Monday, 14 May 2012

In the times of citizenship by proxy and chequebook participation

Recently , I felt a bit "disconnected" from society .I remembered having read the book "The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe , about 15 years ago .It is a modern classic about integrity, courage, and about confronting the system by a cross-country runner who seizes the perfect opportunity to defy the authority that governs his life.I also recalled this statement by Warren G. Bennis in "Geeks and Geezers:""Unable to hear my interior monologue,you may not realize that I am struggling at all-from the outside what I perceive as an ordeal , may look like a charmed existence.In this sense, the journey that transforms an individual into a leader is always a lonely one" .I also recollected the book"The Why of Work: How Great Leaders Build Abundant Organizations " by Dave and Wendy Ulrich in which he reminded us"of the value of investing in both close friends and broad social networks.Connecting us with others is one of the roles of vital friends at work.We all need at least some friends who play the important role of connecting us with people we don't necessarily claim as best friends" .Somewhat similar sentiments on increasing the value of our networks were echoed in"Glow: How You Can Radiate Energy, Innovation, and Success" by Lynda Gratton.It seems that the task of leadership is to add social capital to the community .A leader like Mahatma Gandhi adds social capital of the community in a big way

"Bowling Alone '(Simon and Schuster) by Robert D. Putnam had been on my shelf for about five years.Its 544 pages looked formidable and daunting .But this time , my curiosity to read it was strong enough to surmount the barrier of size .I took the risk of reading it slowly but regularly .I am happy that I chose to read this book .This book changes the way you think about life and social relationships.It is terrific in its insights , value and sweep.It is formidable in the sense that it has end notes running into 60 pages, index into 45 pages and charts and graphs and tables into about 100 pages.
Robert D. Putnam is a Professor of Public Policy at Harvard. Putnam initially wrote an article called"Bowling Alone:America's declining Social capital" in January 6,1995 issue of Journal of Democracy and this became -perhaps the most discussed social science article of the 20th century.Later on , in 2000, Putnam wrote this book called"Bowling Alone:The collapse and revival of American Community".Putnam's work has been enormously influential not only in the academic world but also in influencing Clinton's state of the union address of 1995 as also the Presidential Campaign of 2008.It deals with a fascinating topic of enduring interest , namely Social Capital .It is written with fresh insights on a familiar topic.It is a seminal work.The book is scholarly, enlightening , absorbing , engaging , , entertaining and provocative .It is relevant and readable.It is an agenda setting and impressive book .In a way , it is depressing as well .

What exactly is social capital?The earliest use of term social capital is traced to L J Hanifan, a state Superintendent of rural schools in 1916 as"goodwill , fellowship, sympathy and social intercourse . . (result in ). . an accumulation of social capital which may immediately satisfy(the individuals) needs and which may bear a social potentiality sufficient to the substantial improvement of living conditions in the whole community."Social capital includes friendships as well .It includes a smile , a kind word , a helping hand and group participation. There are two types of social capital .One is bridging or inclusive social capital .The other is bonding or exclusive capital."Bridging capital is more effective at bringing positive social effects."Putnam says that we should increase our bonding social capital among homogeneous groups and our bridging capital among diverse groups.

The book deals with nature of contemporary social reality .People find it more satisfying to bowl alone rather than bowl in leagues.There has been a widespread erosion of social engagement with our friends , neighbors and coworkers over the last half of 20th century.This trend explains our existentialist dilemma. How "disconnected" is every body?We know this to be intuitively true but Putnam has confirmed it empirically .This gives an appeal to his findings.
Why so many people have become isolated and out of touch with family , friends and community?Why there are fewer and fewer common experiences we can share with others at water cooler.?Why people are less inclined to volunteer their time to a non- profit?Does this mean degeneration if people want to live highly independent existence? Perhaps, our current relationships are becoming more genuine because location is increasingly less important when choosing friends and associates.Or do we need to renew our commitment to create and sustain meaningful relationships both professional and personal ?Many dislike the civic organizations of the past because it is a painful reminder of those times when racism and sexism ran rampant .Women's unpaid labour facilitated a lot of social capital.That is why , civic organization of the past have to fall apart and people must find new ways to connect with each other .We must form new and different kinds of communities with changing times. What , after all, is community?You need a vision of community that the vast majority of people have brought into, before you can talk about recapturing that sense of community.Our vision of a community needing conservation of resources ,energy , healthy economy should actually stimulate our need to work with others .We need to enhance social capital.We do not need to confuse in -grouping with community.

Simple correlation cannot be automatically substituted for causation .Should we watch less TV? Putnam attributes as much as 25% of the over all decline in social capital to the watching of television."People whose primary form of entertainment is watching television are three times more likely to give a fellow driver the finger".Generational change in attitudes towards the purpose and value of engagement is another major factor.The suburbs have contributed to an isolation that includes 72 minutes of commuting each day.The fact of women's greater place in the work force contributes to but does not cause the decline in civic engagement.
Loss of social capital allows for a plausible explanation of the rise of cheque book participation and the proliferation of letter heads over civic action by individuals.It encourages citizenship by proxy , which is an oxymoron.The increased use of professional campaign staff to replace volunteers and the need for corporate and other special interest money to maintain this form of 'democracy' is a profound change.What is the relationship of social capital with happiness and other quality of life measures?"People who are socially disconnected are between two and five times more likely to die from all causes, compared with matched individuals who have close ties with family, friends and the community."Social capital enhances individual's life and well being."Happiness and health depends on whether or not individuals participate in groups .If you decide to join (a group), you can cut your risk of dying over the next year in half."The book documents the importance of bridging relationships on the development of the country and even on personal health.Loneliness may decrease the immune response.Voluntary associations produce external and internal benefits to democracy.Informal networks have helped individuals in Silicon Valley prosper.

Putnam ignores the role of the government and law suits while explaining the causes of loss of social capital.He does not pay much attention to the growth of welfare which eliminated the reason for existence of many charitable organizations.State policies pay out unemployment insurance and do other welfare activities.There is no exclusionary reason to belong to mutual aid society. As a result ,societies close their doors and with them , presumably , a host of other activities suffer.Taking away control from local governments and centralizing it, the centre of decision making and power has moved far away from the community,making participation in local affairs much less relevant and leads to the huge lobbying organization.Intermediary organizations are crucial for the healthy working of modern democracies. .Public interest organizations are now oligarchies and useless as a means of civic engagement.This pattern has been repeated for education, care for the elderly, health care and other aspects of life.Is there any wonder that people are less involved with their neighbors.?

Putnam is too willing to rely on government intervention to change people's attitudes and behavior..Putnam idolizes the Progressive period and the resulting increase in scope of state action.All his proposals treat the symptoms and not the disease.He recommends:
!.Public discourse.
2.Education .
3.Work place changes.
5.Elimination of digital divide and ensuring equal access.
6.Increased political involvement .
7. Election Campaign reforms.
Putnam's call to action by 2010 seems inappropriate for this book .It looks like the silly last action . There are costs of using government to bring Putnam's agenda into being .Putnam has used websites and seminars promoting social capital under the auspices of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government .Market forces resolve such issues in total far more efficiently than does legislative fiat.
There is a dark side of social capital as well ."Too much fraternity is bad for liberty and equality, leading for example , to an increase in organizational crime but Putnam believes that on balance the benefits of copious social capital broadly outweigh these costs.
Internet,Facebook , twitter and mobile phones are not adequately covered because these things came into use in a big way only after 2000 when the book was published.To that extent , the book is dated.It is not clear whether the internet fosters the development of social capital. Some believe that Internet is the number one cause of alienation and political narcissism in America. Computer groups are worse at generating trust and reciprocity.What are the issues and initiatives relating to community building?Does participation in society mean meeting in physical presence , or can meeting be virtual , on Skype or through video conferencing?Only time will tell.

There is no tradeoff between deep personal relationships with friends elsewhere and a dozen bowling buddies at our place of residence.The book does not talk about where the balance should lie between the bonding and bridging social capital.

The book does result in a shift in thinking paradigm about ourselves and our personal ,professional and social relationships.It offers a lot to think about. However while it has very well done the cataloging of the shift in social capital in our society it seems to long for the good old days.Book's strength is in its diagnosis.There is no doubt that the book is set in America and its results and conclusions cannot be applied straight away to Indian situation.But then , it is very provocative and will certainly make you think and reflect its implications for that India , which is as global as America , or is at least aspiring to become like America.As the society progresses, there seems to be a distinct possibility that the social capital further declines , especially in developing countries .Enhancement of social capital in the organizations and society , then , becomes an essential and critical role of a leader.I do not like to believe that ultimately , a real leader himself or herself is lonely in his pursuit , but I am not sure.At individual level , we need to understand and appreciate not only the importance of social capital in our lives but also the causes underlying the trend of declining social capital ,and contribute our support to public policies and lifestyles which enhance our level of civic engagement in an authentic manner.