Mutual Aid & Social Capital: The Power of Communities, Networks

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:

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.

Online Technical Support Forums Build Social Capital

Ellison,  N., C. Steinfield and C. Lampe (2007) “The Benefits of Facebook  “Friends:” Social Capital and College Students’ Use of Online Social  Network Sites”, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 12 (4).available online

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