The first chapter (free on NY Times) of Malcolm Gladwell’s latest best-selling book, Outliers, details the 1950’s medical mystery of Roseto, Pennsylvania. Why such a low incidence of heart disease, suicide, alcoholism, drug addiction, and crime? Researchers ruled out diet, exercise, genetics, and environmental conditions… and eventually declared that it was the town itself that was responsible. The hard and soft social capital of the Italian community was what made the difference.
A blogger in Lowell, MA details this wonderfully in a blog post titled: Malcolm Gladwell, Social Capital, the ‘Roseto Effect,’ and Lowell.
And social capital, put simply, is who you know. It’s the community that exists all around you — your building, your neighborhood, your civic organizations, your place of worship, your Tae Kwon Do class, your softball league, or whatever.
One distinction worth noting here is that between what I call ‘hard’ versus ‘soft’ social capital. One is not necessarily ‘better’ than the other, but there is a difference, and it does matter.
‘Hard’ social capital refers to people you know and who you’re connected to by something greater than both of you put together. A perfect example would be someone you know from your church. You belong to the parish. They do, too. It would continue to exist if you both stopped existing, and it meets regularly on a schedule that depends on neither of you. Chances are, no matter how busy you are during the week (and if we’ll define ‘busy’ as having more items on your to-do list than you can usually complete, let’s just accept that yes, we’re all busy people), you’ll still see each other on Sunday morning at 1000. Same would go for your co-workers, your family members, and, presumably, co-members of civic groups or bowling leagues.
Soft social capital, as you might guess, refers to the (usually) more tenuous connections to people you ‘just sort of know.’ They could be people you run into at your local coffee shop, people that live in your building, people you sometimes see at the gym or the bus stop, etc. Again, not necessarily any better or worse types of linkages, but the key distinction is that there’s not really any great tie that binds you on a regular basis. If one of you simply moved, changed gyms, or stopped drinking coffee, you could easily lose touch completely, no matter how positive your mutual feelings might be.
I don’t think Lowell is about to become the next Roseto, Pennsylvania anytime soon. Obviously, times have changed, the family structure has changed, influences have changed, and so has society. I don’t even have the medical proof that Gladwell cites to draw my own conclusions from. But what I can tell you is this — when you’ve done the strip-mall-and-box-store-subdivisions-jammed-between-eight-lane-road thing and seen what it means to go without social capital, and then you’ve spent the better part of a year seeing what a second option — real downtown architecture and high levels of civic engagement — looks like, here’s the big realization you come away with: That second option is pretty damn cool.
I get to experience “real downtown architecture and high levels of civic engagement” just about every day of my life living in Northfield. That’s why I’m going to live to be 119 and croak here, if I’m lucky. And it’s why I enjoy trying to deploy social media tools towards a geographic-based, community end.
Societal changes have eroded the social capital of Roseto in the 25 years since the original research was done. And that makes me wonder whether soft or hard social capital is more important. I don’t belong to a church, local professional group, service club, or participate in any sports leagues (all examples of hard social capital), which I think would cause Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital, to assess me as a victim of social capital decay and in need of social therapy.
Yet as a regular habitué of local coffeehouses and pubs, a local shopper, a regular participant of community cultural events, a volunteer, all while being engaged in the discussion of the civic issues of the town, I feel extremely rich in social capital.
I need to read up on Putnam’s latest research, but I’ll stop here.