Thursday, March 13, 2008

Social Capital.

This past weekend I found myself in a conversation about social capital. Coming from a family that excels at economics, it wasn't a big surprise to find myself ruminating on the concept. I'm certainly more of a social sciences guy, but quantitative analysis is difficult to avoid if it's in your blood. When I was a kid I made a list of all the people I knew, and I gave them numerical scores on several key personality characteristics. I was never put off by the subjectivity that applying numbers to social phenomena entailed. Even if I realized that the values were assigned somewhat arbitrarily, they were still useful for me in attributing relative worth. It helped me think about what mattered most to me, and refined my perception of my ideal self.

I can understand how someone could view such behavior as cold and calculating. There is something troublesome about trying to assess human interaction using standards akin to units of currency. But I can't help thinking of human transactions in those terms. Some people form associations based upon intuitive attractions, and believe that they are somehow being truer to themselves than others who involve themselves in (what they see) as social "games". Yet I think its foolish to deny that we often act in ways that will best fit our interests. Perhaps many folks make these calculations subconsciously, or have a different language altogether for their strategies- but I truly believe its useful to try to step back and take account.

Who hasn't (at one point or another) considered whether entertaining a certain person would lead to social liability? I know one individual in particular that is exceedingly interesting and somewhat charming when sober, but goes completely off the rails under the influence of hard liquor. He has provoked situations that have been so extreme that people have entirely shut him out of their social circles. When he is wary of his own excesses, he makes an effort to build bonds with others with a surplus of social capital, in order to rehabilitate his own personal profile. Of course it takes an extremely generous and trusting type to fulfill this role.

It's rarely difficult to spot those who are actively seeking to build social capital. They have been commonly referred to as "social climbers". They seek to curry favor with the glamorous and famous, or those who have achieved success in a particular domain. Nipping at the heels of the popular can help one accumulate a certain cache, but if their approach too obviously exposes an agenda, then it can backfire wildly. Making the appropriate evaluations of the social standing of others can make or break one's progress toward a treasured goal. As superficially manipulative as it sounds, you may want to hold your tongue in certain company. The person you offend may hold the key to a doorway you want to pass through. I've known characters that consciously and consistently try to reject their awareness of such situations, but they often end up frustrated for having done so.

The reality of our collective existence is that we are social animals. We can't avoid the shifting sands of alliance and association because a great proportion of human enterprise depends ultimately on some level of cooperation. Human beings are much more likely to want to involve themselves with others who are generally held in high esteem by their peers. This isn't necessarily determined by financial standing or physical attractiveness, although these factors tend to be considered disproportionately in American society. Less obvious influences depend upon the nature of the activity and/or goals being pursued. Intelligence, charisma, wisdom, strength, integrity, flexibility, generosity, creativity, patience, tolerance, open mindedness, talent, and skill can all play roles in determining social capital. You ignore them at your own peril.

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