Though Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone isn't mentioned until p. 188 in Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks, I read Connected as an important follow-up to Bowling Alone. Putnam's work describes the importance of social capital, and the precipitous decline of that social capital was a primary reason I started Social Capital Inc. in 2002. While Putnam’s work tells us that social capital matters, Connected provides more insight into why our social networks are so important.
When out promoting SCI’s mission, I’m often sharing social capital "factoids”, and find that these nuggets have a certain "gee whiz" quality to them. You can find these fun factoids for yourself on the Saguaro Seminar website
, and wow your friends with tidbits like "Joining and participating in one group cuts your odds of dying over the next year in half."
Some of the facts trotted out by Putnam, such as lower crime rates in neighborhoods in which people know each other, have a logic fairly easy to grasp. If I know my neighbor, I'm more likely to keep an eye on his or her home when he or she is away; or band together with that neighbor to address a crime problem should it arise. But how can simply joining a group yield such dramatic health benefits? While the example about crime rates is readily understandable, the dynamics underlying the significant health benefits of strong social networks can be harder to discern. Connected authors Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler’s work on the power of social networks sheds important light on WHY having a strong social network can create measurable differences in one's health and other outcomes. It's also intriguing to consider how those of us with an activist bent can put their findings on social network into practice.
Before examining what Connected can tell us about the importance of social networks, we need to define “social capital.” Putnam defines social capital as "the collective value of all "social networks" (who people know) and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other ("norms of reciprocity") (definition from http://www.hks.harvard.edu/saguaro/index.htm
). So in this definition, the focus is on the good things that happen through reciprocity when we develop a stock of trust in our relationships with others. If you do something for me, then that increases the likelihood that I will try to do something for you. Your good deed built a reserve of good will or “social capital” with me that you can draw upon when you need help.
While Putnam’s definition of social capital explains how social networks can improve our intentional actions, Connected shows that the potential value of social networks extends far beyond conscious acts of reciprocity. Christakis and Fowler argue that good (and bad) can spread like a contagion throughout social networks. Said differently, our social networks have an impact that exceeds the reach of our actions and intentions. The ways in which our social network affects our happiness makes clearer this phenomenon.
While the Declaration of Independence may promise the ability to pursue happiness only a strong social network allows one to realize that promise. Connected tells us that a person is 15% more likely to be happy if connected to a happy person, 10% more likely to be happy if a 2nd degree connection is happy (the friend of your friend), and 6% more likely if the friend of your friend's friend is happy. This indirect effect through social networks, where people we don't know influence our behavior and outcomes through networks, is a common theme of the Connected argument. Their spin on the "6 degrees of separation" concept is that influence spreads across 3 degrees of separation. Unhappiness spreads similarly, fortunately at a slightly lower rate!
Let's consider how much of this happiness effect is due to what we call social capital. Some of the effect of the direct contacts making each other happy could be through reciprocal acts of helping each other and other things we do for friends that have built up a supply of social capital with us. But this explanation clearly goes away when we see indirect contacts in our network contribute to our happiness. Norms and behaviors spread across networks without anyone intentionally trying to create this effect. This holds true across a wide array of behaviors cited by the authors, including public health problems like obesity and smoking. They suggest that public health officials would do well to consider the dynamics that can cause a friend of a friend's weight gain can make us also tip toward obesity.
If Christakis and Fowler are correct, then the impact of social networks is far more important than perhaps even Putnam believed initially. While we at SCI have known that increasing social capital leads people to do good things for those whom they know, Connected shows us that in addition to the benefit of conscious acts to help, much impact spreads unintentionally across networks. Now, what might happen if we tried to harness the full power of social networks to tackle important social problems? In my next post, I’ll consider how the benefits of social capital and power of networks to influence norms and behaviors might be utilized strategically to influence positive change.
SCI AmeriCorps alum Kevin McGravey contributed to this article.