Monday, December 22, 2008

Malcolm Gladwell, Social Capital, the 'Roseto Effect,' and Lowell

In Malcolm Gladwell's new bestseller about success, Outliers, Gladwell opens bytalking about social capital, which also just so happens to be first-ever entry on this blog. Gladwell never explicitly uses the term social capital, but it's definitely no accident that he begins with a chapter about a town called Roseto, Pennsylvania, which presented a major health mystery to researchers in the 1950s.

What was going on?

On page 7, Gladwell notes that,
"In Roseto, virtually no one under fifty-five had died of a heart attack or showed any signs of heart disease. For men over sixty-five, the death rate from heart disease in Roseto was roughly half that of the United States as a whole. The death rate from all causes in Roseto, in fact, was 30 to 35 percent lower than expected."

Gladwell goes on to quote John Bruhn, a researcher who studied Roseto:
"There was no suicide, no alcoholism, no drug addiction, and very little crime. They didn't even have anyone on welfare. Then we looked at peptic ulcers. They didn't have any of those either. These people were dying of old age. That's it."
After the medical researchers systematically studied -- and then eliminated -- diet, exercise, genetics, and environmental conditions, the reason they wound up citing for Roseto's "outlier" status was the town itself.

From page 9:
"As Bruhn and Wolf walked around the town, they figured out why. They looked at how the Rosetans visited one another, stopping to chat in Italian on the street, say, or cooking for one another in their backyards. They learned about the extended family clans that underlay the town's social structure. They saw how many homes had three generations living under one roof, and how much respect grandparents commanded. They went to mass at Our Lady of Mount Carmel and saw the unifying and calming effect of the church. They counted twenty-two separate civic organizations in a town of just under two thousand people. They picked up on the particular egalitarian ethos of the community, which discouraged the wealthy from flaunting their success and helped the unsuccessful obscure their failures."
A skeptical medical community had to be won over to see an explanation that veered away from hard, numbers-based facts, but the case was compelling. Put simply, social capital matters.
And social capital, put simply, is who you know. It's the community that exists all around you -- your building, your neighborhood, your civic organizations, your place of worship, your Tae Kwon Do class, your softball league, or whatever.

One distinction worth noting here is that between what I call 'hard' versus 'soft' social capital. One is not necessarily 'better' than the other, but there is a difference, and it does matter. 'Hard' social capital refers to people you know and who you're connected to by something greater than both of you put together. A perfect example would be someone you know from your church. You belong to the parish. They do, too. It would continue to exist if you both stopped existing, and it meets regularly on a schedule that depends on neither of you. Chances are, no matter how busy you are during the week (and if we'll define 'busy' as having more items on your to-do list than you can usually complete, let's just accept that yes, we're all busy people), you'll still see each other on Sunday morning at 1000. Same would go for your co-workers, your family members, and, presumably, co-members of civic groups or bowling leagues.

Soft social capital, as you might guess, refers to the (usually) more tenuous connections to people you 'just sort of know.' They could be people you run into at your local coffee shop, people that live in your building, people you sometimes see at the gym or the bus stop, etc. Again, not necessarly any better or worse types of linkages, but the key distinction is that there's not really any great tie that binds you on a regular basis. If one of you simply moved, changed gyms, or stopped drinking coffee, you could easily lose touch completely, no matter how positive your mutual feelings might be. As I'm starting to see college friendships fade into the distance as things like jobs, marriages, and children start to come into the picture, I'm realizing that the distinction bears noting.

Anyway, enough on that sidebar. I'm going to e-mail Robert Putnam (author of 'Bowling Alone' and one of the first to popularize the phrase 'social capital') to see if it can make its way into the lexicon. I'll let you know how it goes..

So back to Roseto, and then to Lowell.

Malcolm Gladwell made clear that, based on the Roseto Effect, high levels of social capital -- hard and soft -- can have a positive effect on a person's physical as well as mental well-being.
And I can certainly tell you how true the opposite is. Understanding how important finding a sense of community is -- not just to me, but to anyone -- is reason enough to try to explain why I don't find the prospect of a twenty-plus year active duty career fulfilling. Simply put, I just don't want to bounce around to a new city every two to three years for what otherwise might be shaping up to be the best years of my life.

As for places to settle down, Lowell continues to amaze me. I know I've said it before, but I think small cities are really the way to go for anyone looking to find a community where they can belong and find their niche, whatever it is. Big cities are usually too anonymous and transient; small towns don't offer enough, and might be too insular.

But something tells me that not all small cities are created alike. Everytime I feel like I know what's available and what's going on in Lowell, I tend to turn over another rock and find out about more downtown social events, more charity fund-raisers, more volunteer opportunities (Channel 10 has been an interesting source of this stuff, or what military types might call 'all-source intelligence'). No offense to New England's other cities of comparable size/population -- I admit that I don't get the same access level just by driving through and sometimes stopping to read their local paper -- but the overwhelming sense I get is that it's 'just not' like that.

I don't think Lowell is about to become the next Roseto, Pennsylvania anytime soon. Obviously, times have changed, the family structure has changed, influences have changed, and so has society. I don't even have the medical proof that Gladwell cites to draw my own conclusions from. But what I can tell you is this -- when you've done the strip-mall-and-box-store-subdivisions-jammed-between-eight-lane-road thing and seen what it means to go without social capital, and then you've spent the better part of a year seeing what a second option -- real downtown architecture and high levels of civic engagement -- looks like, here's the big realization you come away with:

That second option is pretty damn cool.


C R Krieger said...

I agree with your assessment. And, a lot of that social capital is what has allowed Lowell to come back from the loss of the mills. And, I think it also worked in Johnstown, PA, rep John Murtha notwithstanding.

Regards -- Cliff

The New Englander said...


I wonder how much other small cities with a Lowell- or Johnstown-esque profile (Youngstown-Buffalo-New Bedford) would benefit from increased social capital. It's a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg thing, but certainly the benefit of jobs that draw people to this area helps set the scene...and the already high levels of civic engagement make it easy to sort of jump on board, whereas in a more downtrodden place, you're going to feel like Sisyphus pushing a rock up a hill when you try to get people involved in something..

But when you look at all the success Lowell has had -- even right down to the recent decreases in most types of crime -- it's hard NOT to attribute the relatively high levels of civic pride and social capital in Lowell as factors on some level..

..I don't think anyone from Worcester, Springfield, or Brockton reads this, but this is where I'd be ready to ask someone from one of those places to chime in to hear thoughts/trade observations..


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