossil fuel exports.

Excerpt from Arizona Republic
MEXICO CITY - In the midst of Mexico's biggest oil boom since the 1970s, the nation's top two presidential candidates are debating whether to turn outward and open oil to private investors or inward by exporting less crude and giving Mexicans subsidized gasoline.

The question revolves around nationalist pride as well as pump prices, but the real challenge lies elsewhere: finding new deposits to replace Mexico's rapidly declining Cantarell field off the Gulf Coast.

If Mexico doesn't act quickly, the question of what to do with the oil wealth may be moot; in a decade, there may not be enough oil left to supply the economy.

"Whoever wins the election will probably put a radical imprint on energy policy," said Mexico City-based industry analyst David Shields. "This election is about ideology. You're voting for someone who's way on the left, or someone who's way on the right."

Lopez Obrador criticizes Fox's administration, saying, "The only thing that matters to them is selling more and more crude to foreigners, neglecting exploration and new reserves and, above all, abandoning refining and petrochemicals."

One thing that's clear: Business as usual isn't an option anymore.

Shields predicts Mexican oil production could fall from 3.35 million barrels per day to as little as 2.8 million barrels per day within two or three years, if nothing is done.

"The current organization and course of the oil industry in Mexico are unsustainable," George Baker, an industry analyst with, wrote in a research report.

If DIEBOLD is not involved in Mexican politics, I expect Mexico to swing over to Hugo Chavez style populism. TODers Westexas & Khebab should be keenly interested in the Mexican outcome as it can profoundly affect their export depletion theory in regards to the US and NAFTA.  IMF & World Bank economic hitmen can be considered the counter-vailing force, but many Mexicans are aware of Lazaro Cardenas and his imprint upon Mexico's energy history.

Bob Shaw in Phx,AZ  Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

If Mexico decides to keep more of its oil and subsidize its own citizens, will the border issue reverse?  Will we have hoards of suburbanites with their SUVs sneaking across the border to Mexico to get a better life of cheap gas?  Maybe that is why we are stepping up border patrols - to keep them in.

I wonder what the US reaction would be if Mexico slowed/stopped the flow of oil to the US.  Will the US go NAFTA on their ass?  Will there be more resentment of illeagals coming across the border?  Will it be even more of a benefit for those that do cross the border?  If fuel prices climb in the US there will be more opportunity for labor in the fields to replace fuel in the fields, and the fat, lazy Americans won't do it.  More work, more money to send back to relatives in Mexico to buy more cheap fuel.

Hello Kgmqt,

I was in Mexico last week visiting friends and I took the opportunity of filling up on the $0.50/gallon savings for the return trip home.

The general trend is to move energy-intensive industry closer to the energy sources, so I expect American outsourcing to continue.  If Mexico reduces oil exports to the US: that giant sucking sound you will hear is companies moving south.

Mexico is running into drastic water shortages: this alone will require huge energy inputs for ocean desalinization, then even more energy to pump it way uphill to the cities.  Mexico City is at the bottom of a very mountainous bowl at 7342 elevation and home to over 20 million people-- imagine the energy requirements of pumping potable water over mountain ranges from sea-level!  Any social capital starts with reliable access to clean H2O.

Northern Sonoran Mexico is a very arid desert like AZ:  they are rapidly exhausting acquifers and global warming predictions indicate even less future rainfall.  The two largest river drainage basins [Colorado and Rio Concepcion] are now basically dry washes at the river-ocean deltas due to upstream acquifer overdrafts. Check out this link:

Puerto Penasco, Mexico [called Rocky Point by the gringos] is only sixty miles from AZ border: fastest growing gringo beach resort town in Sonora.  They are building skyscaper beach condos for miles along sandy beaches, and water usage is expected to double in less than ten years.  Here are some images:

Millions of Americans are going to lose their investments when there is insufficient water and electricity.

Bob Shaw in Phx,AZ  Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

There's some discussion of this in today's DrumBeat thread.  In particular, see Prodigal Son's posts.  He explains why the South is so low in social capital, how religion can be both helpful and harmful, etc.  Fascinating stuff.
I'll repost my 'story' here as you think it might be beneficial:

Let's spin a story about why this may be instead of simply disregarding the results becasue we don't like them. Isn't that what folks here say others are doing in relation to Peak Oil?

I've read Putnam's "Making Democracy Work' -- which is basically how social capital aids democratic governance in Italy. Haven't read Bowling Alone so I don'tk now how he measured the concept in the US, but I'm familiar enough with his study of Italy to understand what moves his model.

Note, use of volunatary associations is a relatively good one. As I point out below, when civil society is organized in such as way that it cuts across social cleavages that increases social capital. When it is organized in a way that reinforces social cleavages it reduces social capital between different groups.

If you don't like the US example, consider Israel and the Palestinians. Lots of in group social capital, very little institutions that include both Israelis and Palestinians. Civil Society in Israel and the Occupied territories is organized vertically, not horizontally.

Social capital is basically trust. Do you trust other people enough, for instance, to trade with them regularly? Do you trust them enough to rely solely on formal political institutions in order to guarantee your life or property? If you don't think this is important, see Iraq today or, closer to home, post-Katrina New Orleans.

So what factors increase societal trust? Off hand I can name four -- population size, social diversity, economic inequality, and horizontal versus vertical organization of civil society.

Very simply, small populations promote trust as it is easier to keep track of everyone and how you have interacted with them in the past. Once populations get too big the large number of non-personal relationships reduces your trust of other people because you, obviously, don't know them.

Note, none of the big population states in the graphs above have a lot of social capital, but many of the smaller ones do.

Diversity also reduces trust because of the insider-outsider mentality it brings. Members of other religions/racial/ethnic groups aren't 'like' you or members of your group so you don't necessarily trust them as much as members of your own group.

Note, tolerance is a product of diversity and social capital. Where there is not a lot of social capital but a lot of relative diversity you get intolerance.

Side note: This is a map of hate groups compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Notice a correlation?


Economic inequality acts in the same way as societal diversity. The poor and the rich quite simply see themselves as different tribes. If you are rich it is easier to trust another rich person while if you are poor it is easer to trust another poor person. This problem is compounded if you don't have a middle class that in essence interacts with both, thereby serving as a go-between for the two.

Finally, the organization of civil society is important. If organization is 'horizontal' it cuts across the above cleavages and increases trust between members of very different groups. If civil society is vetical, it does not cut across group boundaries and, instead, reinforces them.

Now, why is the 'South' deficient of social capital in relation to the rset of the country? Very simple:

   1. Relatively large populations.
   2. Very racially diverse.
   3. Lots of economic inequality.
   4. Long history of 'separate but equal' racial animosity that kept groups apart. The Southern Baptists, for instance, was specifically formed to keep blacks out of white churches.

Why are the Dakotas rich in social capital?

   1. Relatively small populations.
   2. Relatively homogenous in terms of ethno-racil makeup.
   3. Relatively homogenous in terms of economic inequality.
   4. Probably (as I don't know for sure) lots of organizations in civil society that cut across what divisions there are in Dakota -- Churches, for instance, include both the rich and the poor.

Speaking as a Californian, ... "We're No. 1!!! oohrahhhh!!!"

Sadly, there are reasons. A big one is, California's a big state. But there's only so much you can kick a group of people before they start to bite.

can I get the link for this map?  the East coast is cut off.


I think Putnam's use of community voluntary associations is a good one because these organizations are institutions that cut across social cleavages. You can be Catholic or Protestant and still join the Elks or the Moose. You can't be Protestant and join Catholic organizationas and vice versa.

The south may be chock-a-block with Churches, but if they serve to reinforce differences rather than cut across them do they really ad to social trust and cohesiveness?

There are lots of mosques in Iraq and lots of Mosques and temples in India. Do they add to social capital or are they contributing to social division?  

If the authors are biased in their selection criteria for what consitutes social capital, shouldn't that show up in the correlations with known quantities, such as crime level?
Thar assumes that there is a correlation between social capital and crime.  I doubt that there is.

There is, apparently, a correlation between whatever the author is measuring and crime.

All very true.

Why did some white communities post guards at the entrance to their community that were tasked with keeping out poor minority refugees? There may be a lot of social capital within communities, but very little between them.

What's up with you today? You've had some excellent points. Many of them. And you just keep rolling.
Well, I was born and now live in the Deep South.  Personally, I think of myself as very "free-thinking" and I have been around the world and experienced many different cultures.  So, I have noticed one very important thing - my fellow southerners tend to be very "authoritarian."  In other words, much of our "community" comes from the government and what they want.  A lot of the "hate crime" groups have historically been paramilitary groups or para-police groups - even the Klan.

In times of things like unconstitutional martial law - historically the authoritarians are the last to be processed in the concentration camps.  In some of these doomsday scenarios, most of the southerners might be better off avoiding things like volunteer organizations. In fact, members of any non-authoritarian groups in all parts of the country might be targeted.

Whether you are in Germany in the 30s or America in times of authoritarian power peaks, being a "red neck" is a form of short-term life and asset preservation.  Of course, in the long term all such authoritarian regimes have historically led to the opposite for their people.  

Interesting thoughts re Southern culture. I grew up in the deep south & we recently auctioned the family farm. After  being away most of the last 3 decades it was shocking the degree of Mama-Daddy language that was part of that authority structure training.

I agree Southerners would be one of the last to be rounded up by  any government.

Mama-Daddy language?
To contine to use these terms throughout your adult  life& the expectation to or being disrespectful; including do what Mama &Daddy say on the big decisions.
Hey, hey now.  Don't let those figures up there give you the wrong idea.  Nope, nothing to see here in the Great Plains states-- no smart, happy, carefree, healthy people.  No crime-free friendly towns and cities.  No economic and social parity. No, you Coasters just keep on flyin' over.  Don't be late now!


Nothing worth seeing in Pennsylvania either -- remember what James Carville (if I recall his name correctly) said: "When you're talking about Pennsylvania, you're really talking about three places: Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Alabama."

We're all a bunch of inbred rednecks here in the northern extension of the Appalachian mountains. There's nothing of social value here... if you wanna get through peak oil, best go to Oregon. Yeah that's it. Go to Oregon. Great idea... they have all kinds of stuff there that we don't have.

Just excellent. Thanks for posting the graphs.
Nice post on a critical topic.

Cheap energy, leading to redesign of communities, far-flung living and long commutes, has been a huge contributor to the decline of social capital (which is a worldwide problem).

Ironically, the social capital that energy has helped erode is exactly what we need to respond more effectively to peak oil.

We must work to strengthen our social capital, and your personal plan looks good. James Howard Kunstler, despite his gloominess, agrees on this. His closing statement at one talk was "Prepare to be good neighbors."

social capital must be one of the worst terms ever invented.  if we are going to examine society and our social interrelations, we need not look to capitalism to do it.  to define our social environment, community, emotional bonds, trust, etc. as "capital" denigrates their actual value and meaning.  capital is something you can own, a type of "property" that leads to slavery.  you can't own these connections, you share and participate in them.  thus community, solidarity and mutual understanding are inherently opposed to commodification and capitalist economic exploitation.  instead they are anarchist (non-hierarchical, egalitarian, and libertarian) by nature.  
So what would be a better label for the concept?
really any number of labels would be better.  social commmunity, associative solidarity, or social tribes/clans.  anything that highlights the communal and mutually supportive nature of these bonds that are essentially tribal or band-like.  what they are not is something based on competition or something that can be owned, accumulated and exploited, like capital or property.  
this is more than an issue of terminology or labeling.  the concept of "social capital" is distorted by using capitalist measurement techniques which are inherently flawed for investigating the wealth of social tribes/clans/communities.  the entire analysis is suspect as it rests on bizarre assumptions about commodifying social relations.  Associative solidarity (social tribes/clans) is based on cooperation, mutual aid and respect, not any sort of capitalist economics.  it would be better to look to a sociologist/anthropologist (preferably one not so ingrained with a capitalist background) to understand social structures and value.  
I disagree.

I benefit in a variety of ways (some quite capitalistic) from the social capital that I generate.

you disagree with what?  

of course you benefit from social relationships and communities that cooperate.  that is the whole point.  but that doesn't mean these communities should be examined from a capitalistic viewpoint, which is exploitative and competitive (in a very skewed way) by nature.  there is no justification for commodification and ownership of tribal bonds/connections.  

until people stop thinking in the same regressive, "got my blinders on" capitalist perspective, there can be no true community or solidarity.  and frankly capitalism (and its associated mindset) is not going to help dealing with PO either.  let's stop beating the dead horse of capitalism; it's disgusting and counterproductive.  

I disagree with your view & characterizarion of capitalism amd I think that capitalism, with modified incentives, is out best hope for dealing with post-Peak Oil.

I want electrified frieght railroads.  Offer any railroad that electrifies an exemption from property taxes.  If that is not enough incentive, then offer 30 year tax free bond financing fro electrification.

I do not want your "true community or solidarity" as I focus in on your choice of "true".  I will resist you defining what community I want by your all mighty judgment of "true".

Solidarity ?  Not one of my aspirations and I will resist forced solidarity.  I hereby renounce solidarity with you.

I seek no support from you and will give you nothing but resistance, obstruction and non-cooperation.  Perhaps a bit of sabotage if I chose to at a later date.

Now how is that for your views of a Brave New World ?

it's amazing how inane these disagreements get.  "forced solidarity"?  talk about oxymoron.  great strawman as well.  you can't force solidarity on anyone, and believe me we have no solidarity.  

so what are you threatening me?  sabotage?  what are you, some kind of terrorist?  sheesh.

you can have whatever community you choose.  that's your libertarian right as a free individual.  but if your community is based on slavery and oppression i will fight to eliminate those injustices.  

sure you can have communities while living in a capitalist framework.  but the more capitalism encroaches on your inter-relationships, the more damage that will be done.  what do you think globalization is?  the destruction of local communities, economies, and livelihoods for capital gains.  i'm not trying to dictate to anyone what a "real" community is or not.  but communities are about cooperation not competition.  capitalism doesn't promote community, it destroys it.  

Capitalism supports communities and co-operation, based upon mutually self interest.

As an aside that is the purpose of joint stock companies, to create co-operation among several groups of people.

so you consider a joint stock company a community, eh?  wonderful.  
actually, what i mean to say is that forced solidarity should never occur.  the only way to force solidarity on someone is to brainwash them.  examples include joining the military or growing up in a nation-state.  these are prime examples of forced allegiance and conscripted values.  

a glaring fact that was not mentioned is that capitalism and its trappings of industrialization have been the primary cause of PO.  if it wasn't for the consumptive and extractive nature of capitalism, we wouldn't be facing the destabilizing effects of resource depletion and dependancy.  capitalism got us into this mess while massively misallocating our wealth and infrastructure.  taking more of these poison pills will only dig our graves deeper.  

i'm not sure what kind of community you have if you don't share any solidarity with the individuals comprising it.  a community without common ideas, beliefs or attitudes.  a community whose individuals do not support each other.  yeah, that sounds plausible.  
Peakguy- nice post on one of the most important factors with peak oil; lots to think about. Great comments too.

Since we are mostly thinking in terms of states- this would apply for local/national too- what about voting participation as a measure? I think this will be especially important in declining energy to keep laws/taxes i. e. order.

I tend to think Kunstler has some things right about this re regionalism; around resources like coal fields.

I think the all important  trust factor will operate at the "tribal" size- a dozen or two or three; especially in the rough/horrible  transition times.. Our genetics seem to me to operate best-trust/communication  wise- within these limits. Larger grouping would probably eventually form around geography or reasources ( aren't they the same in a way); given the limits around transportation we will have.

I agree completely with Creg on this last point, and suspect that at some point a decade or two after Peak Oil hits, we will see the USA go the way of the Soviet Union.  I expect that America will break up regionally, into anywhere from half a dozen to 15-20 separate countries.

Antoinetta III

  Interesting post. It seems to me that the large area states with a large immigrant population are put as having a low social capital at least partially by the size and distribution of the population centers. I'm a Texan from Galveston, formerly from Houston. The metropolitan Houston area has grown from approximately 1 million people in 1970 to 4.5 million people today. The immigrants to Houston include about 1.5 million Latinos of which 2/3rds are from Mexico and at least 500,000 Chinese, Vietnamese,Indians and Pakistanis.I don't have a figure on the African immigrants, but it is substantial.
   There is a basic division between legal and illegal immigrants. The legal immigrants tend to be very educated and participate in civic affairs, get to become citizens and vote. The illegal immigrants and their children tend to hide from participation in civic groups because of fear of standing out and being deported. They are less educated,because educated immigrants have little trouble getting legal status.
   And most of our large cities have similar immigrant populations. So I believe the survey probably does reflect the truth about the level of participation in Texas. I haven't purchased and read the book as yet (I will), and wonder if the social participation relects this. And although I am not familar enough with other large cities I wonder if this is not the case in New York, Chicago, and L.A.
The map of social capital supports Thomas Sowell's thesis that the Scotch-Irish culture embedded in the South, brought over by the British version of white trash in the 17th and 18th Centuries, has perpetuated dysfunctional behavior down to our time. By contrast the New England colonies, which attracted a better class of immigrants from East Anglia, perpetuated a more civilized culture across the Northern states.

It seems kind of misleading to present the New England Calvinists and their allies among the cultured Virginia planters (e.g., Washington, Jefferson and Madison) as the true founders of America, however, because the Scotch-Irish rabble and their descendents had more infludence in shaping the development of the country, especially in the last three decades.

the Scotch-Irish culture ... white trash....  ...a better class of immigrants from East Anglia

This narrowly parochial (yes, I mean exactly that) elitist classism/racism is exactly why I can't stand reading Kunstler either.

I come from a long line of poor white Southerners, probably of Scotch-Irish ancestry. I can call my own tribe any name I want. And I see nothing wrong with acknowledging that the Yankees had a better way of life.
And I see bigotry, even if against your relations.

And I strongly suspect that you have divorced your "tribe".

Interesting post, but let's not leap to conclusions.

It is obvious that the higher-scoring states are those that lack large minority populations.  A large proportion of minorities will significantly lower the scoring on issues like educational effectiveness, longevity, violent crime and so forth.

My common sense tells me that social cohesiveness is going to be higher in small towns where people have known each other since childhood, and it won't matter all that much if that small town is in Mississippi or Vermont.