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Does Distance Matter for Social Capital?

Written by: Bill Sherman on Monday, 4 August 2008, 11:05 AM

Here’s today’s aha-moment. Invest in relationships whether they’re with the neighbors on your block or people half-way around the world.

Barry Wellman of the University of Toronto looks at social capital embedded within the commmunity of East York, a suburb of Toronto. He’s examined how people connect with their contacts. He’s actively engaged with the question of how digital tools have changed social interaction patterns for the creation and maintainance of social capital.

. . . what if the ground is shifting under people’s feet so that most of their ties are no longer in their vicinity? That was already the situation in the 1960s and 1970s when modern social network research began in North America, and it is even more the situation in the twenty-first century with the internet maintaining many friendship and kinship ties over long distances (Wellman 2001). It is not that neighborhood ties have died; it is just that they no longer dominate most personal networks.

Wellman has analyzed the declining inmportance of distance in social networks. In 1979, you could reach out to distant contacts via phone and perhaps an occasional face-to-face visit (by car or plane). The past three decades have minimized the importance of distance through e-mails, photo-sharing, video-cams, etc.

“[Distance] plays an insignificant role in the exchange of social support.” We can increasingly support others remotely. You can counsel someone via Skype, you can wire money in an emergency, and you even collaborate on documents together. However, as the authors point out, distance still matters when you want to borrow a cup of sugar or need someone to babysit.

Source: Plickert, Gabriele, Barry Wellman, and Rochelle Côté. “It’s Not Who You Know, It’s How You Know Them: Who Exchanges What With Whom?

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