November 4, 2009
In the recent weeks, I’ve been discussing with my students the political and economic conditions that help democracies to emerge, and make them stick. One of the most abstract ideas to get your head around is that having “democratic values” and a “civic culture” helps you become a democracy and stay that way (abstract because how do you get these things if you are not a democracy?). This includes things like having high levels of citizen participation in social and political organisations, believing in the benefits of democracy, etc.
An extremely interesting article (accessible to everyone, not just LSE master’s students) was written in the mid-1990s by the political scientist Robert Putnam. It is titled “bowling alone.” Putnam is an expert on social capital because he studied the impact that having it had on the quality of policy and governance in various Italian regions for about twenty years. Basically, he found that if you had more social capital, you were more likely to have good governance, and good policy. Bowling alone takes these insights and applies them to the US. Putnam documents the decline of civic participation in the United States: Americans between 1950 and 1990 went from being highly engaged in social and political activities in their communities to being apathetic and uninvolved. Indeed, where they once bowled in organised leagues, they now go bowling alone.
All of this got me to thinking about the fact that one of the reasons M. and I decided to buy a flat in the same neighbourhood of London we currently live in is that we wanted not maintain the social capital we had already built up living here for 2 years. This social capital comes in the form of a couple of key forms, most of which are related to our role as parents. First, we have learned about activities during the day for our son: playgroups, library story and song hours, etc (if all of this seems like Greek to you because you are not a parent, the quick story is that babies these days don’t just sit at home and watch their mothers cook while teething on a rattle, they go to music and dance lessons, organised play hours with other children, swimming lessons and all sorts of other things). Second we know about schools and nurseries in this area. And third (and only partially related to being parents), we have gotten to know other couples in this area, and their children, which makes us feel more connected to the community.
A good part of this “connectedness” has been facilitated by my becoming a member of a group of mothers in the area. When I found out about this group about a year ago, it was just getting started in a formal way, in fact, they were in the process of building a website. Now, it’s a major “organisation” in our area with a blog, regular meet-ups for mothers and babies, social events (this past weekend, a Halloween party), a Facebook group and special discounts organised for moms at local businesses. They also provide information on schools, nurseries, doctors and political initiatives in the area. There are about 200 moms in this area who are members on the network which, if you assume on average that each mother represents a household of 3 people (a second parent and a child – a conservative estimate as many mothers have more than one child), that’s somewhere between 5-10% of the population of the area (depending on how tightly you define the neighborhood and whether you use 2001 census data or other sources). Not a huge percent, but certainly a significant one.
You might guess what this made me consider next: does this unique form of social capital (“mommy capital”) in our neighbourhood have any tangible benefits along the lines that Putnam’s research suggests? I didn’t really investigate this in any depth, or do any real statistics (certainly not any that would satisfy my quantitatively-minded MSc students), but I did look quickly to see how the area’s crime statistics compared to bordering neighbourhoods with similar or higher income levels, and to see whether there were any trends over time.
And here’s what I found. First, in the year that this network has been expanding and formalising, crime in the neighbourhood dropped, despite the obvious deterioration in economic indicators for London as a whole, and the neighbourhood’s demographic. Unfortunately, there are only two years of statistics available, which makes seeing a longer term trend or a sudden drop impossible. Second, when you break down crime stats by type, there are fewer offences in quite a few categories in this neighbourhood vs. at least one adjacent and comparable (or more wealthy) area. In fact, crime rates in our neighbourhood are one of the lowest in Westminster. Drawing a causation between this rough data and “mommy capital” is of course silly, but it’s not silly to think that belonging to this group encourages people to become more involved in their community, which in turn improves the quality of living in the area on a number of metrics, including, potentially, crime.