Social Capital in Action

The RGFI+ shows that counties with larger proportions of people of color are not as deprived of social capital as had been shown in the original RGFI. Further, the RGFI+ continued to predict various health outcomes at the county level as well as the RGFI.

These results are only the beginning for using a more equity-informed measure of social capital. The RGFI+ can be employed to answer a variety of questions about the relationship between county-level social capital and a range of outcomes related to health or other topics, such as economic well-being, educational attainment, and public safety.

The utility of the RGFI+ is somewhat limited because it is at the county level, and counties can have very large populations. Creating RGFI+ measures for smaller areas, like ZIP code or census tract, could provide a more granular look at the relationship between social capital and health, but better sources of data would need to be available. Further, future research should examine the relation between RGFI+ and health when accounting for age because both social capital and health tend to decline with advancing age. This was beyond the scope and focus of this analysis.

The equity-minded RGFI+ provides further justification for public health personnel to incorporate social capital-building activities into their work and to engage social capital-creating organizations of all types, using them as resources for dissemination of information. It may also lead to efforts to support non-traditional venues for social capital building.

Yet it is important to remember that while social capital may have positive impacts on health, many structural factors in the United States, especially income inequality and systemic racism, continue to impact health outcomes negatively. In their 2013 article, Uphoff et al. argue:

Consequently, in order to build social capital successfully social inequalities would have to be actively reduced. … The state reinforces inequality or stimulates equality, hereby affecting social capital. Social capital can in turn affect equality, in a positive way by the creation of a more cohesive society and in a negative way by promoting social exclusion. Social capital should thus be built not only from the bottom up but also facilitated from the top down. (Uphoff et al., 2013)

The RGFI+ should spur additional research and thought on the relationship between social capital and inequality. Researchers should also continue to interrogate possible racial bias in existing indices and measures and create alternative data sources with an equity lens.

The importance of beauty shops to the Civil Rights Movement

Literature on the origins of the civil rights movement offers insights into the importance of certain categories of small businesses as producers of social capital. Using his social capital survey, Putnam found that the U.S. South had relatively less social capital than other regions of the country.

Yet, in a review of the role of social capital in the origins of the civil rights movement, historian Peter Ling takes issue with Putnam’s argument and points to the argument of Aldon Morris that there was an enormous amount of “indigenous communal resources” in the South that mobilized the civil rights movement (Ling, 2006, p. 203). Ling argues that both formal and informal social networks were key. He references Putnam’s distinction between two types of networking roles, known in Yiddish as machers and schmoozers (Putnam, 2000, p. 93-95). Machers are individuals who spend most of their time in formal institutions; schmoozers are informal, spontaneous socializers.

In the case of the civil rights movement, machers were mostly men in formal networks such as the Black church. However, Ling emphasizes the key role of Black beauticians, in particular, as schmoozers: “The beauty shop was a classic setting for schmoozing, and the frequency with which beauticians crop up in the civil rights movement suggests that there was enormous social capital locked up in the black beauty parlor.” Because White officials rarely ventured into them, Ling adds that Black beauty parlors were “effectively ‘free spaces’ where community organizing could occur without detection,” highlighting the essential role female activists played in recruiting civil rights movement participants and building group solidarity (Ling, 2006, p. 210).

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