Why Build Social Capital? 

Why Build Social Capital?                                       by Al Condeluci, Ph.D.

The notion of friendship is a critical one to the human condition.  In fact, friendship is often a concept that is thought to be so simple that it hardly merits any deep study or discussion.  All of us know that friendships are important, but rarely do we ever think we must work at the concept.  However, the notion of friendship is a critical one to ponder, and in a way, we should not be pushed by sentiment to become more conscious of our need for friendship.

Sociologists refer to friendship as “Social Capital.”  To the academics, the term “capital” is one that speaks to resources that can advance or promote a profit.  They talk about physical capital which refers to things like land or machinery.  Economic capital might refer to goods, or services that drive an economy.  “Human capital” is often thought to be the people needed to do the work to create the goods or services.

Social capital, however, pushes the concept beyond its economic roots and suggests that connectedness among and between people brings marked value to their lives. Research is now convincing that the more social capital people have in their lives, the better their lives become.  In fact, in his book, Bowling Alone (2000), Robert Putnam reports that the more social capital people have in their lives the healthier they are, the happier they are and – listen to this – the longer they live. 

That is right – social capital, or friendship is linked to the 3 highest quality of life indicators know to humankind!

Now this is powerful stuff and has real implications for not just for people, but for our society in general.  As we listen to families that have a child experiencing a disability we find that social isolation (the opposite of social capital) is one of the greatest challenges that their child faces and that families fear.  This has been continually verified in our experience and in the literature.

You don’t have to dig too deep to understand the reality of social isolation, or limited social capital for people with any type of significant disability. We hear over and over again, and see in vivid ways, that these folks have less friends and social opportunities than people without disabilities.  In Social Capital: The Key to Macro Change (2014), a book I recently co-authored, we report on a recent Community Engagement Survey conducted by the Interdependence Network (www.buildingsocialcapital.org) showing that people with significant disabilities have nearly two-thirds less – yes, 66% less – social capital than their able-bodied peers!

This is powerful and penetrating finding – and begs for some basic answer and actions.

And like most vexing questions, the answers can be complex.  Looking at the issues just described, the direction should be clear – all people are better when they have more social capital – people with disabilities have less social capital – how can we help people (all people, with and without disabilities) develop more social capital.

It seems, however, that the common agenda in rehabilitation today is to answer the question – how do we fix the problems that the person with the disability has?  If someone can not walk, let’s help them walk, or get around easier.  If someone can not talk, let’s help them learn to talk or get some talking device for them.  If someone is less social, let’s teach them to be more social.

In a way, this approach suggests if all these things can be addressed successfully, then people who have disabilities will be prepared to get more social capital.

Yet, there are serious flaws in this premise.  I am not so sure that if only someone could walk, or talk, or become more social they will automatically be set up to develop more friendships is accurate.  The reason I say this is quite simple.  I know, and I would imagine you do as well; people who can walk, and talk and are social in nature, yet still have limited friendships.  Further, I know other people who can not walk, or talk or show limited social skills and they have loads of friends.

We have so much more to think about and look at in this challenge.  Our field exists to help people to do things in spite of their disability.  What this means is that the goal of friendships and relevance in community should be our driving force – not to necessarily mitigate the disabling effects.  To this end, the driving paradigm of our field must go well beyond the confines of a medical model or problem solving agenda.

In 1990 I wrote a book titled, Interdependence: The Route to Community.  This book suggested that rehabilitation broaden its agenda beyond the medical issues of disability and consider a new paradigm to drive its work.  Since the publication of that book, it is clear to me that social capital and friendships are the most important outcome of rehabilitation.  Still the system focuses on the disability.

And so, let’s get to work.  Regardless of where you find yourself in the scheme of things you can help in this effort.  All of us play a variety of roles in our community.  To this extent you are a potential “gatekeeper” in helping others to build social capital.  Think about this the next time you are engaged in community!

@acondeluci on Twitter


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