I’ve always been interested in the contradictory consequences of people’s social connections. While the literature on social capital has shown conclusively that there are far-reaching positive benefits, there is also a clear ‘down side’. I’m revising my book on social capital for a new edition, and have been reading up on recent research that addresses the negative as well as positive effects.
In a particularly interesting study, two Italian scholars have examined the relationship between social capital and cheating in school achievement tests. We should note that these were so-called ‘low stakes’ tests: the results are not published, and they have little or no impact on student grades. Their main finding was that cheating was higher in schools situated in neighbourhoods with low scores on several social capital measures. So far, then, the study seems to support the positive story of social capital’s benevolent consequences.
Next, though, they looked at the prevalence in neighbourhoods of two broad sets of values, universalistic and particularistic. Their data showed that cheating was negatively associated with the former but positively with the latter. Finally, they found that cheating was more frequent when teachers were from the local community as well as when the students were relatively homogeneous in terms of social status and ethnicity. This brings us closer to understanding why some forms of social capital are liable to produce ‘negative externalities’.