Bowling in the Dark

By Staley, Louise | Review - Institute of Public Affairs, January 2011 | Go to article overview

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. …

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