Bowling in the Dark
Staley, Louise, Review - Institute of Public Affairs
Bowling in the dark Louise Staley reviews Disconnected By Andrew Leigh (New South, 2010, 208 pages)
Back around the turn of the century, social capital was the hottest idea in the social sciences. Popularised by Professor Robert Putnam of Harvard University in his book Bowling Alone , politicians, academics and commentators were entranced with the idea of a link between economic prosperity and how connected a community is socially.
Prodigious amounts of research later, and the evidence is in: the more connected a person is to their community and the broader society, the greater their economic opportunities, the healthier they are and the more prosperous the entire community. High stocks of social capital help not only the socially connected but also others in the community. A fact borne out every term when small groups of parents do all the fundraising, sport coaching and excursion supervision yet every child in the school benefits from these efforts.
Yet social capital never lived up to its public policy promise and is now regarded as somewhat old hat. A good idea in search of a policy ?fix'. Academic (and political) ideas are fickle and while the decline of social capital can be plotted across a wide range of indicators, the public policy bandwagon has moved on.
Andrew Leigh's slim new book Disconnected suffers from this waning of interest in social capital. Professor Leigh displays a long-term interest in social capital and has published widely about it in the past. And it is true that the data needed to write a more substantial book is lacking. He has made the best of what limited data exists. But this book reads as if he was interrupted part way through a long-term project. Unlike much of his more considered work, much is left hanging and too many of the conclusions and suggestions at the end of the book have no link to the data he presents at the beginning.
Given Professor Leigh's recent election to federal parliament as the Labor MP for Fraser it is difficult to erase the feeling that this book was rushed out before it was ready, in a clearing of the decks from his old life as an economics professor at ANU.
Everyone agrees that more social capital is a good thing. Sure, there are squabbles about the kind of social capital that delivers the benefits. It seems we need both bonding capital-a few tight knit relationships with people of like minds and interests, and bridging capital-many looser relationships that bring together people who perhaps only have one thing in common. But overall, we agree that benefits flow to individuals when we have communities where people look out for each other, trust strangers, volunteer and join associations.
Hence the concern over the apparent decline in social capital since the halcyon days of the 1960s when many more of us were members of political, service, religious, sporting and other organisation. Professor Leigh draws together what limited data there is to remind us of the marked declines in associational membership-we are much less likely to belong to a union, go to church or join a political party than fifty years ago.
The data shows associational membership peaked in the 1960s when a third of Australians were active members of a community organisation. Today, the membership rate is one fifth of what it was. Moreover, the nature of associational membership has changed-more project based than the regular monthly meetings of Rotary, a Liberal Party branch or Masonic Lodge.
Associational membership is particularly important for social capital because associations often bring together people from different backgrounds. Whether that is different social classes, different ethnicities or different religions, joining a group is a great way to get to know people and break down stereotypes that lead to hatred and bigotry. As fewer Australians learn to interact with others outside their social circle, they never develop the skills necessary to trust strangers and behave with civility. Professor Leigh makes the clever point that in experiments of public politeness across many countries, New Yorkers score very highly and they do so because they are used to dealing with strangers all day long. (By contrast, Sydney came 24th out of 35). Getting on with people we don't know is a skill that needs practice, joining a voluntary association can be one method of practicing.
One of the most interesting sections of Disconnected is the religion chapter. It is well known that fewer people profess religion than in the past and that the weekly pews of the established religions are emptying out. With only an estimated 14 per cent of Australians now attending church weekly, down from about 40 per cent in the 1950s, but 70 per cent still professing belief, Australia has moved to a largely nominal relationship with religion. The organised churches, despite their regular election-time pontificating, no longer have personal access to the vast blocks of votes they could once claim to command.
Professor Leigh demonstrates that the rise in unbelief only accounts for a third of the drop in church attendance. Many more people have just stopped going to church. And those who do go are old, and getting proportionately older than the community-quite simply, younger people don't attend church much. The big change in church-going is due to women. As women have entered the workforce they have reduced their church going. In the 1960s 60 per cent of female Catholics went to mass weekly while only 42 per cent of male Catholics did. By the 1980s the proportions were similar-"36 per cent of women and 32 per cent of men." Without the women to create the church community the non-church service parts of organised religion fall away and being a parishioner collapses down to passively attending church for an hour on a Sunday morning. Yet church attendance is clearly a builder of social capital. As Professor Leigh notes, ?those who attend church regularly are more likely to know someone who could help them out of financial difficulty, and to have a friend of a different social class.'
Trust and reciprocity are at the heart of social capital. How likely we are to trust each other and how much we think other people in the community trust each other are strong indications of positive behaviours and high stocks of social capital. Interestingly Professor Leigh makes the point that the more someone thinks people in general can be trusted, the more they themselves are trustworthy. So next time you need to do a business deal with someone you don't know, the right question to ask is ?Do you think most people are trustworthy?' rather than ?Can I trust you?'
Across society, levels of trust have important and measurable effects. Trust is fundamental to social and business interactions. And lack of trust in strangers is often a clear warning sign of subsequent anti-social and hoon behaviour. If everyone is out to get us then perhaps we should get them first - a common response from alienated youth who cause so much of the vandalism, street violence and intimidation.
Disconnected offers up ten ideas to boost social capital, from hosting a street party to volunteering. It is all very much in the ?think global, act local' mindset seen in consumer programs to make an environmental difference. You too can improve social capital by dobbing your neighbour in for parking on the footpath just as you can save the planet by saying no to plastic bags. This is by far the most disappointing part of the book. For a person who has given up academia to enter parliament there should have been at least some acknowledgement that government policy has a chilling effect on many of the ten ideas Professor Leigh is urging us to undertake.
The number one suggestion is to hold a street party and we're told: ?can I let you into a secret? It's almost no work to organise.' Clearly, Professor Leigh has never tried to do so in Victoria where councils now provide ?street party kits' to help hapless residents navigate the labyrinth of rules and regulations. From street closure permission (six week wait) to written food handling instructions to be distribution to anyone helping serve up, it's all enough to put off even the friendliest neighbour. Christopher Murn in the January 2008 IPA Review calculated it would have cost a citizen in the City of Whitehorse over $1,000 to hold a street party-and that's not including the food and drink.
Another suggestion in Disconnected is to give time, to volunteer in some way. Again, a worthy individual proposal but there is no thought about the barriers put in front of volunteering. Whether it is mandatory skills training irrespective of prior experience, police checks to make sandwiches at bush fires, or bans on unlicensed cake stalls, the list of barriers to both formal and ad hoc volunteering are growing.
Disconnected makes a useful contribution to the social capital by drawing together what limited data there is. Andrew Leigh understands, far better than other Australian social capital writers on the Left, that free markets and lower levels of regulation are positives for social capital. Through repeated commercial interactions, trust is built. As Professor Leigh notes, it is the onetime commercial transactions, such a buying a used car, where things are likely to go pear-shaped. But the book is too light on analysis of the role government has played in the rise and fall of social capital. The rise of nanny-state regulation, restricting us in every area of associational membership, volunteering and trust, has been inimical to sustaining social capital. As a new MP Andrew Leigh is well-placed to attack this head-on. In Disconnected he has missed his chance.
"The number one suggestion is to hold a street party and we're told: ?can I let you into a secret? It's almost no work to organise.'"
Louise Staley is a Research Fellow with the Institute of Public Affairs.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Bowling in the Dark. Contributors: Staley, Louise - Author. Magazine title: Review - Institute of Public Affairs. Volume: 63. Issue: 1 Publication date: January 2011. Page number: 59+. © Institute of Public Affairs Nov 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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