Is social capital really declining?

Abandoned Frank Lloyd Wright house is rescued

Dr Andrew Leigh reckons the massive drop in support for the ALP in NSW isn’t due to any inherent defect in party organisation but rather to the broader trend of declining social capital. I think he’s pulling a long bow. But the bigger question to my mind is whether social capital really is on the wane or whether it’s just taken a different form.

Writing in the Australian Financial Review this week, he argues that

people are failing to attend Labor Party meetings for the same reasons that activity is declining in most other political parties, in Rotary and the RSL, in unions and churches. Compared with two decades ago, we are less likely to know our neighbours and have fewer trusted friends.

The decline in social capital, he says, “is driven by several factors, including long working hours, car commuting and television”.

Dr Leigh is a former professor of economics at ANU and the author of Disconnected (best described as a sort of Australian version of Putnam’s Bowling Alone). He’s also the new ALP Member for the Federal seat of Fraser in the ACT, so it’s just possible that his take on the underlying ills of the ALP in NSW is a little less than objective.

I’m not convinced that all or even most of the precipitous fall in ALP membership can be sheeted home to people having less ‘spare’ time to devote to community activities or less need to ‘go out’. For example, I’ve pointed out before that car commuting doesn’t appear to be an issue – the median commute by car in a city like Melbourne is 30 minutes and half as long as the average commute by public transport. And I think there are often simpler explanations for declining civic participation e.g. changing demographics surely explain most of the decline in RSL involvement and better education the decline in church participation. A key reason we don’t know our neighbours as well as we used to is that cars have given us the geographical scope to be more discriminating about who our friends are.

But more importantly, I’m not sure that the jury’s back yet on whether social capital actually is declining. It’s true that I don’t know many people today who are active in the RSL, unions or churches, but I do know lots of people who participate in a host of other sorts of social activities that Dr Leigh doesn’t measure.

For example, virtually every woman I know above a certain age is in a book club and I know plenty of men-in-lycra who meet regularly to cycle and talk over coffee. People did these sorts of things twenty or more years ago, but they seem to be much more popular now. Many fewer women volunteer in the school tuck shop these days but that’s because many more are at work than twenty or thirty years ago. Work is in most cases a distinctly social activity where the need for trust, the scope for reciprocity and mutual reliance, and the opportunity to form deep relationships, is arguably much greater than in the tuck shop. Indeed, it’s hard to think of any activity as demanding of trust as market interactions, as Dr Leigh acknowledges in Disconnected.

I also expect that all those young people who are having children much later in life than previous generations spend more time out socialising with friends and meeting prospective partners than their parents, saddled with young children, ever did. I’d be surprised if that doesn’t involve at least as much trust and intimacy as any RSL, union, Rotary or church meeting.

Another social capital building activity not measured by Dr Leigh is parental involvement in education. I’d hypothesise that it’s more common these days for parents of primary school children to know each other than it used to be. They meet at school drop-off and pick-up and increasingly rely on each other to look after their children at “plays”. Their children may be less self-reliant and (arguably) less fit than they would be if they walked unsupervised to school like their mums and dads mostly did, but a positive consequence is that their parents are interacting more and building social capital. And negotiations over plays aren’t ‘weak ties’ like a chat with your friendly barista – you have to know and trust other parents if you’re going to put your child’s wellbeing in their care.

This sort of social capital isn’t coming from formal organisations. Nor is looking after someone else’s seven year old during a “play” usually defined as volunteering. Nevertheless, I submit that it’s just as important in building social capital and, in fact, relies on stronger ties. A key reason that parents know each other better in this day and age is that 80% of primary school children get driven to school – even working parents can get to know other mothers and fathers when they drop little TinkerBell at school.

So I’m yet to be convinced that social capital really is declining, as distinct from simply changing. To my mind the jury’s still out. And by and large I think there are simpler and more plausible explanations for the declines in RSL, church and union participation that should be considered alongside those proposed by Dr Leigh.

In the specific case of political parties, I think people might be less active in them today because they’ve wised up to the fact that often they’re run by a careerist elite and aren’t different enough from each other to excite conviction and commitment. As Rodney Cavalier points out, nobody in Sussex Street listens to the local ALP branches.

4 Comments on “Is social capital really declining?”

  1. Bruce Dickson says:

    You are absolutely correct Alan with many of your observations, particularly the one concerning the lack of credibility surrounding potentially involving ourselves in totally untrustworthy and basically powerbroker run and highly manipulated political party structures and campaigns (of virtually any party flavour).

    I think another aspect to this whole area is to also look more closely at how times have changed in relation to people’s thinking about what it means to become involved in community based organisations. Many of these organisations have simply failed to change to meet the different expectations and different participatory interests of modern day citizens many of whom are now far more highly skilled and better educated potential volunteers. What they are offered often fails to inspire or satisfy.

    In this regard, it also seems that frequently they are similar to political parties in that they have their share of self interested ‘careerists’ who retain the interesting ‘jobs’ and activities for themselves and simply see volunteers and members as fodder to do simple, uncomplicated and boring tasks that they would not otherwise wish to have to do themselves. Usually tasks that also minimise any additional organisational effort on their parts as well. Fundraising drives and activities being just one example. Often there is again little opportunity to influence policies or directions for the better, or become engaged in a more active, direct and meaningfully satisfying way.

    It’s a little like the syndrome where people are consulted over planning decisions (‘giving up’ their truly ‘valuable time’ to do so) yet so often their contributions do not show up in the final thinking, decisions and actions … because as with most things underlying and entrenched internal politics are really running the show and from day one the debate will have been totally and inflexibly pre-determined and controlled in its focus!

    This type of disingenuous behavior is still all too common and naturally very disillusioning for any citizen with good intentions and hopes for advancing the social good through their potential social capital building activities and contributions!

  2. Andrew Leigh says:

    Alan, thanks for another thoughtful post on social capital. As you know, “Disconnected” also finds that the share of people who say that they’re active members of ANY organisation has fallen over time. So it’s not just that particular organisations are declining.

    Of course, it could be the case that social capital is growing in groups that people don’t regard as ‘organisations’ (eg. mothers’ groups, book clubs). But this would seem at odds with the fact that people report having fewer close friends than in the past.

    I’m also somewhat sceptical of arguments that take the form “yes, the stuff we can measure is getting worse – but that’s ok because something we can’t measure is getting better”. There’s a parallel here with literacy and numeracy results, which are flat or declining over recent decades. Sure, it could be that students’ science and critical thinking skills have simultaneously improved, but I’m not so confident.

    I should also say that the ACT ALP is a veritable hub of social capital – though when I pitched this to Phillip Adams on Late Night Live in Monday night, he responded by describing our branch of the party as ‘the land of Shangri-La’.

    • Alan Davies says:

      I trust Phillip Adams didn’t mean that the ACT branch is so bubbling with social capital that members have lost sight of the horizon!

      You’ve raised some good questions, Andrew.

      Re the issue of people also having fewer close friends, I wonder if that’s really measuring the same sort of social engagement as participation in organisations. Also, I’m not sure that a fall from an average 8.9 trusted friends to 6.7, and from an average 4.5 helpful friends to 4.0, really means a lot. How valuable is the marginal friend? Could the later respondents be more discriminating? And there’s lots of ‘noise’ too in comparing the original face-to-face survey with the later internet poll, so I think a lot of caution is in order.

      Good point about the tendency to put greater weight on stuff that hasn’t been measured (and I agree with you about literacy and numeracy). But there’s a reciprocal danger that too much weight will be put on some evidence simply because it has been measured.

  3. […] quick reference to Leigh and social capital By Tracey Over at The Melbourne Urbanist, Dr Alan Davies pointed out an article I missed and had a little exchange with Dr Andrew Leigh in his comments […]

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