Social Capital And Covid-19

Until I entered academic life, I was unfamiliar with the concept of social capital. Human capital is more easily understood; it refers to the skills and knowledge of a given individual. Social capital, on the other hand, refers to the positive and negative qualities of networks, of our human connections to others.

There are two types of social capital: bonding and bridging. Bonding social capital occurs within families, clans and associations such as churches and fraternal organizations, where members–those considered “one of us”–are nurtured and supported. Bridging social capital, on the other hand, fosters relationships between otherwise unrelated groups or individuals who benefit from the networks’ trust, reciprocity, information, and cooperation.

The relationships that characterize  bonding social capital are sometimes referred to as thick, even tribal. The connections formed by bridging social capital are considered thinner, but given the increasing diversity of the American population, bridging social capital is critically important.

Scholarly and media attention to these connections within human societies has grown since the theories were first advanced in the mid-twentieth century, and I was intrigued by an August article in The New Yorker that investigated the connection between COVID-19 transmission and  bridging social capital. 

Now, all general truths about the pandemic are premature. But the empirical results so far seem at least to suggest an intriguing paradox: that places with a great deal of social capital got hit worst by the virus, and then recovered fastest. This is reportedly the case with the secular, social-democratic countries of the European Union, none of them particularly religious, but many of them rich in shared networks of trust.

Evidently, the research showed that people in places who were not socially distanced at the start of the plague–but places with significant amounts of social trust– had an easier time learning to social-distance by its end.

Translated from the academese, people who are used to going out a lot stopped when people they trusted told them that doing so was a good way to get sick. That’s a process familiar to New Yorkers. Cursed by our density and our place as a cosmopolitan crossroads to suffer worst from the plague, our capacity for self-regulation under rational government direction has moved us dramatically forward, or, rather, downward. We had, through nearly all of April, above a twenty-per-cent positive-testing rate; now, by living behind our masks and (mostly) staying out of bars, we have driven the number below one per cent.

 As the author points out, social trust is “earned and banked” over many years of trustworthy governance.

In America, we have been undergoing a kind of four-year experiment in what happens to a country when social trust and social capital are not merely badly maintained but actively corroded…. We have been living a four-year exercise in destroying social trust and replacing it with gangster values: loyalty to the capo at all costs, and vengeance on his competitors and enemies taken at his direction. Instead of converging on obvious truths—the limited but real values of mask-wearing, the confidence that quack cures won’t solve the problem, the necessity of vigilant watchfulness—we are told every day that all empirical arguments are merely, well, masks for clan rivalry.

The results are already clear. The rush to reopen in the so-called red states was motivated partly by commercial impatience but also largely by a kind of irrational rage at the “élitist” social networks that depend on the diffusion of scientific expertise. If instructed that scientific medicine is one more opinion on the spectrum of political grievance, then social distancing and mask-wearing become, like gun control, an imposition on liberty.

Bottom line: the social connections that characterize bridging social capital rely upon trust and reciprocity–and reciprocity itself requires trust. The constant lies of the Trump Administration, the escalating propaganda of right-wing media sources and the dramatic upsurge in conspiracy theories have combined to dangerously erode our levels of public trust–and that trust is absolutely essential, not just to the effective control of a pandemic, but to all social functioning.

The erosion of bridging social capital may explain why so many Americans have retreated into the bonding comforts of their tribal affiliations.

But bonding social capital–nurturing and supportive as it can be- rests on an “us versus them” worldview, and that’s absolutely the last thing we need right now.


  1. Yes. Us v. Them. This Donald Trump’s wildest dream come true. As John Kelly has recently stated, “Trump is the most flawed individual I’ve ever met.” No kidding!

    Trump IS the divider-in-chief. It’s the only way he survives. He is a sewer rat that is now cornered and he will use whatever means he has to fight his way out. After he loses the election, watch for a very, very dangerous move or two between election day and 20 January.

    In short, Sheila, Trump has no idea what this essay is talking about.

  2. “The erosion of bridging social capital may explain why so many Americans have retreated into the bonding comforts of their tribal affiliations.”

    “The erosion of bridging social capital…” is the perfect description of my repeated complaints of those who continue to complain about the faults of the Democratic party and specifically Joe Biden. This is a time when UNITY, not derision, can bring about that “blue wave” we know is necessary to end the Trump White Nationalist “tribal affiliations” which is destroying America today.

    “But bonding social capital–nurturing and supportive as it can be- rests on an “us versus them” worldview, and that’s absolutely the last thing we need right now.”

    The Trump faction of White Nationalism is tightly bonded socially; they are unified and organized which gives them strength we are not seeing among the Democratic party or voters. The number of Republicans speaking against Trump is growing but they have offered this lip-service before but voted against democracy when the time to take action arrived. We are cheering the high turnout of early voters assuming they are standing against Trump; but we didn’t believe he would become president in 2016. The “social capital” of the Electoral College was more tightly bonded than the popular vote as proven by the SEVEN MILLION whose votes were cast for Jill Stein and Gary Johnson rather than Hillary or Trump. We will never know those individual counts.

    We will not know if those massive crowds cheering Trump in public will outnumber Joe Biden’s supporters who have united with him by staying safely in the background against Covid-19. We will also never know the source of the rising Covid-19 cases we can attribute to Trump’s tribal affiliations and his demands to reopen the country or he and McConnell stifling the much needed aid to the victims of the Pandemic. That blame is being laid against the Democratic House members but what have Republicans hidden in the bill which the Democrats cannot accept?

    “Bottom line: the social connections that characterize bridging social capital rely upon trust and reciprocity–and reciprocity itself requires trust.”

    We must put our trust in the Democratic party and all candidates today, warts and all, and trust they will reciprocate by returning us to democracy, Rule of Law and protecting the Constitution of the UNITED States of America.

  3. Hahahaha Peggy. Good one. The same thought occurred to me in rural Northern Indiana. I really enjoyed this essay – a topic I had little familiarity with and has a lot to unpack. Thank you Professor Kennedy!

    We had an experience this Summer with neighbors who tore through the lake neighborhood’s social capital in the matter, of all things, parking cars (if you own or have visited a lake community you’ll understand). It was not pretty and the healing process is long.

  4. I believe this topic has to do with a reaction to outside influence. Trusting authorities?

    We can micro-analyze the results of our broken systems all year, but we need to start looking at the macro-level systemic collapses. Who in their right mind can trust our government at this juncture in our nation? What have they done to earn our trust?

    I know many people on social media who have discovered just how racist their own parents, siblings, friends are during the Trump presidency. For instance, my sister recently joined Facebook and has been in shock to see family members posting hate-filled rhetoric. It has destroyed some of her beliefs about our extended family.

    Our social engineers’ political wedges have destroyed lots of bonds and bridges. These wedges’ (cause) has led to the great sort we’ve been experiencing over the past several decades (effect).

    The right-wing is well ahead of the “left-wing” because the oppressive forces are well organized behind economic gain for themselves. Ask a Trumpian exactly what their leadership has done for the plight of the working man. Then, ask a Billionaire what Trump has done for them?

    Now, why would someone support Trump when he has done nothing for them?

    I guess the same reason rebel soldiers fought the “northern aggressors,” so Plantation Oligarchs could keep their slaves. 😉

    The art of manipulation or the science of persuasion.

  5. In a land of diversity such as ours, social capital requires a willingness to build bridges of understanding and trust between those who are different from ourselves. Trump can’t do that.

    I saw a video by Robert Reich in which he asserts that when there is high inequity in wealth, the country always has more divisiveness. The wealthy plutocracy does not practice social
    capital either.

    The militia that planned to kidnap Gov. Whitmer is the worst kind of bonding. So are the drug cartels.

    Healthy social bonding is porous. It welcomes the stranger, the other and encourages people to practice social capital. Those are the churches and the groups that want to address racism and other forms of biogtry. Those are the groups that will bond together in a diverse group and stand up for social justice.

  6. I agree, Robin, but you might want to exclude churches because they also suffer from a Kakistocracy of sorts. For instance, anybody can become a preacher or pastor and start a church.

    Shouldn’t you need to have some level of spiritual or divine wisdom before you can lead a congregation?

    You can only impart your limited understanding/interpretation to others, so how does one determine the level of wisdom you’ve obtained?


  7. Back in my early Boomer years, worked in a steel mill in the South Chicago area. The unions created both a social bonding and bridging. There were different ethnic backgrounds and racial backgrounds. We were one in a sense at least on the job.

    The sorting began when we went home to our respective enclaves. Both political parties tried to take advantage of this with various methods of triangulation.

    Today the triangulation is aided and abetted by the social media and religious institutions. The idea of “out of many one” has been shattered the silos have been built.

    It is difficult for me to understand the Trump Cult, on one hand you have the bible thumpers who praise the lord and pass the Trump Kool Aid. Then The Trumpet’s brutal, bullying tactics, his overt sexism and out right lies have not diminished Trump’s popularity with the bible thumpers.

    The Trump Cult admires his brazen Male-Macho-Authoritarianism, and cheers his every put down of normal polite society. “Polite Society” as defined as Liberals, snowflakes, socialists, etc.

    Fear is at the root of the Trump Cult – They (the Democrats) are going to invade your neighborhood take your bibles, and guns away and infect your children with godless sectarian teaching in schools.

    No matter how high the body count goes up from Corona, bravery demands no masks or social distancing for the Trump Cult.

  8. One excellent value and evolutionary based taxonomy, which IMO explains the difference between the US and western european countries is Spiral Dynamics. I wonder if the developer of it, Dr. Clare Graves, used bonding and bridging to come up with his levels.

    The USA is firmly entrenched in a lower form of evolution, the blue-orange “mythical membership” level whereas western europe and most other countries in the developed world have jump to the orange-green level which speaks exactly to bridging. The blue-orange level speaks to a lower level tribal consciousness which, being reinforced by right-wing anti-gummit rhetoric, heavily reinforces and us vs them consciousness. The orange-green level is the beginning of where networking and cooperation for the greater good is fostered. I believe our forefathers attempted to setup a system to allow us to evolve to the latter, but a large swath of this country is entrenched is blue-orange and lower level survivalist consciousness (right-wing militias)

  9. My older daughter fits the bridging social capital definition well. She is a retired federal drug and disaster worker who was on the scene during the Oklahoma City disaster as a state drug assistant commissioner and while there became acquainted with a federal drug and disaster worker sent from Washington. Later when at Indiana University she received a call from an admiral in Washington who asked her to come to Washington to be his special assistant for the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a disaster in which she was the federal liason officer as a coordinator for the state disaster people in the five state capitals affected. She was at Katrina in New Orleans, Houston, Scott County during the HIV crisis and several tornado and hurricane sites as a federal (and sometimes state on loan) disaster coordinator sometimes working around the clock.

    She has since her retirement had calls from Washington to consult on preparedness for new disasters in the making etc., but where is the connection between the foregoing litany and social capital? It is the federal officer who came to Oklahoma City. She is the one who recommended to the admiral that he call my daughter, and the rest is history, a history that might otherwise have been a retirement from IU.

    I call social capital networking, but whatever the monicker, my daughter’s experience points up the importance of doing a good job in whatever you are doing and wherever you are doing it since you never know who is watching and what the future holds. She also has the satisfaction of knowing that she was helping people in their greatest hour of need with her service as a drug and disaster worker, but all is not so cheery from her accounts of what happened in some of her disaster sites – I tell her that she has seen more dead people than I have, and I was in a war.

  10. Pack behavior is the social norm for many animals but there’s lots of variability in pack size and purpose and structure and hierarchy. There seems to be some vestiges of it ingrained into humans that become situationally more or less prevalent. Maybe the concepts of bridging and bonding social capital and the relationship between them is a good way to understand it.

    What I’m thinking is that it seems that people raised in close functional loving families enjoy a great deal of bonding. They learn the comfort of closeness and are given nothing to fear from it. It seems natural and safe and secure and a place to build from. Their pack easily extends to many others through the concept of bridging social capital.

    On the other hand those raised in unsupportive families with less bonding social capital in the mix learn to distrust other people in or out of the family. Trump is a classic example as described by Mary Trump in her book. His family was a corporation. His relationship with others has always and exclusively been corporate hierarchy with its authoritarian rank and order. Social capital like wealth is accounted for and tabulated and unfelt.

    It’s easy to see the usefulness of that among those who were raised in similar dens. It’s also easy to see it’s attraction to social accountants tabulating assets and liabilities. However it’s antithetical to those from dens rich is bonding social capital.

  11. Okay,
    I’ll reiterate what I’ve said before, scripture says to take care of the foreign resident, the widow, and the fatherless child! Scripture also says to love your neighbor as yourself and to love God! I won’t go into chapter and verse because I’ve stated this many times before.

    That being said, the religious leaders do not follow scripture! Civil rights are basic human rights guaranteed in Scripture. Unfortunately, hypocrisy and man-made dogma have supplanted any scriptural understanding!

    Empathy, compassion, and ethical behavior are also brought out in scripture as an identifier of those who truly practice what they preach as far as truthful scriptural interpretation.

    Unfortunately, scripture also States that people will look for teachers who tickle their ears, in other words allows them to practice and purvey evil upon their fellow man.

    Those are the ones that scripture also says”that their hearts run to badness”so there already is a guideline that far out dates men’s philosophical dogma concerning how to conduct oneself towards our fellow man .

    Unfortunately, men have so corrupted and bastardized religion for their own purposes, people don’t even want to pay attention to it because it’s deemed hypocritical. When in essence the only hypocrisy is men using religion for their own hypocritical agenda.

  12. I will also say,

    Morality encompasses all of the above mentioned positives of compassion, empathy, ethics, plus human dignity which includes human and civil rights.

    Most individuals have an embedded moral compass that’s called a conscience, remember the old saying, let your conscience be your guide?

    Scripture was meant to be a roadmap towards basic human decency, but men were not made to be automatons. Mankind was given a choice to be good or bad, unfortunately, a goodly portion have decided to follow a corrupted path. Manufactured grievance is just an excuse to bring disunity and hatred into The human condition.

    That needs to be eliminated, but I fear if man hasn’t done it yet, he is unable to do it at all.

  13. I know this is not done on purpose, but putting the burden upon citizens to trust our institutions is letting the institutions slide away from their responsibility to maintain credibility.

    From Sheila: “Bottom line: the social connections that characterize bridging social capital rely upon trust and reciprocity–and reciprocity itself requires trust.”

    I get the point, and it is valid. I think this subject and this problem should be addressed on a more frequent basis. However, I must do too much word translation to achieve what little understanding I get from the discussion in it’s present wording.

    The culprit word is ‘trust’; I don’t trust the word trust nor even the concept of trust. I will take credibility over trust every time.

    Thus my translation: Bottom line: the social connections that characterize bridging social capital rely upon credibility and reciprocity–and reciprocity itself requires credibility.

    I advocate credibility because credibility earns its creds; trust does not. Perhaps once upon a time credibility was assumed when using the word trust, but too many betrayals have passed through the hands and forked tongue of Trust for the word to now imply anything other than: Trust is the REWARD one gets for being credible, and that is all it is.

    Trust is not something one gives from a blind and thoughtless condition of being confused with or having an absense of options; that sort of dive into the dark abyss should use different wording–desperation, hail Mary, shot in the dark, naivety, ignorance.

    In legal terminology, The burden of Trust lies with the Trusted, not with the Truster.

    When the reward of trust is missing or weak in regard to any institution, it is the fault of the institution for failing to establish credibility. It is unwise to expect citizens to trust an institution or condemn citizens for not trusting an institution, whereas requiring the institution to establish credibility is far more practical and psychologically valid.

    I know this is not done on purpose, but putting the burden upon citizens to trust our institutions is letting the institutions slide away from their responsibility to maintain credibility.

  14. I am concerned about my daughter who works as immigration lawyer. She helps her clients bridge over cultural & legal issues. The government under Sessions& now Barr have changed rules & left vulnerable hard working people hanging in limbo. She had appeals case in 7th circuit where 2 judges didn’t understand credibility issues, and how translating their testimony from other language can cause discrepancies. The seasoned 3rd. judge wrote a dissent spelling in out to the other judges who haven’t worked in the “real” world. I told my daughter yesterday that I didn’t trust Christiania Sparks, since I think of the likes of her as a Maria Butina type. She shared with me that many people who immigrate here have strong feelings about government due to their negative experiences from where they leave/flee. I trust my daughter’s insight so today all I’ll say about Sparks is I don’t like her politics. I think Irwin is accurate when he says that trust has to be earned, and that it’s earned by being credible.

  15. While reading “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent”, by Isabel Wilkerson, this passage struct me as pertinent to the continued discussion of the current stark divisions in our country. Loss of trust might be what happens in the dominant caste when the expected benefits of that status are seen as being successfully challenged by those of the lower caste members.
    “In caste terms, these are the least well off, most precariously situated members of the dominant caste in America. For generations, they could take for granted their inherited rank in the hierarchy and the benefits that accrued from it.
    We may underestimate, though, the aftershocks of a shift in demographics, the erosion of labor unions, the perceived loss of status, the fears about their place in the world, and resentment that the kind of securities their fathers could rely upon might now be waning in what were supposed to be the best years of their lives.
    …In America, political scientists have given this malaise of insecurities a name: dominant group status threat. This phenomenon “is not the usual form of prejudice or stereotyping that involves looking down on outgroups who are perceived to be inferior,” writes Diane Mutz, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. “Instead, it is born of sense that the outgroup is doing too well and thus, is a viable threat to one’s own dominant group status.’

    The trust in the expected norms of the dominant caste (white males, primarily) is being recognized for its inherent inequality and injustice, being forcefully challenged by lower caste members who are using their own social capital, despite other cultural, racial, religious and institutional differences, to demand entry into the higher castes. The assured confidence of their status is not longer a guaranteed expectation. Trust in the guarantees of equal justice and equal access are not the norm for the lower castes (Black and Brown as well as all other minorities). The clash of these caste groups is inevitable and is being used by the oligarchs to cement their place at the top of the castes.

    My credentials within this group are strictly amateur, offered as one view of the current chaos we all face. Please feel free to offer criticism if you view it worthy of same.

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