Music and Social Capital

For never having been a trendy sort of person, amazingly, I seem to be plugged into the Zeitgeist this month. Oh, it’s not just my post for Blog Action Day, and having decided, quite fortuitously, to call my example piano student Joe, given the almost simultaneous occurence of “Six-Pack Joe” and “Joe the Plumber,” which would be spooky enough . I had decided to start a series on various kinds of capital, and Wednesday’s post on human capital was quickly followed by an appearance the next night of Marian Wright Edelman discussing the importance of human capital with Tavis Smiley.

OK, two instances in eight days wasn’t really all that spooky, but today’s post was going to be about music and social capital already, when to my surprise last night Mark Johnson appeared on Bill Moyers’ Journal. Now social capital, in case you didn’t know, is the value of our connections. Playing music enforces social capital, since one of the first prerequisites for joining a performing group is the ability to, as a kindergarten teacher might say, “play well with others.” This is an ability not to be disparaged; this ability is what enables us to keep good business relationships, good family relationships, and good friendships, throughout decades and across distances. The more interconnected we are, the more social capital we have.

Mr. Johnson’s film, Playing for Change: Peace through Music, and his project, which involves building music schools, are astounding works. A few minutes into his film, I was literally breathless with the headiness of this documentary. This is social capital at its finest and if you can’t understand why learning to play music is so life-changing after seeing this film, I don’t know how else to help you understand it.

I literally had chills watching the film. If I’m lucky, I can smile and tell myself Hallowe’en is next week!

Update 24 July 2009: Jaime Austria of El Sistema in New York City sent me a link via email to Robert D. Putnam’s 1993 paper, What Makes Democracy Work? [.doc file] Putnam shows us that Italian communities with more choral societies are more advanced economically, and it’s not that more economically advanced communities have more choral societies—rather the reverse! Here are a few concluding paragraphs but the entire paper is well worth the time to read and understand it:

Of two equally poor Italian regions a century ago, both very backward, but one with more civic engagement, and the other with a hierarchical structure, the one with more choral societies and soccer dubs has grown steadily wealthier. The more civic region has prospered because trust and reciprocity were woven into its social fabric ages ago. None of this would appear in standard economics textbooks, of course, but our evidence suggests that wealth is the consequence, not the cause, of a healthy civics.
An important moral emerges from these two stories. Economists often refer to physical capital. A screwdriver is a form of physical capital: By investing in a screwdriver, one becomes more productive. About 25 years ago, the economist Gary Becker used the term “human capital” to refer to the fact that education can have the same effect. Investing in training enables one to become more productive.

Some social scientists are beginning to speak of “social capital” — networks and norms of civic engagement. Conversely, in some modern countries — in our own urban ghettoes and in our suburbs, for example — the last several decades have witnessed a silent erosion of social capital. There are more empty seats at PTA meetings and church masses, for example, and fewer of us spend time on public affairs — particularly political activities. Compared with earlier generations, we are less engaged with one another outside the marketplace and thus less prepared to cooperate for shared goals. This decline in social capital helps explain the economic and political troubles of our own democracy.

These first two stories also frame a final important question: If we lack social capital, how can we create more? This tough dilemma was once posed to me by the reform-minded president of one of the backward regions of southern Italy. After dinner one evening he complained, “What you seem to be telling me is that nothing I can do will improve my region. Our fate was sealed hundreds of years ago.” This is a central conundrum of our time: How can we invest in social capital?

There is no simple reply, but the question must be addressed by every serious public official or community activist in America today. Investments in our nation’s portfolio of social capital must occur at the local level. A concluding parable — this time not from Italy but from central America — dramatizes this point.

In many neighborhoods around San Jose, Costa Rica, recent immigrants from the countryside live amid social disorganization and crime. In the last few years, however, one such neighborhood has earned a reputation for being safer and more pleasant, even though its residents are no more affluent. This fortunate area somehow has achieved a strong sense of neighborhood solidarity. For example, nearly every resident has bought a football referee’s whistle, and if a thief is spotted, everyone blows his whistle to alert his neighbors. The neighborhood has also taken up a collection to buy a local siren and set up a telephone network. If a local widow, for example, becomes distressed at night, one phone call suffices to set off the siren and summon help. This neighborhood-alert system has cut robberies dramatically — from roughly two a week to roughly one a year.

What makes this neighborhood different? The founder of the neighborhood association has a simple answer: El Ley del Saludo — “The Law of the Greeting.” When the association was formed a few years ago, its members agreed that everyone would leave for work five minutes early every morning to have the time to say “hello” to each of his neighbors. This informal norm soon built ties of friendship and mutual solidarity among the previously anonymous residents of the neighborhood. Once those ties were established, it was relatively easy to agree on practical crime-fighting steps.

As the relative tranquillity of this neighborhood has become more widely known in San Jose, people from other neighborhoods have visited to inquire into the secret of their success. “When we tell them about ~The Law of the Greeting,’ reports the association’s founder, “they smile dismissively and ask us where we got the whistles, or how we got a government grant for the siren.” These inquirer’s are, of course, missing the point: The key to collective action is not physical capital, but social capital. “The Law of the Greeting” represents investment in social capital at its very simplest.

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