Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Immigration and social capital

One thing puzzles me about the immigration debate. While I'm broadly very liberal on this, I do accept that there is an argument that rapid changes in the social composition of an area can diminish social capital.

So - if my street rapidly fills up with people who I don't know and with whom I can't easily establish a social affinity, then I will find it hard to borrow a cup of sugar or find cheap trustworthy babysitter quickly. And lots more, of course.

Now, I don't envy anyone who is having to write a PhD thesis explaining how that diminution in social capital compares to the obvious economic benefits that immigration brings.

But - either way - surely immigration has a similar impact upon social capital as car-use does? One of the classic studies explaining Social Capital (so 'classic' that I don't recall what it was called or who wrote it now) showed the mathematics of a busy street.

In the absence of cars, we strike up relationships with the people who live across the road. But we also then strike up relationships with the people on our side of the road who didn't know us - but who do know the people we've got to know across the road.

With me so far? (This is very much Kevin's territory - not mine, by the way).

The effect of someone moving into my street and not knowing my language or having much in common with me essentially reduces the number of mavens or connectors (using Malcolm Gladwell's terms) across the road that I have access to.

So, why aren't those who oppose immigration into this country also calling for a reduction of car-use and the increased prioritisation of the pedestrians needs? Stopping immigration is surely the most expensive way of increasing the social capital available to us?

Why even consider it when Barnet Council don't have the decency to consider traffic-calming measures that would make my road a bit less attractive to little fuckwit boy-racers looking for a cut-through?


Laban said...

You should read Hitchens' "The Abolotion of Britain" on Mrs Thatcher and the 'Great Car Economy'. A fan of the auto he ain't.

I have written at length on how fear of street crime, or even street unpleasantness/bad behaviour drives those who can afford it away from public transport, and away from the city centres to the ring road eateries and shopping sheds - so creating a feedback loop which leaves the centres to the poor.

mutleythedog said...

Or you could just go down the Pub... amazing how many problems are solved via that bloke I know in the pub...

Matt M said...

If we banned phones (mobile and otherwise) as well, people would be forced to develop more local relationships and they'd have to deliver messages in person - improving community spirit and tackling obesity in one go.

Getting rid of TV is the big one though - do that and it'll be a whole new cultural renaissance. Or mass suicide. One or the other.

Paulie said...

It probably doesn't help my argument to say that I agree with you Matt. But I do - about mobile phones anyway.

Anonymous said...

Barnet council removed the road bumps because they kill people in ambulances.

raf said...

Have a read through Robert Putnam's "E Pluribus Unum" which tackles this issue of social capital and diversity. Its on my website at

He has done a lot of good research over the years in this area. Fear of the unknown is a normal and ingrained reflex which is why immigration works best when it is slow, clear and when immigrants are adopting the local culture even whilst maintaining their own. the US is a good example of this.

mikeovswinton said...

A good book to look at - it doesn't use the language of "social capital", though - on the issue of streets and neighbourhoods is The Life and Death of the Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. What makes it interesting in the context you have raised is that it also links to questions about immigration. Check it out.

Anonymous said...

Ethnic diversity played a rather unhappy role in, for example, Lebanon and Bosnia. I doubt if any amount of car use will, in and of itself, cause a civil war.

So I have some doubt of the claim that car use and immigration do have the same effects.

Ian Appleby said...

Anon, judging from your examples, when you say immigration, you mean aggressively nationalistic politicians exploiting ethnic differences among a historically mixed population. Which is an interesting use of the term.

fair_deal said...

If you haven't seen it already you might want to check out this article (Note pdf file)

It is detailed research into the topic of diversity and its impact on social capital in the USA by SC guru Robert Putnam.