Civic engagement, voluntary work, social networks and trust are all key elements of social capital. In turn, these help foster social cohesion, integration and a better quality of life. In his new book ‘Our Kids’, sociologist Robert Putnam makes a compelling argument for the importance of investment in social capital.
Putnam had previously achieved international scholarly acclaim through his book ‘Bowling Alone’ in 2000. He had highlighted what he saw as the decline of social capital as evidenced through loneliness, lack of trust and lack of reciprocity. The book inspired a generation of sociologists and policy-makers involved in areas such as community, education and social networks, though the reasons given by Putnam for a decline in social capital have been subject to much debate.
In his most recent book, Putnam carefully analyses how American children from higher social classes tend to do have better educational outcomes than children from lower classes. This is hardly a novel argument, and studies in many countries around the world, including Malta, had similar conclusions. If anything, however, this shows the importance of such findings. In ‘Our Kids’, one reads how upper-middle class families tend to provide nurturing to their kids which is more in synch with the demands of the educational system and which, consequently, provides for more social mobility.
Such nurturing includes more dialogue between parents and kids and encouraging them to be reflexive. This is less common in working-class families, for various reasons, which can also include less social networks which can assist kids for their personal development.
Putnam suggests a mix of policies which can help improve children from poorer families, and this includes educational, psychological and social assistance. This ranges from subsidies to increased access to clubs and childcare, as well as the teaching of parenting skills.
Even though Putnam’s arguments have an American focus, the lessons he provides can have a wider appeal. In a small society like Malta, where social networks are of great importance, perhaps this is very relevant.
Malta is not lacking in volunteering and civic engagement, as can be witnessed from the high participation in charitable events, political candidatures and a whole range of voluntary activities, including NGO membership. Like other social characteristics, however, social networks are not equal. There are those whose economic wealth and social status can buy them easier access to certain networks. And there are those whose precarious situations is resulting in exclusion, daily hardships and stress.
Political, religious and civic networks can transverse social classes
At the same time, however, political, religious and civic networks can transverse social classes, where people from different backgrounds encounter opportunities and obligations. Yet, in an increasingly individualised setting, not everyone belongs to such networks, and here one should also include non-Maltese persons living in Malta, who should not be excluded from community life.
Local councils and educational authorities have a very strong role to play in this regard, and there are some positive policy-directions which should be replicated across the country. These include lifelong learning courses for adults and kids in languages and in other areas – such as reading, drama and sports – which can help increase social integration. Here, persons who have lack of financial capital and lack of access to certain networks, can obtain social capital though participation.
Malta’s educational policy is adopting positive measures based on equity and universalism by giving targeted consideration to particular needs, as I argued in a recent article in The Times. Indeed, one-size-fits-all approaches can often unintentionally result in exclusion of those who do not belong to mainstream networks and higher social classes. More focus should be given to the concept of schools as universally-accessible community centres which can provide after-school activities such as sports, social events and various courses. The comprehensive extension of Klabb 3-16 should -be emulated.
Investment in social capital should also enable local councils to have increased say in community initiatives and local development. This should not only include having local councils being responsible for facilities such as playing areas and libraries – as is already the case, albeit with limited funds – but also to give them a stronger voice in decisions by national authorities.
More consideration should be given to the voice of local councils when Mepa and Transport Malta take decisions and devise policy. Very often, economic concerns ride roughshod over other considerations relating to people’s quality of life and community development. For example, if a development proposal will lead to increased traffic, lack of open spaces and more pollution, this can have a strong impact on family and community life. Why should the latter be relegated to minor concerns by decision makers?
Some argue that Malta has too many local councils given its small size and that this is an unnecessary waste of resources. But from a social capital perspective, one can take the opposite view and argue that, if anything, local councils are closer to everyday concerns of residents. Consequently, they should be equipped with stronger fiscal and legislative authority to invest in initiatives which increase social inclusion and strengthen the sense of community belonging.
Seen from this perspective, the smallness of Malta’s localities could be seen as a boon which merits more recognition.
Michael Briguglio is a sociologist.