Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Multiculturalism and Social Capital


This is a mainly a note to myself. "Social capital" seems to be one of those trendy notions like "framing" that lots of us use without having in mind any clear definition but which are at least suggestive at the start for pointing toward a line of inquiry.

What strikes me looking at this Wikipedia article is the absence of any discussion of how social capital adds up--if indeed it does--and more fundamentally what the bearers of social capital are: individuals, groups or what? We can think of individuals as having social capital to the extent that they're "connected" but the connectedness of individuals within various subgroups doesn't necessarily enhance the social capital of a society as a whole, if we can talk about societies as bearers of social capital. In fact the opposite seems to be the case: multicultural societies that consist of lots of cohesive clans or tribes are low on trust and public-spiritedness and high on corruption.

I think something like what I'm after is captured by the distinction between "bonding" and "bridging" social capital--the street gang vs. the block association. Groups that are bonded compete against one another and to that extent diminish the social capital of the larger society in which they figure; groups that embody "bridging" social capital enhance the social capital of the wholes of which they're parts.

"Think globally--act locally" assumes that local groups typically generate bridging social capital: (1) that they'll cooperate with other groups rather than compete and (2) be inclusive rather than exclusive when it comes to membership. We think of civic organizations, whole food coops, and such. Anyone interested in the activities or goals of the group can get in, and the group cooperates with other groups. But clans, tribes and ethnic "communities" are exactly the opposite of that. They're by their nature exclusionary since membership is based on bloodlines, and maintain their cohesiveness by exclusion and competition. "We take care of our own." We compete for turf and other scarce resources with comparable groups to benefit our members, and in order to provide significant benefits we have to restrict membership--there's only so much stuff to go around.

Maybe the fundamental mistake of multiculturalists who advocate the salad bowl rather than the melting pot is thinking of ethnic groups on the model of civic organizations, coops and the like, as repositories of bridging rather than bonding social capital. Each group will operate its own ethnic restaurants and produce its own float for the Fourth of July parade. But this is precisely NOT how ethnic groups operate: if they did they wouldn't be ethnic groups but voluntary cultural preservation societies. There's nothing objectionable about cultural preservation societies if they admit anyone who has an interest in ethnic cookery, dance and costume and if their business is participating in "ethnic faires," reading and discussing the history of their chosen group, learning about the language and so on. But real "ethnic communities" are not voluntary associations and, even if they engage in cultural preservation as a side line their main business is to access political power and gain economic clout in order to get apprenticeships, jobs, contracts, grants and other scarce resources for their members. To this end they promote bloc voting and operate patronage systems.

I know what this system is like because I was brought up with it and I can't think of any arrangement that's more effective in undermining public-spiritedness, transparency and trust--social capital on the large scale.


Tom Freeman said...

In discussions of social capital I like to see what sort of analogy can be drawn with economic capital. Sometimes the parallels between the concepts break down, but sometimes they’re quite neat.

Social capital is something that you can trade on, but only for transactions within a group that recognises it as currency. Just as you have distinct financial zones in which the currency has credibility, so the existence of distinct social networks means that different types of social capital can exist.

On the bonding/bridging distinction, it seems that when you have a more exclusionary bonding situation, you may indeed have increased social capital within certain groups. But there’s a kind of protectionism going on so that it’s very hard to operate within such a group and also connect outside of it.

Protectionism can be beneficial to existing interests in the short term (especially those that fear being swept away by external forces), but over time this can lead to stagnation and is outweighed by the benefits of more liberalised trade.

(Just thinking out loud...)

H. E. said...

The big diff is that social capital doesn’t add up across groups. With ordinary capital it adds up neatly across financial zones I think but with social capital it doesn’t add up neatly and if it’s “bonding” social capital it diminishes when groups are aggregated. I think Reinhold Niebuhr noted this in Moral Man, Immoral Society: the very characteristics and behaviors that contribute to “private morality”—altruism, loyalty, etc—contribute to public immorality: all social capital is bonding capital.

The bridging/bonding distinction just seems to be a fudge to obscure the fact that social capital doesn’t always add up across groups and never adds up neatly. That seems to me a good reason not to talk about social capital at all: nice metaphor but press it and it collapses. Best to just talk about trust.

The real issue is one of whom you trust, in particular, the extent to which you trust institutions, bureaucracies, impersonal mechanisms and formal regulations and operate within the parameters they set. The problem with tribalism isn’t that the bonding groups are too small, that the whole country isn’t itself a bonded group, but that bonding is just the wrong way to go: it’s better than the war of all against all, great for hunter-gatherer bands and isolated villages but no good if groups don’t live in isolation and, even more so, if people want a wide range of options and a decent standard of living. The more gesellshaft and the less gemeinshaft the better.

Protectionism is a separate issue. You can certainly hold that ideally you want universal free trade but that in the short term, to avoid locking countries that aren’t currently competitive into poverty traps, you allow for local, short-term protectionist policies to grow infant industries, etc. It’s inefficient if, e.g. developing countries that don’t have natural resources and aren’t good for agriculture can’t industrialize.

Chase Miller said...

You realize that multiculturalism is necessarily a salad bowl not a melting pot. If it were syncretic or assimilative, it would still be monocultural, not multicultural