At the time of this writing, the entire world's population is in a state of crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. In the absence of rapid and coherent action from the highest levels of official governance, and in coordination with official responders, citizens have organized to help each other in their neighborhoods, communities (physical and virtual), and municipalities. This spontaneous, self-organized reaction is sometimes called mutual aid, and the capacity for people to enlist their peers in mutual aid without formal institutions such as laws and contracts is sometimes called social capital.
A few examples to back up this claim:
- The West Side of Seattle,
- Mutual Aid Networks in the Boston Area
- Baltimore Neighborhood Response Teams
- "Community Aid Groups Set Up Across UK,
- Covid Mutual Aid groups in UK
- Covid-19 Mutual Aid UK,
- "Neighbors Helping Neighbors: Philly Mutual Aid for Folks Affected by Covid-19,
- "Autonomous Groups Are Mobilizing Mutual Aid Initiatives to Combat the Coronavirus" (the last resource has a list of links to different groups).
- Emergent Groups and Spontaneous Volunteers in Urban Disaster Response (this journal article has extensive list of references).
- Neighborhood Covid-19 Support Pack
- Resource used locally in Durham, NC provides specific instructions and documents (including intake forms) for building block-by-block and neighborhood response:
- Needslist creates tools for crisis response that aggregates and matches needs and offers in real-time.
- Emergency Commons for Corona Response and Social Distancing Adaptation
- How To Make A Neighborhood Hub During the COVID-19 Pandemic Using Slack
- Many mutual aid efforts listed here
- mutualaidnetwork.org takes a big picture look at mutual aid networks
- What Is Mutual Aid, and How Can It Help With Coronavirus?
- Communities rally around one another — and Google Docs — to bring coronavirus aid
- Crowdsourcing platform Thought Exchange open for mutual aid groups
- Spreadsheet of local and national mutual aid resources
- Feeling Powerless About Coronavirus? Join a Mutual-Aid Network (NY Times)
- Sign up to use Action Builder for mutual aid work
- Communities Essential Guide to Digital Tools — for Mutual Aid Groups
Neither mutual aid nor social capital are new. They go back before history -- and have a lot to do with the world that humans have uniquely altered and created. But because networks of relationships, sharing of lore, and norms of reciprocity can be cultivated through and amplified by communication networks, spontaneously organized mutual aid takes on new powers in the era of smartphones and social media.
I didn't know the term "social capital," but when I first started using the WELL in 1985, I quickly learned that by getting to know people online, even though we had not met face to face, and by giving them information, knowledge, and support, I would get from others ten times what I had given them. Not all online communications qualify for the kind of social capital I found on the WELL and in other online communications, but when I started learning about social capital, I saw how the "networks of trust and norms of reciprocity" that define social capital could be cultivated and harvested online. Twenty years later, when I taught a Stanford course on "Social Media Issues," I included a week on social capital. My reading list for that course is at the end of this essay.
I was prompted to think about social capital when I saw those heart-warming videos of people in Italy who were home-bound because of Covid-19 singing from their balconies -- and applauding their first responders. I saw this as an example of the kind of social capital these neighbors shared -- and the emotional mutual aid in their singing together. This reminded me of my favorite text on social capital, which was based on decades long research in...Italy. The author was Robert Putnam, who famously wrote about the decline in social capital in America (which he attributed largely to the advent of television) in Bowling Alone.
I introduced Putnam's work on social capital in Italy -- Making Democracy Work --to my students this way:
"When the Italian government created regional governments in 1970, a multi-decade study of levels of citizen satisfaction with these new institutions revealed that regions with norms of trust and reciprocity derived from centuries of horizontal voluntary association were both economically and politically more successful than regions that lacked dense networks of civic association and relied on patron-client relationships rather than horizontal citizen associations: “Some regions of Italy, we discover, are blessed with vibrant networks and norms of civic engagement, while others are cursed with vertically structured politics, a social life of fragmentation and isolation, and a culture of distrust. These differences in civic life turn out to play a key role in explaining institutional success.” Civic communities are bound by horizontal relationships of reciprocity among citizens, not vertical relations of authority and dependency. “Fabrics of trust enable the civic community more easily to surmount what economists call ‘opportunism,’ in which shared interests are unrealized because each individual, acting in wary isolation, has an incentive to defect from collective action.” Participation in civic organizations trains people in cooperation skills and strengthens a sense of shared responsibility. Citizens who belong to many different groups tend to moderate their attitudes as a result of their exposure to group interactions. These groups don’t have to be political: choral societies and soccer clubs knit people together socially and culturally, but the bonds of trust and social networks serve as effective vectors for economic and political activity.In regions that lack networks of civic engagement and widespread norms of trust and reciprocity, citizens have to resort to hierarchy and force to resolve conflict, but even hierarchical law enforcement organizations prove less effective with a mistrustful citizenry. “Light-touch” government in more civic regions works better because it is aided by willing cooperation and self-enforcement among citizens."
Here is how I summarized Putnam:
Title: Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy
Author: Robert D. Putnam, with Robert Leonardi and Raffaella Y. Nanetti
Publication: Princeton University Press
Publication Date: 1993
Disciplines: political science, sociology
Keywords: social capital, civil society, social networks, norms, trust, reciprocity, democracy
Summary: Howard Rheingold
- Social capital – the use of social networks, trust, and reciprocity to enable cooperation among citizens beyond that required by law or employment – can lead to higher levels of economic and civic success.
- Informal associations such as choral societies or soccer clubs can increase levels of cooperation among citizens and enhance the ability of opposing factions to compromise. Dense networks of social and cultural civic association lower transaction costs in economic and political spheres.
- Fabrics of trust enable civic communities to solve social dilemmas by raising the potential cost of defection and risking loss of future benefits by defectors, enhance the flow of information about who can be trusted, foster norms of reciprocity that are reinforced by the flow of reputational information, capture strategies and institutions that worked in the past and keep them available as templates for future collaboration.
- Trust tends to be an emergent property of the social system – individuals are able to trust because of the social norms and networks in which their actions play out.
- Trust and reciprocity, built up through numerous informal interactions in different settings, can lead to a virtuous circle that increases the stocks of trust and reciprocity that enable more formal institutions to function more effectively; mistrust and the lack of reciprocation can lead to a vicious circle in which authoritarian and vertical relationships prevent the formation of social capital.
- Stocks of social capital such as trust, norms and networks, tend to be self-reinforcing and cumulative and are public goods owned by the group rather than individuals.
One sentence summary:
Studying comparative levels of citizens' satisfaction with civic institutions when Italy instituted regional government made possible a multi-decade study that revealed how centuries-old norms of trust, reciprocity, and social networks among the inhabitants of regions led to high levels of civic and economic success, while the absence of rich lateral ties predicted lower levels of success and satisfaction in other regions .
One paragraph summary:
In 1970, the Italian government created regional governments, enabling Putnam et. al. to conduct a multi-decade study of how the citizens of different regions responded, how successfully the new institutions worked for them, and how the success of institutions and citizen satisfaction related to other aspects of civic life in the regions. The researchers found that regions with civic traditions of horizontal communication among citizens, informal associations (e.g., choral societies, soccer teams, bird-watching clubs), and social networks of trust and reciprocity created more successful institutions, generated healthier economies, and the citizens were generally more satisfied with the new government institutions. Regions that lacked such civic traditions but had a history of vertical patron-client relationships and lateral mistrust and lacked informal secondary associations resulted in both poor economic performance and low levels of satisfaction with the new government institutions.
One page summary:
When the Italian government created regional governments in 1970, a multi-decade study of levels of citizen satisfaction with these new institutions revealed that regions with norms of trust and reciprocity derived from centuries of horizontal voluntary association were both economically and politically more successful than regions that lacked dense networks of civic association and relied on patron-client relationships rather than horizontal citizen associations: "Some regions of Italy, we discover, are blessed with vibrant networks and norms of civic engagement, while others are cursed with vertically strucdtured politics, a social life of fragmentation and isolation, and a culture of distrust. These differences in civic life turn out to play a key role in explaining institutional success."
Machiavelli, writing in 16th century Florence, concluded that the success of free institutions depends on the "civic virtue" of citizens. This republican school of civic humanists was countered successfully by the liberal emphasis of Hobbes and Locke on individualism and individual rights. The U.S. constitution was designed to make democracy work with a factionalized, unvirtuous citizenry. More recently, American political philosophy has rediscovered civic humanism, harking back to John Winthrop's "city set upon a hill" sermon.
Civic communities are bound by horizontal relationships of reciprocity among citizens, not vertical relations of authority and dependency. "Fabrics of trust enable the civic community more easily to surmount what economists call "opportunism," in which shared interests are unrealized because each individual, acting in wary isolation, has an incentive to defect from collective action." Participation in civic organizations trains people in cooperation skills and strengthens a sense of shared responsibility. Citizens who belong to many different groups tend to moderate their attitudes as a result of their exposure to group interactions. These groups don't have to be political: choral societies and soccer clubs knit people together socially and culturally, but the bonds of trust and social networks serve as effective vectors for economic and political activity.
In regions that lack networks of civic engagement and widespread norms of trust and reciprocity, citizens have to resort to hierarchy and force to resolve conflict, but even hierarchical law enforcement organizations prove less effective with a mistrustful citizenry. "Light-touch" government in more civic regions works better because it is aided by willing cooperation and self-enforcement among citizens.
The Northern Italian cities – Genoa, Pisa, Venice, and later Florence – took off in the 11th and 12th centuries in part because the contract and extension of credit were new legal strategies for creating partnerships and raising capital: "In the new practices and organization of business activity, risks were minimized, whereas opportunities for cooperation and profit were enhanced."
As Europe emerged from feudalism, the bonds of personal dependence (lord-vassal) grew weaker in the northern regions, but in the south of Italy they became stronger. Northern populations learned to be citizens, southern populations remained subjects. "In the cities, a horiointal arrangement emerged, characterized by cooperation among equals." The guild, confraternity, university, and the commune – a guild of guilds – reflected the new ideals in new institutions.
Mutual aid societies flourished in pre-unification Italy (circa 1850),-- pragmatic institutions in which cooperation conveyed benefits upon contributing individuals in a changing society. Italian cooperatives grew out of the mutual aid societies.
"Networks facilitate flows of information about technological developments, about the creditworthiness of would-be entrepreneurs….Innovation depends on "continual informal interaction in cafes and bars and on the street.""
Social networks allow trust to spread transitively. Trust increases through use and becomes depleted if not used. Social capital, unlike conventional capital, is a public good, not the property of any of the individuals who benefit from it, and must often be produced as a by-product of other social acdtivities.
"Norms are inculcated by modeling and socialization (including civic education) and by sanctions." Norms that support social trust evolve because they lower transaction costs and facilitate cooperation, conferring benefits upon cooperators. Reciprocity is the most important norm, and can be balanced (or specific – the quid-pro-quo) or generalized (diffuse). Communities in which the norm of diffuse reciprocity is high can more efficiently restrain free-riding and more easily resolve collective action problems. Networks of civic engagement increase the potential cost to defectors who risk benefits from future transactiaction. The same networks foster norms of reciprocity that are reinforced by the networks of relationships in which reputation is both balued and discussed. The same social networks facilitate the flow of reputational information.
"The civic traditions of Northern Italy provide a historical repertoire of forms of collaboration that, having proved their worth in the past, are available to citizens for addressing new problems of collective acdtion. Mutual aid societies were built on the razed foundations of the old guilds, and cooperatives and mass political parties then drew on the experience of the mutual aid societies."
"Stocks of social capital (trust, norms, networks), tend to be self-reinforcing and cumulative. Virtuous circles result in social equilibria with high levels of cooperation, trust, reciprocity, civic engagement, and collective well being. These traits define the civic community. Conversely, the absence of these traits in the uncivic community is also self-reinforcing. Defection, distrust, shirking, exploitation, isolation, disorder, and stagnation intensify one another in a suffocating miasma of vicious circles. This argument suggests that there may be at least two broad equilibria toward which all societies that face problems of collective acdtion (that is, all societies) tend to evolve and which, once attained, tend to be self-reinforcing."
The readings on social capital I required for the Stanford course I taught on "Social Media Issues":
Social Capital: How do people use trust and networks to get things done?
How do people manage to create institutions for collective action, from choral societies to democracies, without relying on laws, contracts, or hierarchies? Whether and how can the relationship between person-to-person communications, networks of reciprocity, and norms of trust that Putnam discusses be facilitated — or not — online? If the public sphere is about the relationship between citizen-to-citizen discussion and the workings of the State, social capital is about the relationship between networks of ordinary people and their ability to get things done in their daily lives. At the intersection of human psychology, networked communication media, and political economics, the study of social capital is another inquiry where theory has its pragmatic effects on daily life: you get what you want or you are left out, you are able to count on others and they upon you (or not), good information and ideas flow toward and away from you (or not), depending on how much social capital your networks possess, and upon your facility at tapping into it.
Robert Putnam, (1993) Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy, Princeton University Press, 1993, pp 121-181. (READER ONLY)
Manuel Acevedo, (2007, “Network Capital: an Expression of Social Capital in a Network Society,” The Journal of Community Informatics, Vol 3, No 2 (available online)
The abstract shows how this short article ties together social networks, online social networks, and social capital: “This article deals with an emerging type of social capital which is labeled as ‘network capital’. It is formed from collaborative practices emerging from e-enabled human networks. It is proposed that network capital is a specific type of social capital in the Network Society, and that it holds significant value for the advancement of human development around the world. “
Steven Johnson, “Where do good ideas come from?” Four minute animated talk, summarizing Johnson’s book. Available online
Johnson’s book (lively and well sourced – highly recommended) transcends the cliche of the individual innovator and shows the ways in which innovation depends on a form of social capital — the networks of people and ideas that innovators learn from and build upon.
Jyri Engstrom, (2001) “Sizing up Social Capital” in _ Engeström, Y. (ed.) Activity Theory and Social Capital. Technical Reports 5, Center for Activity theory and Developmental Work Research, University of Helsinki 2001., Available Online
The notion of social capital harbors hidden assumptions — including the core idea that human relationships can be equated to capital. Engstrom does a great job of summing up the literature and arguments about social capital and trying to anchor it in the reality of what we know today about the ways human behave online and off. Engstrom is an interesting young sociologist who also created a social media company that was acquired by Google, and has said some interesting things about “social objects.” (For more, if you want, see recommended text below, a video of Engstrom)
Paul Resnick, (2007) “Beyond Bowling Together: Sociotechnical Capital” HCI in the New Millenium, edited by John Carroll. Addison-Wesley (available online)
If we could educate communication engineers in what is known about the characteristics of social capital, would it be possible to design online media to generate, enable, or facilitate the creation, dissemination, growth, health of social capital? Resnick’s question could have profound effects if future generations of sociotechnologists take Resnick’s work further (as his students are already beginning to do).
Jyri Engstrom, (2008) Nodal Points (the Web and Beyond) (Video available online)
Engstrom introduces “social objects” and “social peripheral vision” as intriguing and potentially powerful concepts for seeing how tagging is a social activiity and how presence indicators like buddy lists enable people create new social forms that are not unrelated to social capital. Is there something more profound than Facebook applications going on with the evolution of social media?, Engstrom asks
Ronald Burt, “Social Origins of Good Ideas,” pp 2-10, 34-41 available online
People who furnish sparse connections between networks that are themselves densely interconnected are essential elements to humankind’s “six degrees of separation” global social metanetwork. Such people who bridge what Burt called “structural holes” in a seminal paper on The Social Capital of Structural Holes (PDF), are what popular author Malcolm Gladwell calls “connectors.”In this paper, Burt offers a theory that such people, because of their position at the intersection of social networks, are able to get and spread good ideas more effectively than others. The second part of this paper details the empirical research; the first part, which the non data-inclined will find more readable, is about how good ideas spread through social networks.