Current Affairs

The Essential Role of “Social Capital”

Franco Viviani, former President of the International Council for Physical Activity and Fitness Research, and anthropologist at the University of Padua, Italy, reflects on the concept of Social Capital and its implications in our personal and professional lives.

The concept of Social Capital (or SC for the sake of this article) has been synthetized by Lyda Hanifan as the: “tangible assets [that] count for most in the daily lives of people: namely goodwill, fellowship, sympathy, and social intercourse among the individuals and families who make up a social unit”.

SC permits to create bonds between people who share similar values, bridges that link people beyond a common sense of identity, and relationships between individuals of different social categories. Social bonds are extremely important, assuring affective, emotional, social and economic support. A recent survey in the UK showed that more and more people looking for a job rely on personal contacts rather than advertisements – proving that SC is definitely part of our lives.

Social bonds

In these COVID-agitated times, Microsoft CEO Satya Nardella, in an interview in the New York Times, said that she suspected that Zoom parties and WhatsApp “conversations” were burning most of our SC, with repercussions on our social bonds.

And this is the problem: despite the flourishing of papers in scientific literature on the impact oof COVID, not much psychological research has been published to fully understand the consequences of digitally based vs in-person interaction. However, previous studies have shown that our quality of life is actually enhanced by a high SC. In fact, it is known to be a good antidepressant, it helps improve mental health and avoid physical diseases while assuring a longer lifespan.

People with a higher SC, because of a great number of social interactions, are usually good workers, navigate better their professional lives and are usually good at creating meaningful communities.

Of course, the pandemic did not disrupt all our social bonds, thanks to technology. But it has probably weakened our SC for several reasons: poor non-verbal communication, influencing goodwill and leading to occasional misunderstanding, lack of physical touch (hug appear to be more important than encouraging words!) and, for those who are less able to keep friendships alive, the impossibility to preserve long-term relationships.

In this context, the worldwide rise of virtual conferences with their deeply unstudied pros and cons has detractors. For example, the main objection that scientists make to online meetings is the loss of networking time, which is a problem for young jobseekers. Some have, thus, looked for more appropriate ways to participate in virtual meetings, creating platforms allowing not only to watch talks, see poster presentations and meet sponsors, but also to provide social and networking opportunities to compensate the lack of physical presence – and counter the fear of being simply passive during a Zoom call.

Some scientists also created the so-called Sococo, a platform in which participants can socialize thanks to a video chat that allows them to find the colleagues they wish to meet. Other alternatives have been designed, including multi-hub conferences that create, online and physically, a network of local or regional meeting making up, in fine, for a large conference. This of course helps save tons of CO2, but in addition, it allows participants with disabilities, limited funds, travel and visa restrictions, female scholars with children, etc.,to attend. Some imaginative computational neuroscientists also created the so-called Neuromatch, composed of sessions especially designed with a high possibility to meet people, that were open to all neurobiologists and not only to computer researchers. To highlight the novelty of this approach, they jokingly called them “unconferences”.

Remote working

The rise of everything virtual everywhere goes hand in hand with remote working, which comes with its lot of problems. In the UK only 5% of the employees worked at home in 2019, while in middle of 2020 the rate was around 45%, something that was accelerated by the pandemic. If there once was a fear that working from home lead to productivity reduction, research shows that home workers actually process more output (New Scientist, August 2020).

But, still, the SC-related problems remain, especially when people try to establish new collaborations, or negotiate deals. Just seeing someone on a screen does not help to cement bonds, mostly because non-verbal communication, like a pat on the back, simply can’t happen.

It has been proven that people on conference calls or on the phone laugh less: my last semester online university module lacked most of the informal jokes with whom I usually submerge my students. I actually feel I only managed to create a superficial sense of connection, a snack and not a gorgeous meal if you like. The class was too inward-looking: without a line to the bar with my students or without a chat among them after my lessons, fruitful exchanges and conversations didn’t occur.

We must probably learn from the success of the Silicon Valley, as suggested by Putnam in Bowling Alone: start-up companies flourished in the area because they were able to create a mix of formal and informal cooperation, as they realized this is what was going on in the wider world.

The repercussions of the last few months on the SC are unfathomed. As nobody knows what will happen in the future, we will probably have to change many paths, even if it may seem impossible at this point. But human history has taught us that whenever the unforeseen arises, new and unexpected ways are found. They are the offspring of deviations that have taken root to become historical forces.

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