suburbia.jpg In my reading of Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, I came across his brief mention and discussion of social capital, which he takes from Harvard Sociologist Robert Putnam’s 2000 book, Bowling Alone : The Collapse and Revival of American Community. In fact, Putnam didn’t originate the term in his 1995 article, “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital” nor the book it became. The modern use of the term is ascribed to Jane Jacobs in the 60’s, but it goes back to 1916 when L.J. Hanifan described it as

good will, fellowship, sympathy, and social intercourse among the individuals and families who make up a social unit….The individual is helpless socially, if left to himself….If he comes into contact with his neighbor, and they with other neighbors, there will be an accumulation of social capital, which may immediately satisfy his social needs and which may bear a social potentiality sufficient to the substantial improvement of living conditions in the whole community. The community as a whole will benefit by the cooperation of all its parts, while the individual will find in his associations the advantages of the help, the sympathy, and the fellowship of his neighbors.

Distill this down to the observation that less and less do we know or trust our neighbours. Putnam wrote in his 1995 article,

[An] aspect of informal social capital on which we happen to have reasonably reliable time-series data involves neighborliness. In each General Social Survey since 1974 respondents have been asked, “How often do you spend a social evening with a neighbor?” The proportion of Americans who socialize with their neighbors more than once a year has slowly but steadily declined over the last two decades, from 72 percent in 1974 to 61 percent in 1993….

Americans are also less trusting. The proportion of Americans saying that most people can be trusted fell by more than a third between 1960, when 58 percent chose that alternative, and 1993, when only 37 percent did. The same trend is apparent in all educational groups; indeed, because social trust is also correlated with education and because educational levels have risen sharply, the overall decrease in social trust is even more apparent if we control for education.

Putnam offers four reasons why he feels social capital is decreasing and how the trend should be countered. Approaching the issue on a large scale as he is, not all of his proposals are ideas which an individual or small group can easily mount. However, understanding what is at play with this concept of social capital, there are a number of other ideas that can be undertaken even by an individual… and as I think about them, they strike me as inherently missionally-oriented ideas.

This past June, Peter Lovenheim wrote an op-ed in the New York Times called “Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (free login). Lovenheim writes about Putnam’s work as well, lamenting how in his neighborhood, neighbours don’t really know one another beyond names — maybe only first names. And even this familiarity only extends a few doors down the street. Lovenheim was struck by how small a hole was left in their community by a murder-suicide by one of the neighbours homes.

Incontent with the situation, he began calling, emailing, or just ringing the doorbells of his neighbours in an effort to get to know them. He came with an unusual request, but of the 18 neighbours he asked, more than half said yes to allowing him to spend the night. Sure, his teenage daughter thought he was crazy, but he did get to know his neighbours much better than I know mine. He wrote about Lou, the widower from his neighbourhood. He spent the night in Lou’s guest room, then spent the following day and evening with him. As he was leaving, Lou told him how to get into his house in an emergency, and Lovenheim told Lou where his extra key was hidden. This is the re-establishment of lost social capital, of trust between neighbours. He wrote,

Eventually, I met a woman living three doors away, the opposite direction from Lou, who was seriously ill with breast cancer and in need of help. My goal shifted: could we build a supportive community around her — in effect, patch together a real neighborhood? Lou and I and some of the other neighbors ended up taking turns driving her to doctors’ appointments and watching her children.

This all suggests to me that the state of our neighbourhoods is due to declining social capital, which will begin to return with the basic amount of trust that springs from a few brief conversations. If Lovenheim’s experience is an indicator, we should anticipate a kind of spillover effect between other neighbours — which supports Hanifan’s assertion that the whole community derives benefit.

In this way, we can see how simple but far-reaching, and how important is our engagement in the everyday lives of our neighbourhoods. Missional engagement can take many forms — some may be called “crazy” by teenage daughters, but others are far simpler and more accessible. I’m honestly not good at this… I’m a little amazed when my wife waves at a neighbour I don’t know. “Oh, she lives around the corner,” she tells me in response to my quizzical look. “She just got her driver’s license, and they’re planning to buy a mini-van.” My quizzical look returns. “I gave her a ride to the supermarket the other day,” she reports. Obviously this kind of thing comes far more easily to some of us than to others (by whom I mean me). But still. I keep getting the idea that simple neighbourliness isn’t all that hard — and for the way my mind works, it’s helpful to see the documented sociological mechanics of its impact.

Dang. It weakens any remaining excuses… but at least I know enough not to ask “Who is my neighbour?”

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