Testing the Importance of Geographic Distance for Social Capital Resources

By Kirk Foster (University of South Carolina)

Each one of us occupies a particular space in the course of our daily lives. We live in a domicile on a block that is situated within a specific neighborhood within a specific town or city. We move about that city as we go to work or someplace to volunteer – each occupy their own space into which we are incorporated. We have particular places that we stop for coffee to chat with familiar faces or shop for groceries. We may drop off children at daycare and discuss common issues with other parents. We may worship with a group of people who share similar values and experiences. My point is that our lives exist within both a social and geographic context. We cannot divorce the two. Our social interactions happen, in part, because of the geography we occupy each day.

As we move about on the earth’s surface, we interact with a variety of people. Consider the number of people whose path you cross each day. Think about all those whose path they cross in the course of their day. Suddenly your social space has increased because of the variety of people with whom you’ve interacted directly or indirectly. If you have trouble grasping these indirect interactions, recall the last time you said or were told, “I know someone who…” We may know that “someone who” because we stood next to him filling bags at the food pantry, marched next to her in a demonstration, or shared a cubicle wall.

My colleagues and I were interested in this idea of social capital and how it changes as people travel from place to place. Specifically, we wondered if the amounts of social capital were larger or smaller given how far people were traveling to reach places we know social capital is built, partly at the expense of connections and building social capital in their own neighborhoods.

That’s a mouthful – I know. We academics tend to be that way. So let’s unpack this a little. First, we need to have a common language about social capital. Think about it as the “stuff” that helps you make it through life. This could be information (e.g., where to get low-cost vaccinations for your children) or some form of tangible assistance (e.g., lending money). But the trick here is that this stuff, these resources, are embedded in and afforded you through the network of relationships you’ve built. Your social capital bank account exists within the web of people you have in your social circles created, in part, through the geographic spaces you traverse. You build this capital because people trust you and you trust others, because you and others have certain skills, and because you have access to other people. The richness of your social capital account – or the value of your capital – rests on the variety of people in your circles (heterogeneity) who can provide access to resources different from your own. You make a withdrawal when someone mobilizes or shares their resources with you and you authorize a withdrawal from someone’s account when you share your resources with them. This helps you and those in your network meet daily and life needs in ways you could not have otherwise done on your own. That, in a nutshell, is social capital.

Here’s the takeaway from our study…geography matters, to a certain extent. People travel further to participate in civic organizations that have meaning and purpose to them. They build social capital in those places and it seems that distance matters less than their ability to engage with others. This finding gives insight into our other major findings about participation. The distance people traveled to their place of worship did not impact their ability to build social capital – it was their level of engagement at that organization that impacted their social capital. Not surprising, increases in worship and fellowship attendance drove up social capital resource access. It is likely that the more opportunities someone has for face-to-face interactions with people at these organizations, the more they report having access to the kinds of resources that build social capital. Many researchers have lamented the loss of social capital at the neighborhood level so we examined that too. If we spend more time commuting to places, naturally we have less time to spend getting to know our neighbors. But our findings here were mixed – in some instances (e.g., time spent in political engagement) neighborhood social capital increased but in others (e.g., miles driven to work) we saw no effect or a decreased amount of capital (e.g., time spent in worship).

We learned it is quite likely that people today are building social capital in places outside their neighborhood. In the end, we are most concerned about the impact of distance traveled on low-income and less mobile individuals whose ability to commute is greatly constrained. For those who live in disinvested places and cannot easily access social capital generation sites that will put them in contact with others who can provide a needed resource, their ability to attain social and economic mobility is likewise constrained. The suburbanization of America has spread out such social capital generation sites across a wider geography and, as such, more people will find it difficult to access the kinds of formal and informal resources they need to make it in life.

We recommend developing workplace social capital initiatives and to expand opportunities for engagement near the workplace. We encourage planners and practitioners to consider ways to bolster ridesharing and public transportation. And we encourage all of us to consider the long-term implications of disinvestment in neighborhoods, particularly when residents of such neighborhoods become socially and geographically isolated from communities that could provide social capital.

Read the article here.

Photo by Hans M on Unsplash

Kirk Foster is an Associate Professor of Social Work at the University of South Carolina, Columbia. His research focuses on social capital and collective action as mechanisms for social and economic development. He received the 2016 best scholarly book award from the Society for Social Work and Research for his work on the American Dream. His research has been funded by private foundations and the National Science Foundation.

Richard Smith is an Associate Professor of Social Work at Wayne State University. He is interested in community well-being (e.g., “friendly” community initiatives, ecocities). He received awards from the Urban Affairs Association, the Association for Community Organization and Social Administration, and Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funded his dissertation research. Smith attended the University of California, Berkeley, Western Michigan University, and the University of Michigan.

Todd Shaw is an Associate Professor of Political Science and African American Studies, and Chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of South Carolina, Columbia. He researches and teaches in the areas of urban politics, African American politics, U.S. racial and ethnic politics, and citizen or community participation. Among other research, he is continuing a collaborative, multi-university project on Black neighborhood attachment and civic engagement in Atlanta, Georgia.


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