We’re in Oklahoma for the Christmas holidays, traveling around visiting relatives and revisiting the places of our past. Part of it has me feeling melancholy, as I see beloved locations rich with memory falling into neglect, disrepair, and decay.
My wife, who has been studying the social sciences, introduced me to a term that helps me understand what I am seeing: Social capital. This refers to what builds up a sense of community, relationships with neighbors, and social networks. The small towns whose residents have stopped painting their houses, with rusty junkyards on mainstreet, with empty storefronts with broken windows–these have lost their social capital. Yes, it’s a problem of economic capital too, the loss of jobs and the deprivations of poverty, but the loss of social capital too inhibits the rebuilding of economic capital.
This happens in big cities too. I notice a decline of social capital in Tulsa and Norman, with things looking and feeling run-down. (I could be wrong, since we weren’t there for long.) And yet, Oklahoma City seems to be growing in social capital. The new NBA team, the Thunder, which is having lots of success, has created civic pride. Then there is Bricktown, a re-development of an old warehouse district that is now an entertainment hot spot, with music clubs, restaurants, night spots, and even a river walk. But what seemed most telling to me is that the overpasses and sound screens along the highways are being decorated with Native American-style buffalo and shields and abstract designs.
And even some of the small towns, equally poor as the others, are building social capital. For example, Vinita, where I grew up, has a remarkable number of houses and stores with Christmas decorations. Even the most humble abodes and neighborhoods are adorned with lights and yard art and nativity scenes. This is a sign, my wife observed, of social capital.
How else might this concept be applied? For example, in churches?