How diverse social relationships help improve your life chances

Steven Johnson’s book on decision-making is a lively read, and full of good ideas for helping you decide things. What attracted my attention, though, was its relevance to the social capital debate.

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Most of us prefer to hang around with people who are much like ourselves. We like neighbourhoods full of people who are similar to ourselves, we get intimate with people like us, and we join clubs and interest groups of like-minded people. It also happens that we inevitably end up spending most time with people not just with shared interests, but also of similar ethnicities, faiths, socio-economic background, cultural assumptions, and life experiences.

This ‘principle of homophily’ is well known in the social capital literature, and it can indeed help make life easier and more pleasurable much of the time. But according to Johnson, it also makes our decision-making capacities more vulnerable. He believes that the greater the diversity of those involved, the better our decisions. This is because people with varying backgrounds and assumptions will challenge and question each other, rather than simply going with the flow.

So a wider range of participants from different backgrounds is not just a matter of fairness; it also leads us to make better decisions. This is consistent with social capital research which shows a number of advantages to heterogeneous networks: as in the well-known case of job opportunities, to take one example, they are better than tight networks of folk like us for exposing us to information and ideas that we might otherwise miss /or overlook.

I agree with most but not all of Johnson’s analysis of networks and decision-making. First, for some purposes it is best to have access to a tight networks of people like us. To give one example, if you need a loan to start your new business, family and close friends are more likely to help than people you don’t know so well. More controversially, some research shows that pupils perform better academically when taught by members of the same ethnic group or gender.

So we appear to need a balance of heterogeneity and homogeneity to provide a mix of different resources to see us through our lives. Mixing only with people like yourself is a sure fire way of limiting your options; mixing only with loose ties is to cut yourself off from dependable and secure relationships.

Second, Johnson doesn’t discuss the policy implications of his thinking (though he does have interesting things to say about fiction and decision-making). He doesn’t look at organised attempts to bring large numbers of different people together to deliberate on agreed solutions to shared problems, such as citizens’ juries or other moderated large scale debates.

When they work, as in some types of community planning, they are great; when they become shouty (eg the two sides of Brexit) they just make matters worse. In short, how can we best improve public decision-making capacity through organised diversity?

A mosque that enhances social capital

How can we improve relations between Muslims and other members of the community? In many neighbourhoods, where people are rubbing along quite happily together, this question might not make much sense. But it can’t have escaped anyone’s notice that suspicions and hostility are also common, and for symbolic reasons, these feelings often find expression when a Muslim congregation decides to build a new mosque.

Equally, though, the decision to build a mosque can also be an opportunity to build bridges between Muslims and their neighbours. I was very forcibly struck by that when I saw the splendid new mosque in Cologne’s multi-cultural Ehrenfeld district. Cologne is famous for its extraordinary gothic cathedral, from which you can see the mosque’s two tall minarets, while the mosque itself is a large modern building on a busy cross-roads on the area’s main street.

In short, it is very visible, and it’s big. As in many other European countries, there were noisy protests when the plans were first announced, and far right groups have called repeatedly for it to be demolished. In contrast to some other cities, though, the protests rapidly became tiny, and have now vanished. Instead, in a city that has some pretty mediocre architexture, the mosque is now more llikely to attract pride.

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What struck me was not just the soaring dome and minarets, but the lightness and openness of the building. There are vast windows and massive glass doors, which open out onto a square. We looked through the doors and saw rows of girls in the prayer hall with name plates in front of them, with tv cameras recording. A passer told us that the girls of the madrassa – it was Saturday – were taking part in a competition, and it was being filmed for Turkish tv. The congregation also have an informative and lively website, in German.

I found this openness – architectural and personal – very inviting. The whole aim of the building is to provide a space for worship and other community events that allows outsiders to see what is going on. And though this on its own won’t abolish mistrust and fear, it seems to me very likely to reduce them, and to prevent some of the ridiculous but harmful misinformation that surrounds Islam in much of the west.

For someone who is interested in social capital, this was a very encouraging experience. It is common in the social capital literature to find that most people trust and mix with people who are similar to them, and a number of studies show that ethnic and religious diversity are associated with lower levels of social capital.

However, while this may often be how we behave, there is nother inevitable about it. I particularly like one article, which confirms that while ethnic and religious diversity tend to undermine the social capital of white majorities, this effect disappears when people interact ‘across the fence’.

For me, the Cologne mosque at least puts windows in the fence, and provides a public space where non-Muslims can interact with Muslims on a personal level. It’s also an impressive statement of the ability of the Muslim community to take control of the debate over their place in the wider society, rather than passively suffering prejudice. In my view, an example worth following.

Update, December 2016: At the end of 2016 the mosque was still unfinished. It isn’t unusual for large building projects in Cologne to fall behind schedule (and over budget), but in this case it also seems that the project has fallen foul of the conflict within the Islamic community between supporters of Turkey’s president Erdogan and his critics. At present, the local committee seems fully supportive of the original “mosque for Cologne”; they opened the building for visitors on the Day of German Unity, under the theme of “Hijra: migration as challenge and opportunity, and were overwhelmed by curious locals. According to the local press, the mosque is now scheduled to open some time in 2017.