Social Capital and the Ol’ Boys Network

This morning I got to thinking about two possibly conflicting ideas.

Social capital, made famous by Robert Putnam, is essentially the idea that communities where people interact a lot – know their neighbors, participate in social associations – have higher social capital and therefore better outcomes. Less crime and the like. Conventional wisdom says social capital is good.

The old boys network, made famous by everyone’s brother or cousin, indicates a community where you get ahead by knowing the right people, by having the right connections, and by having membership in some type of exclusive group – whether familial or not. Conventional wisdom says old boys networks are bad.

But from my experience, it seems like these two go hand in hand. Unless your community is so small that you literally do know everyone – communities with high social capital, it seems, are likely to have small, strong networks.

And when someone in your small, strong network is running for office or qualifies for a job opening you just happen to have, it seems somewhat natural to support that person.

While I have no data to reference on the subject, it seems, for example, that people running for office have strong regional advantages. At the national level, you may chalk this up to very really regional variations – someone from my neck of the woods is perhaps actually more likely to understand and fight for my issues.

But when I see this on a city level, or a neighborhood level, this seems like a social capital issue.

If people generally support the candidate who lives on their own street rather than the candidate who lives a quarter mile away…that almost feels natural, because supporting your neighbors is what good community members do.

And because communities with high social capital tend to have several overlapping networks, if people tend to support the candidate in their own networks, the most connected candidate will win. The one with the most infrastructure behind them. The one supported by the machine. By the old boys network.

If anyone’s seen any studies of candidate support on hyper local level, let me know – I’d be interested to see it.

But in the absence of data I’ll still ask – does having high social capital necessitate the perpetuation of old boys networks?


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