I just read a very interesting and clever paper about the downsides of social capital. It is by James Oldroyd and Shad Morris from The Ohio State University and is titled, “Catching Falling Stars: A Human Resource Response to Social Capital’s Detrimental Effect of Information Overload on Star Employees“. Using a simple degree-distribution argument for scale-free graphs, the authors argue that although there are significant informational benefits to having a large amount of social capital, people with too much social capital may suffer from information overload. People with a great deal of social capital are referred to as stars, and e.g. “stars in science fields find it easier to acquire the resources necessary to facilitate research, such as colleagues seeking collaboration, cadres of highly capable students, and access to databases.” As they go on to say, “in a state of overload, cognitive limitations may constrain the value of a star’s social capital; if the information load goes unmanaged for long periods of time, the star may stumble and, ultimately, fall.” In order to prevent this, several control actions are suggested, some at the individual level, some at the organizational level, and some at the structural level. In some sense, the control policies are reminiscent of the kind of things discussed in The Attention Economy.
So there is at least one potential downside to too much social capital, but are there others? I had finished reading Bowling Alone at Terminal 3 and Putnam was concerned with the same question: what are the potential dark sides to social capital. In a previous post, I had alluded to the tradeoff between liberty and equality, but he does even better and brings fraternity (social capital) into the picture, somewhat analogous to the notion of duty that I had tried to bring in. As he says on p. 351:
On the banners of the French Revolution was inscribed a triad of ideals—liberty, equality, and fraternity. Fraternity, as the French democrats intended it, was another name for what I term “social capital.” The question not resolved on those banners, or in subsequent philosophical debates, is whether those three good things always go together. Much of Western political debate for two hundred years revolved around the trade-offs between liberty and equality. Too much liberty, or at least too much liberty in certain forms, may undermine equality. Too much equality, or at least too much equality in certain forms, may undermine liberty. Less familiar but no less portentous are the trade-offs involving the third value of the triad: Is too much fraternity bad for liberty and equality? All good things don’t necessarily go together, so perhaps a single-minded pursuit of social capital might unacceptably infringe on freedom and justice.
The general conclusion reached in the book is that fraternity does not have deleterious effects on either liberty or equality. I’m glad.
Incidentally, some of the most interesting statistical evidence marshaled by Putnam is freely available in case you want to go at it. Some of the data is on a state-by-state basis, but what I think would be particularly interesting is looking at that kind of data on either a city-by-city or MSA-by-MSA basis. It would be really awesome if you could find it.