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9/11 and social capital

By Geoffrey Woolcock - posted Thursday, 15 September 2011

I have a poignant memory of September 11, 2001. Over 800 people came to hear the world's most celebrated proponent of social capital, Harvard University's Professor Robert Putnam speak at the Brisbane Convention Centre, some 12 hours before the carnage in New York.

Social capital has been described and defined in many different ways, but essentially it boils down to being about a community's social connectedness or the social glue that binds us together. Many in Brisbane's western suburbs can relate to the strength of social capital in the wake of the January floods, most evident in the Mud Army volunteers that appeared in their thousands.

Ten years ago, social capital was enjoying considerable attention around the western world as both conservative and liberal progressive governments viewed it as some of sort of panacea in the face of mounting evidence of increasingly disconnected, alienated communities. That long forgotten political figure Mark Latham was an especially vocal supporter, as was Peter Costello. Its prolific popularity was highlighted by the fact that those 800+ audience members had paid at least fifty dollars to hear Putnam, an audience size that virtually any other academic could only dream about, let alone one prepared to pay for the privilege. Putnam himself was riding the crest of a tidal wave of interest in his best-selling Bowling Alone: The Collapse & Revival of American Community, a vast collection of social data showing how Americans were becoming increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbours and democratic structures, followed by many suggestions about how they might reconnect.


As the host of his presentation, I was contacted by many people in the days that followed, with the context of course being the Twin Towers attacks. What was interesting was the decided difference between the tone of their feedback – roughly half were adamant that 9/11 was the death knell of social capital, while the other, by contrast, saw 9/11 as the perfect opportunity to try and harness it for a more socially cohesive world.

Putnam himself has set out to gauge how much 9/11 transformed values and civic habits, by re-surveying some of the 30,000 Americans observed in Bowling Alone. The 750 Americans surveyed reported a significant drop in cynicism, large gains in trust of government, and more moderate gains in trust of police, neighbours, co-workers, and even strangers. A net 8 % were more likely to trust community leaders and 6% were more likely to have worked on community projects. However, in a subsequent paper, Putnam warns that the US "must find ways to expand the post-9/11 resurgence of civic and social engagement beyond the ranks of affluent young white people."

The same challenge would appear to confront our own nation, particularly wary in the wake of the recent UK riots where a deep sense of social alienation, whether poverty-related or not, clearly hallmarked the actions of the looters. Our Bowling Alone equivalent, Disconnected  written by economist Andrew Leigh before he entered Federal Parliament, raises similar alarm bells about two Australias, one enjoying the privileges of being increasingly connected with multiple networks and communities and another not able and/or willing to participate.

Responses to natural disasters may bring out the best in our communities but perhaps the true test of the power of social capital is our collective capacity to re-connect with those struggling - for whatever reason - to feel like they belong somewhere. This appears to be the fundamental rationale behind the upcoming R U OK day (Thursday, September 15), ostensibly a laudable suicide prevention initiative, but founded on the premise that "staying connected with others is crucial to our general health and wellbeing". Taking one's life has long been the canary in the mine for the wellbeing of any society and if we're to continue venerating our native variation of social capital, namely mateship, then we are obliged to question how effective and meaningful our social connectedness can be in maintaining not just wellbeing but indeed our very existence.

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About the Author

Dr Geoff Woolcock is the Senior Research Fellow at Wesley Mission Brisbane (WMB) and the Queensland convenor for the Australian Research Alliance for Children & Youth (ARACY).

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