Cimino: We need to build positive social capital

I've been thinking about ... something called social capital.

The first time I heard the term social capital was a few years ago when a friend cautioned me against using up some of mine on a project he wasn't sure about. I knew what he meant from the context of our conversation but I did what we all did in those technology challenged days, I went to the books.


Actually in this case it was one book, "Bowling Alone" by Robert D. Putnam, published in 2000. My social capital, I thought, was very personal, the result of a conscientious work ethic, friendly demeanor and an optimistic outlook on life. I thought it was the sum of my life experiences — good and bad — that resulted in a good reputation for being honest, hardworking and result oriented.

I was close but there is so much more to it. "Bowling Alone" offers a much more complex analysis of the idea of social capital and emphasizes that transactions in networks of people marked by reciprocity, trust and cooperation have an impact on the common good.

Putnam defines two main types of social capital — bonding social capital and bridging social capital. Bonding social capital refers to networks of like groups of people while bridging social capital refers to social networks of different people.

The distinction between the two types of social capital highlights the fact that social capital is not always beneficial to society but is always an asset to those individuals and groups involved. Examples might be criminal gangs like the Bloods or the Crips that create bonding social capital, quite often described as families; while our local church choirs or the Thunderhead Bowling leagues create bridging social capital, providing recreation, learning and perhaps business connections.

While studying the topic, I found a third type called linking social capital. This idea is put forth by Professor D.P. Aldrich at Purdue University and is defined as a relationship between a person (corporation?) and a government official. I could be wrong but I think he is talking about lobbying.

Obviously, social capital can be positive or negative. If the purpose of the bonding, bridging or linking is to enhance community productivity and cohesion (Kiwanis, Rotary, Lions, etc.) it is a good thing, if the purpose is self-serving, criminality or patronage, not so much.

The warning in Putnam's book is clear. In the past few years there has been a precipitous decline in personal social interaction in America. He argues that a strong democracy requires active civil engagement. I believe he means we need to study candidates and vote, attend meetings on public issues, so we know the facts and not just the rumors, be involved in community projects and yes, maybe even run for office, serve on a Board of Directors of a local charity or just go next door to check on a neighbor.

We have only to look at declining membership in our own local civic organizations to know this is true. Since 2005, there has been a 30 percent decline in membership of the Kiwanis, Lions, Rotary and many other organizations that have been serving Carroll County for decades.

Will we pay attention to what is right in front of us and reverse this trend or will we proceed down a road that will only lead to islands of personal isolation?

Audrey Cimino is executive director of The Community Foundation of Carroll County. She writes from Westminster.