Social Capital Killing Communities? 1
Is Social Capital Killing our Towns and Rural Communities?
An Examination of Social, Human and Creative
Capital Theories outside Urban Centres
Dr. Peter Hall
In partial fulfillment of the requirements for
LED 685: Theory of Local Economic Development
December 7, 2004
Social Capital Killing Communities? 2
Is Social Capital Killing our Towns and Rural Communities?
Over the past four years Richard Florida has received both acclaim and criticism for his
research and publications on the creative class. In these works Florida argues that individual
creative people are replacing business firms as the primary unit of economic stimulation. He
submits that cities which balance technology, talent and tolerance can attract clusters of creative
people which in turn attract clusters of high-growth business. This theory builds on existing
human capital theory, but Florida’s findings reject social capital theory as an explanation for
economic growth. In his book, Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam provides significant evidence that
America’s social networks are eroding to the detriment of civil society. But Florida and others
have suggested the opposite: communities with strong social capital become insulated from the
outside world and unwelcoming to new residents and new ideas. Florida reveals his cynicism in a
footnote to his book The Rise of the Creative Class which compares Putnam’s social capital
communities with the fictional town in Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt (1922): “a conformist world
where clubs and voluntary organizations were less the product of civic-mindedness and more
about getting ahead and securing status” (Florida, 2002, 407). In his research Florida finds that
his creative class is not only uninterested in community connectedness but is avoiding tight-knit
communities in favour of quasi-anonymity. He says,
The people in my focus groups and interviews rarely wished for the kinds of community
connectedness Putnam talks about. If anything, they were trying to get away from those
kinds of environments….they did not want friends and neighbors peering over the fence
into their lives (Florida, 2002, 268).
In fact, with empirical research from Robert Cushing of the University of Texas, Richard
Florida contends that, “Creative Communities [capitalization in original] are centres of diversity,
innovation, and economic growth; social capital communities are not” (Florida, 2003, 13).
Richard Florida is not the only critic of Putnam’s call for social capital renewal. In fact,
Florida suggests that Adam Smith was critical of strong social capital in his seminal work, The
Wealth of Nations (1776). Smith said, “people of the same trade seldom meet together, even for
merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public” (Ibid.).1
This reference is presented by Florida as evidence of the destructive nature of social capital.
Meanwhile, Lemann (1996) has criticised Putnam’s call to arms, claiming that declines in civic
membership among some organizations have been offset by membership increases in youth
Social Capital Killing Communities? 3
soccer clubs and environmental organizations. Costa and Kahn (2001) also suggest that the
magnitude of social capital decline has not been as significant as Putnam describes. While these
critics question the empirical validity of social capital research, others like Powell and Smith-
Doer agree with Florida that social capital decline might actually be a good thing: “the ties that
bind may also turn into ties that blind” (Powell and Smith-Doer, 1994).
These critiques strike at the heart of small towns and rural communities. Once looked at
fondly for their strong social capital, the creative class theory is suggesting that tight social
networks might be killing small communities. Rural and small town North America cannot
create the critical mass of creative people Florida prescribes for creative cities. And by extension
of his theories, small communities are less tolerant to new ideas and people because strong social
capital has insulated their borders. He provides this grim prediction:
I fear we may well be splitting into two distinct societies with different institutions,
different economies, different incomes, ethnic and racial makeups, social organizations,
religious orientations and politics. One is creative and diverse – a cosmopolitan
admixture of high tech people, bohemians, scientists and engineers, the media and the
professions. The other is a more close-knit, church-based, older civic society of working
people and rural dwellers (Florida, 2002, 281).
This paper will examine the social capital literature to reconcile these theories and
criticisms in a rural context. It will consider whether or not social capital could be detrimental to
small communities. To this end, social capital will be defined and dissected so that the effect of
each functional component can be considered. The norms that are reinforced by social capital
will be examined to separate those that are helpful from those that are harmful. Finally, a look at
context will shed light on the ideological considerations that are the foundation of this debate. As
a result of these discussions it will become clear that the right social capital will strengthen, not
kill, small towns and rural communities.
To begin, the many definitions of social capital must be considered. Woolcock (2001)
provides the most concise of these: “Social capital refers to the norms and networks that
facilitate collective action” (p. 13). Côté (2001) adds “values” to networks and norms in his
definition, while Putnam’s early work (1995) added “social trust.” Recent work by Putnam
Social Capital Killing Communities? 4
(2001) and Woolcock (2001), two of the top social capital thinkers, dismisses the idea that trust
is a part of the definition. Although there is still considerable variation in the definition elements,
many authors now view trust, values and norms as products of social networks. Trust, values and
norms are reinforced by social capital rather than forming part of its definition.
Social capital has evolved as a theory that complements traditional notions of land, labour
and physical capital. Economists have long referred to these factors of production. Some 40
years ago, T.W. Schultz and Gary Becker coined the additional term “human capital” to capture
the mounting role of individual knowledge, skills and competencies in economic production
(Côté, 2001, 30). Varying endowments of human capital have been used to describe the relative
economic success or failure of regions and nations. Social capital is a more recent theory. Many
see it as an additional factor of production because it facilitates “coordination and cooperation
for mutual benefit” (Putnam, 1995, 67). Putnam (2001) says, “the central idea of social capital, in
my view, is that networks and the associated norms of reciprocity have value…and they have, at
least in some instances, demonstrable externalities” (p. 41). These two new capitals are distinct
from one another in that human capital focuses on each individual’s attributes and social capital
focuses on the relationships between those individuals (Schuller, 2001, 20).
Florida is more agreeable to the human capital perspective. It suggests that economic
prosperity is best achieved by increasing a community’s endowment of highly educated people,
rather than providing incentives (financial capital) to offset the cost of doing business. A number
of academics support this theory. But Florida finds fault in its view of human capital as a finite
endowment. Since people are mobile, he says the paramount question is why and where creative
people cluster. Florida (2003) argues that his creative capital theory is distinct from human
capital theory because it focuses on a particular type of human capital (the creative class) and
because it considers location decision factors.
Florida’s creative class is the group of individuals who are employed primarily for the
purpose of creating “meaningful new forms” (2003, 8). He presents evidence that this creative
class has been driving the past decade of economic growth (replacing the working class).
Furthermore, he shows that the creative class is clustered in city-regions that have endowments
of technology, talent and tolerance. Cities with concentrations of high-tech industry and above
average educational attainment correlate with those that have high concentrations of the creative
class. Similarly, cities that exhibit tolerance and openness to new ideas through a high
Social Capital Killing Communities? 5
concentration of immigrants (melting pot index), gay couples (gay index) and bohemian artists
(bohemian index) also have high concentrations of the creative class and high-tech industry
(Florida, 2002 and 2003).
How can small towns and rural communities reconcile the call for concentrations of
skilled and creative individuals with the suggestion that strong social capital repels them?
Weak vs. Strong Ties
One answer to the criticisms put forth by Florida and others is that they have only a
limited view of social capital. For example, they have a limited view of the strength of social
ties. Sociologist Mark Granovetter introduced the importance of weak ties in his seminal
research on how people find employment (1973). Granovetter found that weak ties supported the
search for work. They connect small groups that are internally held together by strong ties. He
concluded that weak ties “are indispensable to individuals’ opportunities and to their integration
into communities; strong ties, breeding social cohesion, lead to overall fragmentation” (1973,
1378). Richard Florida translates these findings into his conclusion,
Places with dense ties and high levels of traditional social capital provide advantages to
insiders and thus promote stability, whereas places with looser networks and weaker ties
are more open to newcomers and thus present novel combinations of resources and ideas
He sees weak ties as central to creativity and strong ties as destructive. Burt (1992) also supports
weak ties over strong ones in encouraging knowledge sharing (and individual mobility). Schuller
(2001) supports social capital as an explanation for growth, but admits, “strong ties can also be
dysfunctional, excluding information and reducing the capacity for innovation” (p. 19). Portes
and Landout (1996) add that strong ties can help group members, but often enable groups to
exclude outsiders. As all these authors have suggested, strong ties can drive people from small
communities. However, perhaps it is not the overabundance of strong ties that most hurts small
communities, rather the lack of weak ties.
Wilkinson (1991) argues that the difference between rural and urban social capital is that
rural areas lack weak ties. This stands in contrast to the prior arguments that social ties in rural
settings are simply too strong. The reality may be that rural communities do not have the correct
balance of strong and weak ties. The physical distance between individuals restricts the
Social Capital Killing Communities? 6
infrequent interactions that beget weak ties. Beaulieu and Isreal (1997) refer to Wilkinson’s work
and agree that the emergence of social capital “could be depressed in rural settings as an outcome
of the limited availability of weak ties” (p. 198). The problem may be that weak ties are more
developed in the urban context and less developed in the rural context.
Indeed, not all scholars see strong ties as a plight. Woolcock is particularly partial to
strong ties. He notes their importance when individuals are dealing with uncertainty. They allow
individuals to call upon family and friends in time of crisis, for enjoyment and for material gain
(Woolcock, 2001, 12). According to Woolcock, communities with strong social capital ties “will
be in a stronger position to confront poverty and vulnerability, resolve disputes, and/or take
advantage of new opportunities” (Ibid.). Fromhold-Eisebeth draws on recent literature to
conclude, “The trust created by virtue of social capital can be a factor of business stabilization as
well as [italics in original] a platform for collective innovativeness” (2004, 761). Strong ties have
Woolcock recognizes the value of weak ties to a community’s “strategic offence” while
emphasizing the value of strong ties in a stabilizing defence. He suggests that the debate over
strong versus weak ties is about balance: “getting the social relations right” (2001, 16). Rather
than viewing social ties on a strength scale, the critics should view weak and strong ties as
discrete (yet convertible) types of social capital. Granovetter recognizes the limitations of his
work when he says, “treating only the strength [italics in original] of ties ignores, for instance, all
the important issues involving their content” (1973, 1378).
Bonding vs. Bridging Ties
Had Florida and the other critics more fully explored social capital literature they would
have discovered that this idea of social capital types is widely published. The literature has
clearly buried the limited view of social capital as a single community quality that can range in
strength. In addition to looking at strong and weak types of social ties, social capital can be
divided in terms of bonds, bridges and linkages. This is actually the most common way to
consider social capital (Woolcock, 2001; Côté, 2001) but it is often overlooked by the critics.
Bonding social capital refers to connections among family, close friends and neighbours and is
similar to the strong ties concept. Bridging social capital refers to the connections among distant
friends, associates and colleagues and is similar to the weak ties concept. Meanwhile, linking
Social Capital Killing Communities? 7
social capital represents a community’s “capacity to leverage resources, ideas and information
from formal institutions beyond the community” (Woolcock, 2001, 13). Côté explains linking
capital in more detail as “relations between different social strata in a hierarchy where power,
social status and wealth are accessed by different groups” (2001, 30).2 Bonding, bridging and
linking social capital are useful because it is intuitively easier to understand social capital as a
number of discrete types of interpersonal connections when the strong/weak labels are dropped.
Given these new labels, the criticism that social capital insulates communities can be re-
examined. It has already been suggested that small towns and rural communities are not
suffering from an overabundance of strong ties, but rather a lack of weak ties. With better labels,
these communities are seen as fountains of bonding social capital but vacuums of bridging
capital (and quite possibly linking capital). Surely, the critics’ arguments apply to this new
terminology: “bonding ties can become a basis for the pursuit of narrow interests and can
actively exclude outsiders” (Côté, 2001, 31). But Côté (2001) notes that bonding social capital
can give communities and groups a strong sense of identity and common purpose, and the
addition of bridging social capital can help them rise above the social divides of religion,
ethnicity and socio-economic status. Woolcock emphasizes,
A multi-dimensional approach allows us to argue that it is different combinations [italics
in original] of bonding, bridging, and linking social capital that are responsible for the
range of outcomes we observe in the literature, and to incorporate a dynamic component
in which optimal combinations change over time (2001, 13).
Therefore, a sweeping criticism of social capital is not appropriate. Communities are not hurt by
social capital that is too strong or abundant. Rather, some communities struggle to create an
appropriate mix from the different functional types of social capital.
Constructive vs. Destructive Norms
The search for the right “social glue” (Côté, 2001, 31) is not limited to an exercise in
balancing the forms of social capital. Communities and groups must also be aware of the norms
and values that social capital (particularly bonding social capital) reinforces. In a practical sense,
parents are concerned that their children will get mixed in with the wrong crowd: “peer pressure
and strong desire for acceptance will induce them to take up harmful habits” (Woolcock, 2001,
12). These parents are not concerned that their children will develop strong interpersonal ties, but
Social Capital Killing Communities? 8
that those ties will reinforce negative behavioural norms. They would be delighted to see their
children mixed in with the “right crowd”. On a macro-level, governments, businesses and
organizations enact policies to prevent nepotism behaviour from developing in strong
interpersonal networks (Ibid.). Bonding social capital can reinforce negative norms. However,
there is also evidence that strong networks can reinforce positive norms. Putnam (2001) has
found a strong correlation between measures of social capital and compliance with the law. He
says, “where people are connected by dense networks of engagement and reciprocity, they are
more likely to comply with the law” (p. 50). The social capital balancing act must consider the
potential for both constructive and destructive norms.
If there is an exodus from social capital communities and groups, it may be partly about
destructive or burdensome norms. Portes and Landout (1996) cite a case where successful
businessmen in the Andeen highlands of Equador have converted from the Catholic to
Evangelical church so as to avoid the social obligations demanded by the church. “For these
men, social capital comes at too high a cost” (Portes and Landout, 1996, 4). Meanwhile, Park
(1925) suggests that small communities are intolerant to eccentricity because of their social
norms. Cities, on the other hand, reward it. “Neither the criminal, the detective, nor the genius
has the same opportunity to develop his innate disposition in a small town that he invariably
finds in a big city” (Park, Burgess and McKenzie, 1925). But the connection between intolerance
and social capital does not bear out empirically. Putnam (2001) has also found strong correlation
between measures of social capital and tolerance at the state level. It is unlikely that this
relationship would not hold for the local level. The erroneous assumption is that social capital
defaults to destructive norms. But even Florida recognizes that tolerance can exist in social
capital communities. He has found that his “creative class” is becoming less interested in places
like Silicon Valley and instead seek to balance individuality with community. His caveat is that
they do not seek “the old-style community Putnam romanticizes but a new and more accepting
kind” (Florida, 2002, 281). This comment is disparaging since Putnam does not advocate norms
of intolerance. He regularly refers to tolerance as a requisite norm to a democratic civil society
(Putnam 1995, 2001). His true fault might be that he focuses nearly entirely on social capital’s
potential to reinforce positive norms and neglects its potential to reinforce destructive ones. Park
and Florida’s grievance should not be with small social capital communities, but with the
destructive norms (i.e. intolerance) that can develop in communities of any size.
Social Capital Killing Communities? 9
Social vs. Human Capital
There has been considerable research on the interaction of social capital and human
capital, with some research pointing to the ways social capital norms can limit human capital
development (see discussions in Beaulieu and Isreal, 1997; Côté, 2001; and Schuller, 2001). For
example, Côté (2001) points to cases where some ethnic groups have norms which discourage
young men and/or women from furthering their education. Field and Spence (2000) point to
destructive values in Northern Ireland which, “can inhibit the learning aspirations of adults,
binding them into a low-skill local economy and reinforcing the divide between those who
achieve high qualifications in the initial educational phase and those who do not” (Schuller,
2001, 21). Finally, Beaulieu and Isreal drive home the point for small rural communities by
the structural disadvantages associated with rural places, such as high levels of poverty,
unemployment and underemployment, limited availability of good jobs or people with
decent educational levels, …. [can] severely limit a community’s capacity to establish
and enforce norms and values that place a premium on the educational success of local
youth (Beaulieu and Isreal, 1997, 212).
This idea that social capital can limit human capital development is troublesome for small
communities competing in a knowledge economy.
These communities can seek solace in evidence that the “right” norms and values can
have a considerable impact on individual human capital investments. Coleman is the pre-eminent
author on the role of social capital in the creation of human capital. His seminal work, “Social
Capital in the Creation of Human Capital” (1988), explores the educational outcomes of high
school sophomores based on their access to social capital. The article concludes, “Both social
capital in the family and social capital outside it, in the adult community surrounding the school,
showed evidence of considerable value in reducing the probability of dropping out of high
school” (Coleman, 1988, S119). After studying high school completion rates, Beaulieu and Isreal
(1997) also found that communities with stronger ties in the home and in the community (in
terms of youth engagement, volunteerism and geographic proximity to the school) had lower
drop-out rates. Strong community ties foster learning. In turn, more recent work has shown that
human capital feeds back into social capital. Helliwell and Putnam (1999) found that increased
average educational attainment is correlated with increased levels of social trust (a product and
Social Capital Killing Communities? 10
indicator of social capital). As a result, Beaulieu and Isreal (1997) argue that social capital and
human capital are inextricably linked, particularly in rural communities.
Big vs. Small
This discussion now shifts from questions of social capital functionality to questions of
context. Both critics and advocates of social capital have acknowledged, indeed highlighted, the
contextual differences between rural and urban communities. Florida is particularly set in his
view that creativity and innovation require the human capital density afforded by big cities. He
has criticized the strong ties inherent in small communities. Others, including Beaulieu and Isreal
(1997) and Wilkinson (1991) view big cities in a less positive light since social capital is not as
prevalent in the urban context. These authors have taken a special interest in the place of social
capital in a rural context. Certainly they recognize that social capital can help mobilize human
potential, as has been identified by the likes of Putnam and Coleman. But, it has also been said
that social capital provides an important defence against poverty and the hazards of sudden
unemployment. This defensive quality may be more vital in the rural context. Employment
downsizing and business closures are more easily absorbed in urban centres because the critical
mass of people, employers and intermediaries reduces friction. But small rural areas are much
more susceptible to shocks like the closure of a medium to large employer. Social capital is a
safety net in times of economic shock and is therefore perhaps more valuable in the rural context
than in the urban context.
In this vein the critics will argue that social capital is stabilizing and therefore stifling
rural economic growth.3 For example, Florida supports his criticism with empirical work by
retired sociologist Robert Cushing (see Florida, 2002, 273). Cushing carefully collected
measures of human capital (educational attainment), social capital (replicating Putnam’s sources)
and creative capital (replicating Florida’s indices) and correlated each with measures of
population and economic growth. He found “that social capital theory provides little explanation
for regional innovation and growth. Both the human capital and creative capital theories are
much better at accounting for such growth” (Florida, 2002, 273). In the results, social capital
communities were found to have a strong preference for security and stability. They also
experienced less economic and population growth than human and creative capital communities.4
Social Capital Killing Communities? 11
What Florida and Cushing do not consider is the possibility that small social capital communities
view well-being through an entirely different lens.
Ayres’ (1996) profound commentary on the limits of growth argues that change in gross
domestic product is not an appropriate indicator of improved human welfare. He suggests that
GDP is overvalued by negative activities like crime and pollution while it is undervalued by the
absence of positive activities like volunteerism. Increased crime and pollution result in costly law
enforcement and environmental remediation. Declines in volunteerism can introduce additional
costs to the market (ie. family babysitting and caregiving is replaced by paid care). Ayres
contends that GDP and other traditional measures of economic expansion simply measure busier
activity and therefore align society to the wrong purposes. Colman (2001) calls for a new
measure of progress to replace GDP. He identifies three main weaknesses in the GDP measure:
1. It makes no distinction between helpful and harmful growth (in social and environmental
2. It assigns no value to citizenship and voluntary work.
3. It assigns no value to household work and child rearing (and by extension free time).
The current GDP measure creates an illusion where economic growth and human well-being are
synonymous. In fact, Colman says, GDP was never intended as a measure of progress. Its creator
actually warned against over interpreting GDP. Colman’s response is the Genuine Progress
Index. Developed by researchers in California, GPI is now being used to measure human well-
being in two rural communities in Nova Scotia.
The criticisms of GDP (and the adjustments found in GPI) are representative of the
lifestyle values in small communities. Perhaps small social capital communities appear to fall
behind in the race for economic growth because they are running in a different direction. They
are balancing social, environmental and economic considerations differently. There is evidence
that some individuals are consciously choosing a balanced lifestyle in rural communities. Thrush
(1999) describes how environmental amenities pull certain people into rural areas of the USA.
During the early nineties, migrants to Oregon’s rural areas sacrificed an average of $7,200 in
salary for environmental amenities (Thrush, 1999, 52). Meanwhile, Gmelch and Richling (1988)
tell the story of return migration to outport Newfoundland not in terms of the return migrants’
failure in the urban economy, but rather their desire to rediscover intimate social relations,
Social Capital Killing Communities? 12
community spirit and a rural household economy (including the self-sufficient nature of hunting,
fishing, and barter that are not captured by GDP).
As veterans of urban-industrial Canada, having tasted the ‘modern life’, their voluntary
return to the province’s rural villages offers an unambiguous message that outport society
and culture are still vibrant and appealing (Gmelch and Richling, 1988, 14).
If small communities survive it will be because a sufficient population is interested in a
distinct lifestyle that embraces interdependence and has less interest in the perpetual economic
growth chase. Rural dwellers may simply favour genuine progress over raw economic expansion.
Clearly, rural and urban contexts cannot be compared from an urban perspective that uses
traditional measures of economic growth.
Solitude vs. Synergy
One final criticism of the social capital critics is that their viewpoint may stem from a
western capitalist ideology. Miller (1999) and Sietz (2003) both argue that liberal democracies
and capitalist economies forge self-interested behaviour as part of their “elite ideological
construct” (Sietz, 2002, 391). Norms of self interest “promote individualism and material well-
being at the expense of creative and intellectual diversity and their expression among individuals
and within groups” (Ibid.). This is the most profound problem with Richard Florida’s social
capital critique. Florida makes the sweeping statement that strong social capital promotes
internal stability, “while places with looser networks and weaker ties are more open to new
comers and thus promote novel combinations of resources and ideas [italics added]” (2003, 6).
Thus, creativity is a product of loosely connected individual minds. But creativity researchers
like Sietz indicate that creativity can be stifled by individualism.
The reality is that creativity is a social exercise. Artists often share strong social bonds
(Sietz, 2003, 385). For example, Canada’s most famous visual artists collaborated as a “group of
seven”. Jazz music is an intensely interactive group art form, “at its best reconciling both great
individuality and great cooperation and team membership” (Montuori and Purser, 1997, 82).5
Universities and colleges, as producers of much innovation and creativity, are in fact organized
to facilitate social networks among like-minded researchers.6 These few examples illustrate the
role of social interaction in the creative process. Yes, many forms of creativity include
independent solitary thought. But recent work on creativity has been critical of North America’s
Social Capital Killing Communities? 13
emphasis on the “lone genius” (see Sietz, 2003; Barron, 1999; and Monuori and Purser, 1997).
There may be examples of teamwork and artistic collaborations in North America, but the
concept of creative collaboration will continue to be foreign while this “lone hero”, “creative
genius”, is exhaulted (Monuori and Purser, 1997). Tatsuno (1990) has shown that the Japanese
concept of creativity is as much about teamwork and harmony as the Western concept is about
the individual struggle. Tatsuno suggests that all Japanese creativity occurs in a social or group
context. Barron (1999) agrees that “All Creativity is Collaboration,” but, in North America
anyway, this fact is shrouded by ideology. Creativity is truly a dialogue between solitude and
Woolcock (2001) and Sietz (2003) connect creativity to the social capital concept. They
emphasize the social context in which creativity and innovation occur. For example, Woolcock
The latest equipment and most innovative ideas in the hands or mind of the brightest,
fittest person, however, will amount to little unless that person also has access to others to
inform, correct, assist with and disseminate their work (p. 12).
Meanwhile Sietz suggests that creativity can be found in individual interaction, “the symbol
system of a domain,” and socio-political institutions (2003, 387). He underscores the role of
strong voluntary associations in promoting social interaction and, in turn, creativity. These
arguments arise from a school of political thought to which Sietz prescribes – communitarianism.
The central tenet of this philosophy is that the best environments for self-expression are
“communities of association” (p. 385). Sietz says that communitarianism, “proposes that
creativity emerges from a shared sense of community whose lingua franca is social capital, not
merely human capital” (Ibid.). In this vein, social capital communities should have a distinct
advantage in mobilizing creativity.
The idea that social capital is the context for individual action is in fact the root of social
capital theory. Fromhold-Eisebeth (2004) describes how social capital brings about new ends
that are not possible without it. It has a catalytic and synergistic effect on human and creative
capital and is therefore actively sought by individuals. Woolcock (2001) identifies employment
situations where this is true. He notes that office workers often fear being “left out of the loop”
when social bonds do not exist within an organization. Meanwhile, “networking” is heralded by
Social Capital Killing Communities? 14
professionals who recognize the importance of building social networks. According to Schuller
(2001), the most important contribution of social capital theory is that it,
…draws attention to the obvious but often underregarded fact that individuals and their
human capital are not discrete entities that exist separately from the rest of the
organization, or from other social units (p. 20).
The “lone genius” is an ideological bias that does not bear out in real world situations. Creativity
is more a product of social synergy than quasi-anonymous solitude.
Killing Small and Rural Communities?
Social capital is not a panacea for urban or rural communities. It can lead to isolationism
and destructive norms. But the message of social capital theory is, as Woolcock (2001) explains,
“that how we associate with each other, and on what terms, has enormous implications for our
well-being” (p. 15). Social capital can help people deal with uncertainties like job loss, and it can
provide opportunities for collaborative outcomes like community events (Woolcock, 2001, 14).
Strong social capital has been shown to predict low murder rates, low death rates (controlling for
blood chemistry, age, gender, jogging, and other risk factors), happiness, and socio-economic
equality (Putnam, 2001, 51). “The well-connected are more likely to be housed, healthy, hired
and happy” (Woolcock, 2001, 12). As evidence of these outcomes has been mounting, the
significance of social capital has become clearer. Woolcock (Ibid.) argues that the weight of
evidence in support of social capital theory is shifting the burden of proof to its critics. But
Putnam (2001) thinks that it will be some time before social capital measurement techniques are
to the point that it is as widely accepted as human capital.
This paper has been equally a defence of social capital in rural communities and a call to
arms for strongly bonded communities to achieve balance by building bridging and linking social
capital. These weak ties supplement strong ties, resulting in small towns and rural communities
that are able to realize skills and creativity through social networks. The critics have argued that
strong ties repel outsiders. In response, this paper has argued that small communities suffer not
from an overabundance of strong ties but from a lack of weak ties. Physical distance between
individuals means that weak ties are underdeveloped in the rural context. Weak bridging ties
help new people and ideas enter social networks. Rural communities are not hurt by social
Social Capital Killing Communities? 15
capital that is too strong or too abundant. Instead, they are struggling to create a balance between
the three different functional types of social capital: bonds, bridges and links.
Small communities also struggle to forge constructive norms (eg. those that support
educational attainment) over destructive ones (eg. those that support intolerance). It has been
argued that social capital can support a range of norms. The critics’ grievance should not be with
small social capital communities in general, but with the destructive norms that can develop in
communities of any size. There is evidence that norms cause social and human capital to be
inextricably linked. The “right norms” are requisite to human capital development. In turn,
strong human capital strengthens social capital. This is a particularly vital link in rural
communities which are structurally predisposed to low levels of human capital.
Central to this paper has been the argument that context matters. It has been argued that
the size of urban centres makes them less susceptible to small economic shocks such as
downsizing and business closure. Meanwhile, social capital can serve as an important defence
against poverty and sudden unemployment. In this way, social capital becomes a social safety net
that is perhaps more valuable in the rural context. The critics will argue that this stabilizing force
stifles economic growth. Evidence has been presented that social capital communities do indeed
experience less economic growth than human and creative capital communities. But it has been
argued that such analyses neglect the rural growth context. Perhaps small social capital
communities appear to fall behind because they are running in a different direction. Rural
dwellers may simply favour genuine progress over raw economic expansion.
Social capital communities may also have a different ideological view of creativity. A
preliminary review of creativity literature has revealed that a norm of self-interest and a “lone
genius” myth pervade Western ideology. Psychologists studying human creativity note the social
context in which innovation and creativity occur. The critics support dense concentrations of
loosely connected people as a recipe for creative outcomes. But the creativity literature indicates
that social synergy provides a more nurturing environment than quasi-anonymity.
Clearly rural and urban communities exist in different growth contexts. The purpose of
this paper has been to consider whether social capital is leading to decline in small towns and
rural communities. Despite the criticism that small social capital communities are closed and
backward, it has been suggested that they are actually adapted to a different purpose. There is
perhaps a different ideology at play that draws on strong social ties. These communities can
Social Capital Killing Communities? 16
certainly enhance their bonding and linking social capital, and give careful consideration to the
potential of destructive norms. But it has become clear that they should not abandon the bonding
social capital that is so useful in the rural context. At least in theory, the right social capital will
strengthen, not kill, small towns and rural communities.
Social Capital Killing Communities? 17
To be fair, Smith was discussing the supply and price fixing activities of economic cartels, not
social capital theory as Florida might suggest.
A lack of linking social capital may well be a disadvantage to small and rural communities
since as a result they would have limited access to decision makers in urban political centres.
This is an important discussion, but unfortunately it is tangential to this paper.
The term “creative destruction” was coined by Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter to
the paradoxical observation that the pace of innovation in an economy is proportional to
the pace at which businesses in it are allowed to be destroyed. In 1997, a University of
Texas professor, Donald Hicks, published a report that put facts and figures around
Schumpeter’s theory....Hicks’ recommendation: rather than considering jobs a fixed sum
to be protected, the state should encourage economic “churn.” In other words, to promote
long-term economic stability, it was necessary to foster constant instability (Intelligent
Communities Forum, 2001, 3).
On this point the empirical evidence varies. Piazza-Georgi (2002) refers to a World Bank study
which surveyed 5000 rural households in Tanzania and found, “a one standard deviation increase
in social capital increases household expenditures per person by 20-30%, an impact as large as
an equivalent increase in non-farming assets or a tripling of the level of education” (Piazza-
Georgi, 2002, 475). Rather than debate the variations in empirical evidence this paper focuses on
problems with the underlying assumptions about economic growth.
Montuori and Purser (1997) note that jazz, as a collaborative art form, may have arisen despite
mainstream North America’s individualist ideology because it was the product of a minority
Florida (2002) dilutes his argument in the chapter of his book immediately following his social
capital critique. He credits universities with contributing to his three T’s of creative places,
technology, talent and tolerance. But he cautions, “Creative Communities surrounding the
universities must be able to absorb and utilize [intellectual property] within a social structure of
creativity” (p. 293). This is clear recognition that social capital is requisite to creativity and
Social Capital Killing Communities? 18
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