Social capital and ethnic diversity at work: the role of language learning

fireI’m extremely interested in the relationship between social capital and ethnic diversity. Put simply, the standard hypothesis is that we find it easier to build trusting relationships with people who share similar characteristics to ourselves. Robert Putnam, the doyen of social capital scholars, wrote in 2007 that residents in ethnically diverse neighbourhoods tend to ‘hunker down’, a contention that he supported with abundant evidence (his article is available here).

And now along comes a rather good study of linguistic diversity in the workplace. People use language in the workplace not just to communicate about the tasks they have to complete, but also to build bridges with one another through small talk, gossip and humour, and displaying trust by disclosing ‘private’ information about themselves.

While linguistic diversity might not disrupt work that involves routine and simple tasks, this study shows that it has wider effects for relationships between different groups of workers. The author, Frederik Thuesen, concludes that ‘in low-skill workplaces characterised by linguistic diversity, communication problems have a small impact on the completion of work tasks but a large impact on social relations’.

So talk really matters.Thuesen concludes that employers and trade unions can and should do more to promote language learning, as well as providing intercultural training for majority workers. He also quotes the example of a supermarket firm which used Facebook to promote inter-cultural dialogue among cashiers. And of course government can help create a supportive environment, not least by promoting language learning and ensuring the quality of provision.

The abstract for Thueson's article

The abstract for Thueson’s article

Of course, workers themselves can also intervene, for better or for worse. I certainly don’t assume that migrants and minorities are passive victims of everything society throws at them; I’ve written before about the attempt to build a mosque that is designed to promote trust and remove suspicion, a development that I very much welcome. But above all it is for the host society, and particularly its government, to ensure that those who come from other cultures are able to contribute effectively, and to build bonds with their new compatriots.

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Social media and social capital

I am constantly surprised by just how new the new media are. This was brought home to me today while I worked on the next edition of my book on social capital.

James Coleman was dead before the first ever SMS message was sent on 3 December 1992, and Pierre Bourdieu did not live to see the integration of cameras into mobile phones. Robert Putnam wrote Bowling Alone five years before Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook. In short, the main lines of the debate over social capital were laid down long before today’s highly mediated social connections came into being.

It isn’t surprising that most early writing about digitised social bonds was highly speculative, and often pessimistic. During our early discussions over what later became an edited book of critical perspectives on social capital, Tom Schuller used to alarm me with his descriptions of an atomised society of individuals, each plugged into their own Walkman, and sharing nothing of their tastes with their neighbours.

Social research invariably lags behind innovative forms of behaviour, and only now can we see a significant body of evidence about how people understand relationships that are mediated by networks such as Facebook. Most of this early evidence comes from western societies, particularly the United States, and quite a lot is based on studies of highly educated young people who are still at college. And for both ethical and practical reasons, we still have relatively little evidence of the dark side of the new social media.

I’m still reviewing this growing mountain of research. At this stage, I reckon that most of the empirical studies suggest that most young people use social media partly to maintain existing social bonds (for example, with old school friends now studying elsewhere, or between young emigrants and their friends back ‘home’) and partly to exchange hot information with a wider and more disparate network. In short, social media can in these cases help sustain existing bonds, while extending them for specific purposes.

If this is born out by subsequent studies, then we don’t need to worry too much about the future social capital of our societies. It will change somewhat in composition, but the underlying bonds of reciprocity and trust will still be there. Sometimes people will use these networks to spread ill-will and hatred rather than enlightenment and joy, but that is also true of face-to-face ties, as you can hear for yourself in almost any pub. Every nationalist knows that it helps to bind people together if you can also give them someone to hate.

This is, then, a rather dull conclusion. It is unlikely to satisfy critics like Sherry Turkle, a veteran student of digital cultures who now laments the corrosive effects of email and texting for giving us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship, undermining the reciprocity and learning that occur through face-to-face interaction, compromising our privacy, and favouring novelty over substance.

But I see it as offering some clear pointers to the future of regulation over social media, the development of appropriate rules of ‘netiquette’, and the extension of social media across existing digital divides between the knowledge-rich and knowledge-poor. If social media can indeed help build social capital, we should do it in ways that are inclusive and socially sustainable.