Art, Social Capital, and Navigating the Stormy Present


Minnesota is often cited as one of the most liveable states in the nation. There are a variety of factors that contribute to the Northstar State’s high quality of life–a relatively strong economy, a well-regarded public education system (both K-12 and higher ed), the highest rate of voter turnout in the country (which in turn creates a high level of accountability for our politicians), and a variety of governmental programs that form a basic safety net for citizens. What many of these factors have in common in that they are to at least some extent underwritten by social capital.

Social capital can be defined in a number of ways, but what it boils down to is that people’s social cohesion and personal investment in their communities help create a better quality of life for everyone. Probably one of the best-known works on social capital in America is Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. First published in 2000, the book is an extensive survey of the civic climate of the country and an overview of the basic principles of social capital.

In his book, Putnam identifies two distinct kinds of social capital–bonding social capital and bridging social capital. Both of them have beneficial effects, but one is more of a public good to the community than the other. Bonding social capital emphasizes in-group identification–for example, members of the same church or political party feel solidarity with one another due to shared religious or political beliefs. The problem with bonding social capital is that when taken to an extreme, it can create an us-versus-them mentality that can be detrimental to the community as a whole (the Ku Klux Klan would be an example of this). Bridging capital, on the other hand, creates ties across heterogenous groups of people. Take, for instance, the diversity of people who are Vikings fans or who donate to support their local high school’s marching band.

Putnam describes social capital as both a ‘private good’ and a ‘public good,’ writing that

“Some of the benefit from an investment in social capital goes to bystanders, while some of the benefit redounds to the immediate interest of the person making the investment. For example, service clubs, like Rotary or Lions, mobilize local energies to raise scholarships or fight disease at the same time that they provide members with friendships and business connections that pay off personally.” (p. 20)

Minnesota as a state has some of the highest levels of overall civic engagement in the country (Putnam, 292). This is a key factor to understanding why our state overall works well–the networks of mutual trust and reciprocity Minnesotans have built within their communities and the state support our civic infrastructure and create a climate where people assume that their neighbors are acting in good faith and are willing to help one another out.

What does this have to do with rural arts and sustainable outstate communities? A lot, actually. Social capital and the interpersonal ties it creates serves as a kind of glue that holds the community together and creates a collective resilience and ability to deal with shared problems. Social capital ties in directly to the concepts of community capacity and civic capacity. In their evaluation study of the Knight Creative Community Initiative, authors Mark Stern and Susan Seifert outline the following definitions for these concepts:

Community capacity: Community capacity is the interactions of human capital, organizational resources, and social capital existing within a given community that can be leveraged to solve collective problems and improve or maintain the well-being of the community. It may operate through informal social processes and/or organized efforts by individuals, organizations, and social networks that exist among them and between them and the larger systems of which the community is a part.

Basically, does a community have the right people and resources to be able to solve its problems.

Civic capacity: Civic capacity […][is] a concerted effort to address a major community problem. By “concerted” I mean special efforts to involve multiple sectors of a locality, including both governmental and nongovernmental. The label “civic” refers to actions built around the idea that furthering the well-being of the whole community, not just a particular segment or group. Civic capacity concerns the extent to which different sectors of the community–business, parents, educators, state and local officeholders, nonprofits and others–act in concert around a matter of community-wide import. It involves mobilization–that is, bringing different sectors together but also developing a shared plan of action.

In other words, civic capacity focuses on accomplishments whereas community capacity is more concerned with the potential to solve problems.

The next fifty years are going to prove to be hugely challenging for humanity as we figure out how to transition from the industrial model of a fossil-fuels supported economy and society to one that is sustainable in the long term. It will not be easy, and we will need to be able to work together to weather the storms that are to come. Social capital is a key part of this–in fact, communities with high social capital are demonstrably more able to cope with disaster planning and response than communities with low social capital. Putnam touches on this when he writes that “Mounting evidence suggests that people whose lives are rich in social capital cope better with traumas and fight illness more effectively” (p. 228). Communities with high civic capacity are overall better equipped to deal with responding to problems and even disasters.

A recent article in the New Yorker was focused on the ways that the federal government is attempting to draft plans for how communities can be most prepared to face the existing and future challenges of global climate change. Social capital is explicitly mentioned as a factor that helps community weather the storms of a rapidly-heating climate. In the article, Nicole Lurie, the Obama administration’s assistant secretary for preparedness and response, is quoted as saying, “There’s a lot of social research showing how much better people do in disasters, how much longer they live, when they have good social networks and connections. And we’ve had a pretty big evolution in our thinking, so promoting community resilience is now front and center in our approach.”

Here’s where things get a little more interesting–in Bowling Alone, Putnam specifically names the arts as a way of building social capital that is currently underutilized for this purpose. In the last chapter of the book, he makes the case for the arts being an integral part of building social capital:

Singing together (like bowling together) does not require shared ideology or shared social or ethnic provenance. For this reason, among others, I challenge America’s artists, the leaders and funders of our cultural institutions, as well as ordinary Americans: Let us find ways to ensure that […] significantly more Americans will participate in (not merely consume or “appreciate”) cultural activities from group dancing to songfests to community theater to rap festivals. Let us discover new ways to use the arts as a vehicle for convening diverse groups of fellow citizens.

Art manifestly matters for its own sake, far beyond the favorable effect it can have on rebuilding American communities. Aesthetic objectives, not merely social ones, are obviously important. That said, art is especially useful in transcending conventional social barriers. Moreover, social capital is often a valuable by-product of cultural activities whose main purpose is purely artistic” (411).

Because participating in and producing arts and culture allows people from a diverse set of backgrounds to connect, it is a particularly useful way of building bridging social capital. And guess what? Bridging social capital is currently the least plentiful kind of social capital in rural Minnesotan communities.

The University of Minnesota Extension service has undertaken a multi-year project to examine various rural communities in the state and their levels of social capital. In each of four case studies conducted (Granite Falls, Waseca, New Prague, and Cook County), the bridging social capital of the community is lower than the bonding social capital. When answering the question “do residents of different social backgrounds trust each other?” none of the communities surveyed had an affirmative response of greater than 50% and bridging trust had the lowest score of the six kinds of social capital measured in every community.

I don’t mean to suggest that that arts have some mystical power to protect our society from the nastier effects of climate change or from the potential difficulties of transitioning to more sustainable economic and cultural models. I do, however, believe that the arts can be used to help build strong and resilient communities that can work together to solve common problems. The task of ensuring that our rural communities are socially and civically equipped to meet the challenges of the future is something that everyone will need to help solve, and artists are particularly well suited to being of use in this area.

Image credit: “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.” Katsushika Hokusai, 1826. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A big part of gun versus non-gun tribalism or mentality is tied to the difference between city and rural. And a big reason ‘gun control’ in the 70s, 80s and 90s foundered was that in the political arena, the rural areas rebelled against the city culture trying to impose its own ideas about guns on the rural areas. And there’s a reality behind this because on many fronts the logic of pervasive gun ownership makes a lot more sense in sparsely populated rural areas than it does in highly concentrated city areas.
—  –John Marshall, “Speaking for My Tribe.” Talking Points Memo, January 17, 2013.