Will we See an Upswing in America’s Social Capital?

Social trust in America is at all time lows, but can this be reversed?

The Covid-19 Pandemic, and Capitol-Hill Insurrection following President Biden’s election victory seem to indicate that America is more socially disconnected and politically divided than ever.

In Bowling Alone (1995), Robert Putnam famously argued that levels of trust and social capital had been declining in American society since the 1960s and recent events seem to suggest that this trend has just continued towards new lows.

Social capital refers to the amount of connections we have outside of the family and work – Bowling alone being a metaphor the decreasing amount of shared social activities people engaged in.

A strongly related concept is Trust, which is something the PEW research centre measures regularly, and the latest stats suggest very low levels of trust among younger people in particular in America:

However, despite this 60 year decline, there is hope that we can turn this around and move to a more connected society again.

in Recent publication by Robert Putnam: The UpSwing he investigated the levels of social capital in America over a longer time frame, more than a century in this case, using four indicators to measure social capital…

  • Political polarisation – how wide apart our political opinions and voting patterns are
  • Economic inequality – how big is the gap between the richest and poorest
  • Social isolation – how much interaction is there outside of the family and work
  • cultural intolerance – to what extent to we accept cultural diversity?

Back at the turn of the century, in 1900 social capital (measured by the above four indicators) had been as low as it is today, but around 1910, the American society turned a corner and began an ‘upswing’. They started to move towards a society which was more connected, more economically equal and more focussed on what brought them together rather than on what divided them.

Back in the early 20th century there was a big focus on social darwinism, most people believed in ‘individual salvation’, but this was replaced gradually with the idea of social obligation to others, and in this upswing, increasing social capital came first at the grass roots, last in Washington.

So maybe if they’ve done it before, The United States can learn lessons from the past and once again start to move towards being a more connected society?

Problems with the last upswing

Putnam suggests that that old ‘we’ was a racist – it didn’t extend to non-whites and the rise of individualism from the 1960s coincides with the rise of Civil Rights and the backlash against this.

So there was a lot of ‘agreeing about things’ and ‘working together’ at the grass-roots level, but there was also an underbelly of racism which resulted in a gradual increase in more visible individualism and social division.

Putnam also points out that ‘too much we can be bad’ As in the 1950s…. with McCarthyism and too much conformity.

So is there hope for a more connected America?

The Pandemic has shown us that there are some things which cannot be tackled if you just focus on your self, which may spur America towards a more socially connected future.

HOWEVER, the issue of Race in America is huge, and it’s hard to see just how this going to be resolve itself into a ‘diverse-we’ from the current situation.

And the sheer level of economic inequality can’t help things either.

I’m kind of left wondering if this isn’t an old-man Putnam just trying to be optimistic in his old age and at least give the next generation some kind of (false?) hope that life might get better?

Signposting and Sources

This post should be of interest to students studying Functionalist Theory as part of the Theory and Methods module in the second year of A-level sociology.

To my mind it can best be used as a criticism of the concept that society’s today are characterised by social integration. Despite Putnam’s optimism I’m not convinced the USA will now start to move towards more social integration.

This is a summary of this Thinking Allowed Podcast.

Robert D Putnam is the Malkin Research Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University

Social Class – An Introduction to the Concept

Social Class refers to divisions in society based on economic and social status. People in the same social class typically share a similar level of wealth, educational achievement, type of job and income.

Social Class is one of the most important concepts within AS and A Level Sociology because of the relationship between social class background and life chances (or lack of them) and the debate over the extent to which social class background determines an individual’s life chances.

Many people in the United Kingdom have an idea of what social class is, but Sociologists define the concept in more precise terms. Below I look at ‘common conceptions’ of social class before moving on to look at two ways of measuring social class – The Registrar General’s Social Class Scale and The New British Class Survey

Common Conceptions of Social Class

The classic formulation of social class in Britain is to see Britain as being divided into three classes: working, middle and upper class. Social Class, is however, open to change, and most agree that the last two decades have seen the emergence of an underclass, with little prospect of full time employment. These four terms are in common usage and we have to start somewhere, so here are some starting definitions which you should aim to move beyond.

Social Class

Definition/ Defining Features

Working class

Those individuals engaged in manual work, often having low levels of educational achievement. The classic, traditional working class jobs include heavy labouring and factory based work.

Middle class

Those individuals engaged in non-manual work, often having higher levels of educational achievement. Classic middle class jobs include everything from doctors and lawyers to clerical workers.

Upper class

The elite class that controls the majority of wealth and power in British society.

A recent 2015 survey shows that 60% of people in Britain identify as working class, which suggests that these broad ‘class divisions’ have meaning for people.

The disadvantages of common conceptions of social class is that they lack clarity – although most of us have heard of social class and have some idea of what it means to be a member of a social class, exactly what constitutes middle or working class, for example, is subjective and varies from person to person.

This is precisely why socologists have striven to develop more objective classifications of social class – and below I look at two of these – The registrar General’s Social Class Scale and the New British Class Survey

The Registrar General’s Social Class Scale (1911)

Sociologists use more nuanced categories of social class, than the common sense conceptions above. The way in which sociologists group people into social classes has changed considerably over time, mainly because of the changing occupational structure. To illustrate this just two examples are provided below.

For most of the 20th Century social class was measured using the Registrar General’s Scale. When this was originally conceived in 1911 it was based on the alleged standing in the community of the different occupational groups.

Occupations were divided into the following:

  • Manual occupations – those that involve a fair amount of physical effort. These are also known as blue collar occupations and are seen as working class.

  • Non-manual occupations – those that involve more mental effort, such as professions and office work. These are also known as white collar occupations and are seen as middle class.

Registrar General’s Scale: 1911-Present Day 

Social Class

Examples of occupation

I Professional and managerial

Accountant, doctor

II Intermediate

Teacher, farmer

III Non-manual – skilled occupations

Police officer, sales representative

III Manual – skilled occupations

Electrician, bus driver

IV Semi-skilled manual

Farm worker, postman/woman

V Unskilled manual

Labourer, cleaner

Strengths and Limitations of the Registrar General’s Social Class Scale 

The problems with the above scale is that the occupational structure in the UK has moved on – there are many more unskilled non manual jobs – in call-centres for example, and there is no room for the long-term or intermittently unemployed in the above scale either.

However, even today the majority of occupations fit pretty unambiguously into one of the categories, and six categories broadly organised along educational achievement and income is very easy to manage if we wish to make comparisons, and if we stick to these six simple categories, there does appear to be a historical relationship between these social class groupings and life chances – especially where life expectancy is concerned.

health and social class inequality

The New British Class Survey 

The New British Class Survey is an attempt to update the Registrar General’s Social Class Scale and make it more relevant to contemporary Britain.

Social Class UK

The survey was conducted by the BBC, in conjunction with The London School of Economics, recently conducted an online survey of 161 000 people. The survey measured three aspects of social class – economic capital, cultural capital and social capital.

Economic Capital – Measured by a combination of household income, household savings and the value of house owned.

Cultural Capital – The level of engagement in ‘highbrow’ and ’emerging’ culture. The amount of ‘Highbrow’ culture people consumed was measured by scoring how engaged they were with classical music, attending stately homes and so on. How much ’emerging’ cultural capital people owned was measured by scoring engagement with video games, a preference for hip-hop etc.

Social Capital – Measured using the average status or importance of people’s social contacts and the number of occupations people said they knew.

According to this survey, there are now 7 new classes in the United Kingdom…..

  1. Elite (6% of the population) – The most privileged class in Great Britain who have high levels of all three capitals. Their high amount of economic capital sets them apart from everyone else.

    Social Class Britain

  2. Established Middle Class (25% of the population) Members of this class have high levels of all three capitals although not as high as the Elite. They are a gregarious and culturally engaged class.

  3. Technical Middle Class (6%) – A new, small class with high economic capital but seem less culturally engaged. They have relatively few social contacts and so are less socially engaged.

  4. New Affluent Workers (14%) – This class has medium levels of economic capital and higher levels of cultural and social capital. They are a young and active group.

  5. Emergent Service Workers (15%) This new class has low economic capital but has high levels of ‘emerging’ cultural capital and high social capital. This group are young and often found in urban areas.

  6. Traditional Working Class (19%) – This class scores low on all forms of the three capitals although they are not the poorest group. The average age of this class is older than the others.

  7. Precariat (15%) – The most deprived class of all with low levels of economic, cultural and social capital. The everyday lives of members of this class are precarious.

    Social Class Sociology

Strengths and Limitations of the New British Class Survey 

This seems to be a clear improvement on previous class scales – it seems to describe social class divisions as they actually are in the UK (you might say it’s a more valid measurement of social class) – and the inclusion of  ‘lowest’ class – the precariat reflects the important fact that many people are in low-paid work are in poverty because of the precarious nature of their flexible and/ or part-time employment. It also includes more indicators (or aspects of class) and reflects the importance of property ownership which only typically comes with age.

However, because it includes more aspects of class and because it is more subjective, it is simply harder to ‘get your head around’ – the divisions aren’t as clear cut, and it’s more difficult to make comparisons – of which there are few available because this is such a new measurement. Still, these aren’t necessarily weaknesses if that’s the way social class really does manifest itself in reality in contemporary Britain.

Related Posts – Mostly on ‘why class matters’

Social Class, Income and Wealth Inequalities

The Reproduction of the Social Class Inequality in Education

Three ways in which family life varies by social class

Discussion Question: To what extent do you believe someone’s social class background affects their life chances in Modern Britain today?

Research Task – Use this link to do the survey and find out more about your class background (you could either enter your parents‘ details, if you know them, or think about where you think you will be in 5-10 years time and enter those details.

British Class Survey

 

Further Sources