Social Capital as a Tool for Community and Economic Development in the Ozarks

The sociology program at Missouri State University, where I am currently employed, places a strong emphasis on public sociology. According to Burawoy (2005), public sociology examines what issues sociology should be focused on, and its intended audience is extra-academic. It involves a discussion or dialogue between sociologists and the “publics” or “communities” they work with. Missouri State University is located in Springfield, Missouri, and it is the largest metro area in the Missouri Ozarks. Throughout my experience as a public sociologist living in the Ozarks, I regularly collaborate with regional civic leaders to identify, define, and solve public issues. The main contribution that my colleagues and I have made as public sociologists in our community has been to introduce regional civic leaders to two important sociological concepts, social capital and civic engagement. An increased understanding of these concepts has been useful for informing community and economic development efforts in Southwest Missouri.

Social Capital

Social capital refers to networks of social relationships characterized by norms of trust and reciprocity (e.g., Coleman, 1988; Putnam, 2000). The central premise of social capital theory is that social networks have value because they provide people with access to important resources. Like physical capital (investment in the physical tools of the means of production) and human capital (investment in education, knowledge, and skills), social capital enhances the productivity of individuals and groups. Unlike physical capital, however, social capital doesn’t wear-out or depreciate with use. In fact, it appreciates as it is used. Also, unlike physical capital, social capital is non-exclusive and can be accessed by many people at once. In this sense social capital has many attributes of a “public good.”

Theoretically speaking, social capital has two dimensions: a structural dimension and an attitudinal dimension. The structural dimension involves the characteristics of social networks that arise from attachment to different groups and organizations, while the attitudinal dimension refers to the norms of trust and reciprocity that shape attachment. These structural and attitudinal dimensions intersect, creating either weak or strong ties in people’s social networks. Social capital is an indicator of the civic health of communities, and social scientists have developed surveys to measure levels of social capital and its relationship to other important community indicators, such as education, crime, public heath, political participation, and civic engagement.

Social Capital and Civic Engagement in the Ozarks

A growing body of scholarly literature over the last twenty five years shows that social capital facilitates many important individual and social goods. A prominent feature of the literature on social capital is its relationship to civic engagement, which can be broadly defined as voluntary participation in organized political (e.g., voting, protesting, or membership in a political party) and non-political activities (e.g., volunteering, serving on community committees, or membership in clubs and other non-political voluntary groups). For example, research has found that civic engagement is more common in places with higher levels of social capital, because it is easier to mobilize citizens to address public issues, such as establishing a hazardous waste disposal facility, reducing a crime problem, or building a community park. Research has also revealed that social capital makes it easier to arrange for things that benefit the community as a whole, such as a child-care cooperative among welfare mothers, a micro-lending group that enables poor people to start businesses, or farmers banding together to share expensive tools and machinery. In 2008, I began coordinating a regional research project measuring levels of social capital and civic engagement in the Ozarks. This project, which is called the Ozarks Regional Social Capital Study (ORSCS), is an ongoing public sociology initiative to systematically gather and share information on levels of social capital and civic engagement in the Ozarks region. The data obtained through the study is a regional resource that has been used to help local civic leaders make more effective decisions regarding community and economic development.

The Ozarks Regional Social Capital Study

The work that my colleagues and I have done on the ORSCS serves as a good example of how sociology can have a “real-world” impact in communities. The study has benefited the local community in three important ways. First, it has brought the sociological concepts of social capital and civic engagement to the forefront of policy discussions and has introduced community leaders in the Ozarks to a new way of thinking about addressing public issues. For example, according to Brian Fogle, the President of the Community Foundation of the Ozarks, the largest community foundation in Southwest Missouri, the ORSCS “has done a remarkable job in changing our vernacular and dialogue in the community.” Similarly, Greg Burris the City Manager of Springfield, Missouri, the largest city in Southwest Missouri commented, “the [ORSCS has] proved to be extremely valuable to the City of Springfield and others interested in re-establishing civic engagement in our community.” 

Second, measuring social capital in the Ozarks has allowed us to identify where social capital is strong and where it is weak in the region, and it has led to the identification of civic engagement as a public issue. This is crucial information for regional civic leaders who are focused on community and economic development. The ORSCS found that the Ozarks has higher levels of trust than the national average, and that Ozarkers have more social connections than the average US citizen. However, the study has also revealed that people were much less trusting of the local and national government than the nation at large. Additionally, a higher proportion of Ozarks’ citizens feel alienated from their local leadership compared to the national population, and that the problem is especially pronounced among groups with lower levels of education and income. In the Ozarks, the respondents with lower levels of education and income also expressed a notably lower sense of efficacy and empowerment than their counterparts nationwide. For example, a lower proportion of Ozarks residents reported that they cooperated with neighbors to fix something in their neighborhood, or have worked on a community project, than the national average. As a result of the ORSCS, broadening the base of civic engagement by establishing programs to increase levels of trust and social capital among low-socioeconomic groups in the Ozarks has increasingly become a central focus of policy makers.

Third, studying how social capital is related to civic engagement in the Ozarks has allowed us to mobilize existing groups and organizations, and to develop targeted programs in an effort to increase citizen participation in the region. To facilitate this process, my colleagues and I have called attention to the characteristics of social networks in the Ozarks, and in attempting to address the lack of civic engagement that was identified in the ORSCS, we introduced community leaders to two key concepts: bonding social capital and bridging social capital.

Bridging social networks bring individuals together with others who are different from them in terms of their race, social class, ethnicity, education, religion, age, or gender. Bridging networks sustain generalized trust and reciprocity. Bonding social networks bring individuals together with others like them and sustain particularized, in-group, trust and reciprocity. One possible explanation for the lack of civic engagement in the Ozarks was that citizens had high levels of bonding social capital but low levels of bridging social capital. Certainly, civic engagement and political participation require working with different people and diverse groups.

So, the idea of a relative lack of bridging social capital in the Ozarks became part of the community dialogue. Social capital theory encouraged community leaders to think of community as more than geographic entities; as mosaics of social networks. In 2010 we administered a follow-up survey in order to test the hypothesis that the lack of civic engagement among people with low levels of education and income was related to a lack of bridging social capital. Using new measures of social capital we were able to confirm that levels of bridging social capital were much lower among those with low prestige occupations, with a high school education or less, and with household incomes lower than $25,000. Armed with this new information, my colleagues and I began working with community leaders to develop programs to increase bridging social capital among disadvantaged Ozarkers. So far, there have been at least two ways that our study has had an impact on public policy in the Ozarks.

Policy Outcomes

First, in 2012 the City of Springfield, MO hired its first Director of Public Information and Civic Engagement. The position was created in direct response to the ORSCS survey, which revealed a lack of trust in local government, and overall low levels of civic engagement in the city, especially among citizens living in high-poverty neighborhoods. The impact of the ORSCS is clearly illustrated in the job description for the new position, which states that in addition to the more traditional responsibilities of a city PIO, the Director of Public Information and Civic Engagement “designs, develops, and implements civic engagement strategies and programs to increase citizen participation and, ultimately, trust in City government.” The Director also “develops mechanisms to measure and track levels of civic engagement over time.” This new position illustrates an effort on the part of the City to build social capital and increase civic engagement between the local government and its constituents.

Second, the ORSCS has informed efforts to address the issue of civic engagement in high-poverty neighborhoods in the Ozarks. The finding that the least well off citizens are also the least civically engaged has led to the Neighbor for Neighbor (N4N) project, a local initiative which kicked off in spring 2012. The N4N project is an effort to increase social capital and civic engagement in two high poverty neighborhoods in Springfield. It is a collaborative community effort to minimize poverty by bringing together diverse groups of people and having them go through a process of deliberative dialogue and community action. The project is a grassroots effort to revitalize high-poverty neighborhoods, sponsored by more than twenty community partners representing diverse interests from the public, private, philanthropic, faith-based, and education sectors of the region. If Neighbor for Neighbor is successful, it will increase social capital and civic engagement in high-poverty areas of our community.

In conclusion, by using sociological theories and methods, my colleagues and I have been working as public sociologists, collaborating with local community leaders to identify, define, and solve pressing issues in the Ozarks. We’ve come to the realization that in the process of studying social capital and sharing our findings with regional community leaders we’ve begun building new types of social capital. Ultimately, we’ve come to realize that positive change is possible when we step out of the ivory tower into the “real world” to work with civic leaders on issues related to the quality of life in our community.

Dr. Mike Stout is an assistant professor of Sociology at Missouri State University. His research interests are in the area of social capital and civic engagement. In 2010, Dr. Stout and two other MSU sociologists collaborated with the National Conference on Citizenship to produce the first ever "Missouri Civic Health Index," a report summarizing the empirical indicators of civic health for the state of Missouri. Dr. Stout is also the coordinator of the Ozarks Regional Social Capital Study (ORSCS), an ongoing project that tracks levels of social capital and civic engagement in Southwest Missouri. Funded by a local coalition of private, philanthropic, and public contributions the ORSCS is a valuable source of information for community and civic leaders in the Ozarks.