Thank you to Sam Ladner, PhD for this! Pay attention to the list of factors ….
Small, Mario Luis. 2009. Unanticipated Gains: Origins Of Network Inequality In Everday Life. New York: Oxford University Press.
Reviewed by Sam Ladner, PhD
Can organizations create social capital? Recent research says yes, but such ability comes from an expected place: daycare centres. In his book Unanticipated Gains, sociologist Mario Luis Small comes close to revolutionizing scholarship on social networks and social capital by arguing the daycare centres exemplify the best kind of organization to nurture social capital for its members.
Small investigates whether childcare centres are “effective brokers” of social capital. Social capital refers to the social connections and capabilities people can draw upon. Social capital can include a network of alumni from a prestigious university or knowing which fork to use at the dinner table. Small argues that social capital theorists James Coleman and Nan Lin view involvement in social networks solely as “investments” chosen by rational actors. He even argues that Pierre Bourdieu, the French founder of the term “social capital,” undertheorizes the structural aspects of network membership.
In other words, Small argues that social network theorists have, to date, underestimated the effects of belonging to organizations or institutions when it comes to developing social capital. This represents an opportunity for scholarship. Small argues that actors get involved in networks in particular ways that are structured by the organizations themselves. What are the effects of organizational involvement on social capital? And how can organizations nurture the development of social capital?
Small employs qualitative and quantitative methods to answer this question. He finds broad evidence that using local childcare centres does improve women’s self-reported well being, and he goes on to find out more through in-depth interviewing and ethnography of childcare centres in various neighbourhoods in New York City. Small finds 7 key characteristics for what constitutes an “effective broker” of social capital, or the process by which an individual is connected to another individual or organization.
His findings are somewhat surprising. Social capital is best formed when these 7 conditions are fulfilled.
1. There are frequent opportunities for interaction. Daycare centres have frequent opportunities for women (and some men) to meet each other.
2. These interactions are regular. It’s not enough to have frequent interactions; they must be organized around regular and predictable time schedules, such as picking up the children everyday at 6 p.m.
3. Interactions must be long lasting. Picking up the children was not enough either. Parents who earned the most social capital were those that spent longer periods of time, such as going on field trips, with other parents.
4. Interactions are minimally competitive. Parents gathering together to plan Christmas parties for their children earned social capital, in part because they were not in competition with others.
5. Interactions are maximally cooperative. Many of these parents were required to work collaboratively to organize the children’s social events. This collaborative requirement made it possible for parents to learn more about each other.
6. Interactions involve motivations internal to the organization to maintain these ties. Interactions that were not directly related to daycare business were not as effective in bulding social capital, in part because there was extra social “work” parents would have to do to maintain ties with other parents.
7. Interactions must involve external motivations to maintain these ties. Parents who found external motivations, as well as motivations intrinsic to the childcare centre, we more likely to have ties to other parents and other organizations.
Small’s book is not a compelling read. There is a not-so-subtle wonkishness about its depth of methodological detail and engagement with theoretical debates. This should not be too surprising, given Small’s stated purpose of moving social network theory forward. Those interested in social capital would do well to tough out the details, however, for they will find insights about how to develop and nurture social capital through organizational design. Social capital is not finite; Small shows effectively that it can indeed be built.
About Sam Ladner
Sam Ladner currently runs her own firm, Copernicus Consulting Group. She specializes in uncovering insights for organizations designing products, services, or processes. She holds a PhD in sociology from York University. She blogs at http://designresearch.wordpress.com