Monday, May 18, 2009

Neighborly Inconvenience: Our Loss of Social Capital

Yes it has been a while since I've posted anything, mostly due to tests, moving and other things. But I hope to keep writing the things that I am thinking about.

The other day I received an email from the office of my apartment complex with instructions about moving and moving vans etc. in the parking lots of the apartment complex (i.e. where to park them etc.). I was interested to read the last instruction given to the tenants: "Your move should not inconvenience your neighbors in any way."

When I read that I couldn't help thinking about that statement, its implications, the questions it raises and the societal conditions that created the need to make that statement. First off, what would constitute an "inconvenience" to our neighbors? If someone stacked boxes and furniture on the sidewalk while trying to load it into a moving van would that be an inconvenience to the neighbors? Or would they have to try using the sidewalk before it became an inconvenience? What if the moving made noise and a neighbor was trying to sleep? Could the family that was moving be prevented from moving simply because someone, somewhere complained? Would that not then inconvenience the family that was moving?

In a realistic setting some common sense would be used to determine what constituted an "inconvenience", and most people would behave rationally and would not complain because they had to walk or drive around the moving van. Indeed it was not a problem until it was pointed out by the community manager. By itself the statement in the email from the community manager is not notable, memorable, or even worth writing about here, but when considered in relation to the current state of our society it found it very interesting and worth noting. Just as a single grasshopper does not make a plague, but a plague is made up of single grasshoppers, and that statement was one grasshopper in the swarm.

When thinking about that statement ("inconveniencing our neighbors") I thought of the book Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam. In the book Putnam details the loss of Social Capital in modern America. Social capital is simply defined as "the collective value of all "social networks" [who people know] and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other["norms of reciprocity"]." Or in other words, social capital is a measure of how well connected we are, and how those connections lead us to help other people.

If we find ourselves in a society where we are actively encouraged to not do anything that might "inconvenience your neighbors in any way" then we live in a society that is actively losing its social capital. There is something to be said for being considerate to others and not imposing too much on them, but if we live with the fear or with the thought that we might "inconvenience" our neighbors by moving or by performing any of the other normal actions of life (playing with the kids, having a picnic, going to church etc.) then we are in a society that is so socially disconnected that irrational thoughts and demands, that are normally stifled by social interaction, are not only allowed but are fostered and nurtured.

The problem with social capital, just like economic capital, is that once it starts decreasing (going into a recession) a reinforcing feedback kicks in and continues to push the amount of social capital down. In a society with low or decreasing social capital there is a decreased sense of community connections and a lessening of "neighborly" feelings (i.e. a feeling of "Their stuff is in my way." instead of "Maybe we should help those people move."). This contributes to a feeling of disconnection or disinterest in the activities of our neighbors, which fosters a culture of "non-interference" which emphasizes how we "should not inconvenience [our] neighbors in any way."

Something I should point out here is that we do not typically ask favors of or "inconvenience" strangers. But those we are connected to the most we "inconvenience" the most. Thus in a community of high social capital there is less talk of "inconveniencing" our neighbors, and more of "How can we help?" These acts of social networking and service are what strengthen our families, our communities and our nation. Which is why when I woke up Saturday morning to the sound of people moving and packing a moving van I went outside to help.

1 comment:

CaliZona said...


Your concluding sentence could not have been better.