Creating Community: Consider This! How Do We Go about Creating What Sociologists Call Social Capital

By Silcox, Shayne | Public Management, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Creating Community: Consider This! How Do We Go about Creating What Sociologists Call Social Capital


Silcox, Shayne, Public Management


I don't know if it is my age or the fact that I am in a civic leadership w position, but often I find myself asking: what makes people happy and what is the role of local government, if any, in their happiness? From my reading and experience, I've learned that some leaders believe it is economic prosperity that makes people happy, and that is why nations invest enormous faith in the ability of economic growth to make us happy.

But finding real evidence to support this is difficult to find. The Australia Institute has published its Genuine Progress Indicator, (1) a national well-being indicator, if you will, that takes into account the personal and social costs of running in the race of modern life. Basically, this research suggests that, although Australians got richer faster than they had for a decade before, they were not necessarily any happier. In fact, "52 percent believe life in Australia is getting worse, with only 13 percent saying that it is getting better.

"A third (33 percent) said that it is about the same. Of those who thought life is getting worse, 26 percent said it is getting a lot worse and 27 percent said it is getting a little worse," says Dr. Hamilton. (2) Apparently, this view was broadly shared across income levels, age, gender, and city-versus-country residences.

What Do We Want?

Although we all dream of winning the Lotto and of how different and better our lives would be after winning it, the fact is that economic prosperity does not necessarily make us happy--not by itself anyway. In one thorough investigation of the determinants of happiness, researchers concluded that a sense of meaning and purpose is the single most strongly associated one with life satisfaction. (3)

So it would seem that a sense of belonging and making a positive contribution to society matters more. This suggestion is not new. Abraham Maslow (4) back in the 1940s suggested a hierarchy of needs. At the peak was what he termed self-actualization and self-realization.

We all know that people are social beings; they require love, companionship, and positive engagements with others in order to flourish. Indeed, the Australian Bureau of Statistics commented that "the absence of family friendship or some other caring social relationships at any stage of life, but particularly when people are least able to look after themselves, can have a serious impact on personal well-being."

And there are often high costs to the wider community associated with assisting people with poor or broken social relationships, or the absence of social support." (5) This view is reinforced by O'Leary, who suggests it is friends, not fortune, that brings happiness to people. (6)

This is a sobering thought for us in local government as our communities progressively get older. These facts, plus others, lead us to consider how we go about creating community or what sociologists call social capital. Local government is, after all, the closest level of government to the people and to those most able to directly assist communities.

But why is this thing called social capital important to local government and the people it represents? In Bowling Alone, a book he wrote in 2000, Robert Putnam defined social capital as "connections among individuals--social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them." (7) In short, research suggests that without civic engagement, crime within communities will increase.

Some current examples of this antisocial behavior are evident in police statistics. In 2000, for every 100,000 Australians, there were about 2,300 instances of unlawful entry and 740 victims of assault. (8) Violent, aggressive driving (road rage), now common enough to have an acquired name, has risen to levels where 93 percent of Australian motorists have been subjected to it. (9)

Studies also show that neighborhoods with high levels of social capital tend to be good places to raise children. …

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