Social Capital and Hardship

What role does social capital play in a community’s health? Adam Gopnik, in The Paradoxical Role of Social Capital in the Coronavirus Pandemic, ponders whether there’s a relationship between communities with high social capital and a community’s public health. Gopnik uses a traditional definition of social capital as the “parts of society that, without being explicitly political, foster links and bridges of common sympathy and trust.” Of social capital & the novel coronavirus, he writes that

Now, all general truths about the pandemic are premature. But the empirical results so far seem at least to suggest an intriguing paradox: that places with a great deal of social capital got hit worst by the virus, and then recovered fastest.


It’s a paradox of place: people who were not socially distanced at the start of the plague had an easier time learning to social-distance by its end. A striking study in Italy, for instance, found that places with high existing “civic capital” tended to “display greater mobility”—that is, people travelled around more—than places without it. But, “as soon as the threat of the virus became real, communities with high civic capital started to self-restrain and to internalize the risk of propagating the infection through social contacts.” Translated from the academese, people who are used to going out a lot stopped when people they trusted told them that doing so was a good way to get sick.

Like Gopnik, one will have to wait for more measurements to see if this relationship of social capital to public health proves generally applicable during this pandemic.

There is, however, obviously a broader way in which discussions of social capital apply; the concept was not developed simply for times of plague or pandemic.

Small Midwestern communities like Whitewater – having struggled for years with related maladies – would do well to consider whether their present divisions, disagreements, and lingering ailments come from a lack of social capital (rather than any single external event).

If that should be so, then this question arises: how will these communities rebuild that social capital? People and communities require no advanced schooling to place an emphasis on private charity, humility, honesty, avoidance of conflicts of interest & rationalizations of them, standard written composition, and sound reasoning.

Instead, for many of these communities, one finds reliance on government action, proud self-promotion, boosterism (accentuating the positive regardless of conditions), conflicts of interest, poor writing, and weak reasoning.

Midwestern communities have had hard times; they’ve also responded in ways that have only increased their own miseries.

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