Social Capital and the Queens College Experience

January 1, 2013 at 8:01 PM
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Social Capital and the Queens College Experience

Lara Porter QC’14 and Jim Stellar

Lara and I wrote a previous blog post linking in-group/out-group effects of oxytocin (the “cuddle drug”) and a behavioral study of inducing a mental flexibility to promote negotiation in an Arab-Israeli situation. We saw this post as relating to experiential education directly in study abroad or service-learning involving other ethic/religious/racial groups, and indirectly as tapping some of the same unconscious decision-making circuits as exercised by internship or other such experiences outside the facts and theories classroom. In looking for a way to continue, Lara wrote the following:

While studying abroad in the Czech Republic, I wrote a paper on social capital in Bosnia and Herzegovina as a part of the post-conflict reconstruction process. Surprisingly I found that the concepts I was researching were connected to the topics that you, Provost Stellar, taught me.

First, I’ll go through a few definitions. While there is no one single definition for social capital, but it is generally understood as “social relations that have productive benefits.”1 While I was reading the World Bank’s 2002 report on local level institutions and social capital in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I came across further clarifications. The study mentioned three forms of social capital: bonding, bridging, and linking.2

Bonding social capital refers to positive relationships within a specific group. Generally speaking, this is high within ethnic enclaves. From my experience at Queens College, I found that social groups are based primarily around religious, ethnic, or sexual identity. This implies that there are high levels of bonding social capital. While this is very positive it can be somewhat isolating. This is where bridging social capital comes in. Bridging social capital refers to positive relationships that are formed between different established groups. I realized that the work I do with the Queens College Center for Ethnic, Racial, and Religious Understanding (CERRU) through dialogue and community service events is directly related to this concept.

The final form of social capital is known as linking social capital. This refers to positive relationships between different levels of authority. In the case of Queens College this would be the relationship between students and the administration or potential employers. Provost Stellar, this adds another dimension to the work you’ve been doing on experiential learning. By providing students with internships and mentoring programs you’re improving this level of linking social capital which is an extremely important part of empowerment.

I agree that the work many of us are doing on experiential education can be seen as creatling linking social capital and that is important to success and to maybe understanding the impact of internships, etc. But I am particularly intrigued by the idea of bridging social capital.

One of the unconscious decision-making processes to which I like to refer in this blog is neuroeconomics. While that can be seen as dealing with decisions about money (standard capital), there is clear involvement of these same areas (e.g. insula cortex and risk) in issues of empathy and other processes that seem to me to be part of bridging social capital.

I would say that the relationships between CERRU dialogue facilitators embody bridging social capital. The dialogue facilitators go through a training process that focuses on active listening, which comes down to internalizing what some one is saying without giving your own opinion. One of the tactics used to develop this and other skills involve going through the scheduled dialogues as a group before an actual event or even creating our own dialogue scenarios as practice. The training process is therefore both hands-on and intense. As a result, the facilitators form a close knit group who trust each other. In addition, many student facilitators often remark that they thought of themselves as open-minded or tolerant before accepting the position only to become aware of their own biases throughout the training process. For me personally, I made the majority of my friends outside of my religious group at Queens College through CERRU.

That was one of the reasons why I started the Volunteer Corps. I saw the relationships that were built around dialogue and wanted to expand on that using community service. Trust is a huge component of bridging social capital and related to the blog post we did with oxytocin, yet it’s difficult to achieve. When students work together in a community service setting, they have to trust each other and can witness someone from a group that they inherently distrust preforming an altruistic deed. That’s how we try to expand the concept of the in-group bit by bit and build the kind of bridging social capital that we need.

Jonathan Haidt’s book “Righteous Mind” talks about a “hive switch” that comes from our evolutionary history where groups that worked well together had a higher survival rate than groups that did not. It is presumed that natural selection left behind brain mechanisms (perhaps oxytocin) that promote social cooperation. So, the trick under bridging social capital may well be to tie that idea to these brain mechanisms through social psychology processes to find the way to, as LP says to “build the kind of bridging social capital we need.” That phrase is very important and why we quoted it again. The notion of linking unconscious processing as in fMRI studies of neuroeconomics to social capital and studies of tolerance as in CERRU deserves more thinking.

To tie this line of thought back to experiential education, consider that going out of one’s comfort zone to study abroad may tap the same brain mechanisms as participating in the kind of dialogue between groups as promoted by CERRU. Both may produce growth in the student. We always struggle to define what is experiential education. Yet here by comparing aboard programs to such on-campus activities of dialogue, we may have implicitly also defined experiential education as the impact on the unconscious processes that drive our thinking. While not as lofty a goal as building peace in our world, it is still interesting, particularly to this blog.

[1] Tristan Calridge, 2004, “Social Capital and Natural Resource Management”, Unpublished Thesis, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia. http://www.socialcapitalresearch.com/definition.html

[2] World Bank, 2002. “Local Level Institutions and Social Capital Study”, The World Bank, Washington, DC. 4-5

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