Since a trip last October, I have been living from a suitcase. One of the daughters moved back and all the bedrooms in the house are taken up. In the nights, I move my mattress, a few books and laptop to the rumpus room and when my wife takes over the room in the day time try to I find some room wherever in the house. It is bit like the situation of some Japanese derelicts living in stations each near a pole which I saw long ago. I try to pretend that this gives me some glimpse of how the other half lives and keep reading and thinking about social change.
So many great minds have thought about social change before and what hope do I have of solving these problems. Unfortunately one has to vote, think about jobs for near and dear and take a stand sometimes and it seems that one has to think about the decisions of various people around the world. With so much information, it seems possible to support any stand one takes and one usually ends up forming opinions which seem beneficial and at the same time makes one feel moral and a bit better than most others. One tries to confirm and strengthen such good feelings by gossip. In any case, the world seems so complex that it is impossible to have informed opinion on every issue. But we have some idea and consensus on what are good in life and institutions and if one can develop some ways of quantifying such things, it may be possible to make some decisions and formulate flexible courses of actions. Robert Putnam has been trying to do such measurements in terms of what he calls ‘social capital’. From his 1995 article “Bowling Alone” part of which appeared in:
“Recently, American social scientists of a neo-Tocquevillean bent have unearthed a wide range of empirical evidence that the quality of public life and the performance of social institutions (and not only in America) are indeed powerfully influenced by norms and networks of civic engagement. Researchers in such fields as education, urban poverty, unemployment, the control of crime and drug abuse, and even health have discovered that successful outcomes are more likely in civically engaged communities. Similarly, research on the varying economic attainments of different ethnic groups in the United States has demonstrated the importance of social bonds within each group. These results are consistent with research in a wide range of settings that demonstrates the vital importance of social networks for job placement and many other economic outcomes.
No doubt the mechanisms through which civic engagement and social connectedness produce such results as better schools, faster economic development, lower crime, and more effective government are multiple and complex. While these briefly recounted findings require further confirmation and perhaps qualification, the parallels across hundreds of empirical studies in a dozen disparate disciplines and subfields are striking. Social scientists in several fields have recently suggested a common framework for understanding these phenomena, a framework that rests on the concept of social capital. By analogy with notions of physical capital and human capital -- tools and training that enhance individual productivity -- "social capital" refers to features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit.”
Putnam has studied measurements and development of social capital in three books and some web sites. The books are “Making Democracy Work”, “Bowling Alone” and “Better Together”. I read the last, browsed through the second and have not yet seen the first, which is supposed to be the best of the lot. In “Bowling Alone” he gives exhaustive statistics to show the decline of social capital in USA since around 1965. In the third book, he gives diverse examples of organizations which raised social capital in their communities; Valley Interfaith in Southern Texas working for the education of migrant children, branch libraries in Chicago, Tupelo model in Southern Mississippi developing an impoverished agricultural community to a thriving semi-industrial community etc. The last mentioned case is impressive though there are fresh conflicts. These are all small scale local phenomena and even the one internet community discussed craigslist.org mainly works in the San Fransisco area though similar sites have sprung up in other towns and cities. One of the main criticisms of Putnam’s programme is that the work is necessarily of local nature and small scale and it is not clear that these can achieve the sort of changes for the whole society which Putnam envisages. See, for example, the reviews:
Politicians and even KKK may bring cohesiveness to some communities which may not be palatable for other communities. Moreover there are strange factors about social capital; a war may increase the social capital in a community or a country and prosperity may lessen it as it has done in USA. So, in spite of its apparent measurability, the very concept seems to be rooted in some contradiction. Perhaps, that is the only way we can go.
A more extreme form of social capital called ‘asabiya’ has been studied by a theoretical bioligist Peter Turchin in “War, Peace and War”. Asabiya used by Arab historian Ibn Khladun apparently means ‘collective solidarity’ in Arabic and according to Tutchin “Asabiya of a group is the ability of its members to stick together, to cooperate; it allows a group to protect itself against the enemies, and to impose its will on others” and “Putnam’s social capital is abasiya for democratic societies, with an emphasis on its non-military aspects”. Turchin used this concept of asabiya to study the rise and fall of empires and he also has mathematical studies of various other cycles; see for example the reviews by Herbert Gintis and of a mathematical version of the book byPaul Seabright (The reviews can be found at: http://www.eeb.uconn.edu/faculty/turchin/Clio.htm). Though Turchin’s analysis looks impressive, it is probably not so difficult to cast a net to explain the past and the power of any theory also lies in its predictiveness. In any case, most of Turchin’s study is about agrarian states and we seem to in a completely different set up now. One of the few people who predicted with a fair amount of accuracy seems to be Daniel Bell about the information age but he failed in other predictions (so far):
People like Jeffrey Sachs (in “The End of Poverty”) have pointed out that over all there is much development in the past two hundred years in all continents and much larger percentage of people are generally living much better now than a few decades ago. Perhaps we should look at progress over 3-4 generations rather than one generation. Is it possible for one person to understand all this and make decisions? Perhaps we need more informed discussions among groups; some way of combining local social capital information of the sort Putnam described with global information and reach through a group of like minded people around the world and concerned about the less privileged. One site which seems to be trying to make such study and provide information in India is www.theotherindia.org/
Perhaps there are more such sites.
For the moment I seem go along with the thoughts about the faults in the texture of existence expressed by Pankaj Mishra in his review of “The Namesake”. I will go back to science where things are a bit more clearer.