Simon Fowler's Blog

Posts Tagged ‘social capital’

Snapshot of American Relational Life

Posted by Simon on February 9, 2012

While considering Americas relational life recently I pulled together the following facts. I wonder what you make of them? If you see a problem, what do you think the essence of the problem is?

Note: of course it’s easy to cherry pick facts or extract them from context to make a point. And I always have questions about research methods and controls and correlation/causation confusion. But on the face of it, the situation looks pretty grim.

Americans have too few relationships About one in four Americans has no one with whom to talk about weighty matters, and nearly half of the population is one close friend or family member away from being socially isolated. (National Conference on Citizenship

Americans have too many relationships The average American has 634 ties in their overall network, and technology users have bigger networks.

Note: in case you wondered if there’s a limit consider “Dunbar’s Number”: according to Robin Dunbar, the size of our neocortex — the part of the brain used for conscious thought and language — limits us to managing social circles of around 150 friends no matter how sociable we are.

Lenders and borrowers are further apart:

  • geographical distance: local lending institutions no longer make a significant proportion of the loans that are originated.
  • transactional distance: there little direct contact; instead intermediaries such as mortgage brokers, appraisers, insurers, and closing officers, separate the principals.
  • financial distance: many borrowers have no equity (or negative equity) in their homes, and due to the securitization of loans through the secondary mortgage market, few originating lenders retain a stake in the loans they create.

From “The Structural Causes of Mortgage Fraud” James Charles Smith, University of Georgia Law School

More Americans are incarcerated
Adult Correction Populations
Bureau of Justice Statistics

Americans are having fewer encounters (over last quarter of 20th Century)

  • 58% drop attending club meetings
  • 43% drop family dinners
  • 35% drop having friends over
  • 10% more people bowling, but 40% fewer bowling leagues

Couples are committing to each other less, and staying committed less.

  • Since 1970 the number of Americans living together outside of marriage has increased more than 1,000 percent, with such couples now making up about 10% of all couples” (NMP Cohabitation Report 2008)
  • 20% of couples who married in 1950 ended up divorced, about 50% of couples who married in 1970 did. (NMP, “Evolution of Divorce” Wilcox 2009)
  • Cohabiting couples have a significantly higher dissolution rate than married couples. One recent study found that “children born to cohabiting versus married parents have over five times the risk of experiencing their parents’ separation.” (NMP Cohabitation Report 2008)

Posted in American Life | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

rLiving Day 17: … and balloons and beer (Continuity)

Posted by Simon on May 17, 2010

The full sentence tonight was, “Dear Gooood, thank you for this lovely fooood and C~ and M~ and Mama and Papa and knives and forks and this lovely food and knives and C~’s picture and M’s picture and balloons aaaand beer. In Jesus’ name, aaaaaaaamen.” M~ (3yrs) just looks around the room to find things and people to give thanks for, including herself. I start grinning as soon as she starts praying just wondering what she’ll notice.

I guess and hope most dads have similar stories, not necessarily of giving thanks around the table, but of their children just doing or saying something wonderfully idiosyncratic in the course of a regular day. But I do in fact hope that most dads, and moms, have lots of dinner table stories, or at least that there’s been the possibility.

Relational Proximity Dimension #2 is Continuity: our relationship is formed and strengthened by the amount, frequency and span of time we are together. It includes a sense of shared history, and an anticipation of the future.

“he learned … ‘to be in the present moment, how to live there at least for snippets of time'”

Who did? A man who was diagnosed with late-stage cancer in mid-2005 and changed his life for those last few months. His wife of 27 years I’m sure was grateful. Apparently, because of his job, he’d only had lunch with her on a weekday twice in a decade. Twice. I’m sure his 14-yr-old daughter was grateful too. And I have no reason to doubt that he loved them sincerely. But it took brain cancer for him to focus on that fact enough to do something about it, to realize that they were more important than work. So he, former CEO of KPMG, wrote a book about it, Chasing Daylight. Presumably so that others could learn from his lesson.

In 2005!!!! This happened in 2005! Four years after thousands of people were utterly stunned to be a missed bus, a failed alarm clock, a cancelled meeting away from death and final separation from their loved ones on September 11, 2001. Did he not hear any of those stories? Wasn’t he himself stunned and bewildered on that day and for time after? His office was in Manhattan. Did not those endless horrifying stories of near misses – even more horrifying when told next to stories of those who didn’t make it – make him reconsider his life then?

I haven’t read the book. I just got those details from the editorial review on But I remember hearing about it on the radio when the book came out and having the same reaction. And I don’t want to judge him in particular. God knows, truly, that I’m in no position to judge him or anyone. He just happens to illustrate, for one thing, how unbelievably self-referential we all are. We seem almost incapable, at least in terms of our attitude, of learning from others. Do we really have to always learn only by personal experience? Is our concept of, and suspicion of, ‘authority’ so whacked that we’re unteachable? Don’t we trust anyone else enough to believe that maybe, just maybe, what they’re realizing or teaching may also apply to us? And if we do, can we not hold on to that thought long enough to have a conversation with loved ones about it and perhaps make a courageous decision about it?

Because this isn’t about feelings, and ‘experience’, but about fairly accessible information, priorities, and decisions. But the main point I want to make is about time. And children.

Relationships consist in time. Chunks of time like hours and days. Frequencies of time like daily and weekly. Spans of time like years and years. At a conference on inner-city development once I asked a guy how I could help young kids without parents (he was a residential worker with such). He said, “First, be home for dinner, be a husband and a father at home, be around.” He said, growing up his friends were always at his house because his dad and mom were around. They craved some kind of stability.

Robert Putnam’s research, published a decade ago in Bowling Alone revealed that “every 10 minutes of commuting reduces all forms of social capital by 10%.” Our neighbors may not notice, but our children will. Decisions we make about our jobs and our locations have huge implications on available time and therefore huge implications on relationships. I recognize that many, many people don’t have much choice about where and how (or even if) they work, but to the degree that we have a choice we should exercise it. I’m amazingly fortunate that my job allows me to be home every night. I’m consciously grateful for it every day because I’m aware how significant this continuity is for my kids.

Being able to tell stories about what our children say and do – the delightful and the hideous – in the humdrum of every day life requires being there for every day life. It’s not always possible, it’s not always exciting, it’s sometimes a drag, but truly it’s what makes life worth living.

Posted in Continuity, first-follower, RelationalProximity | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

30 days of relational thinkin’ and livin’ (First Follower)

Posted by Simon on April 10, 2010

I’ve decided on my First Follower 30 day project! Not sure why I didn’t think of it sooner; the subject is what I mostly think about.

The premise: The foundation of human flourishing is relationship. Ultimately, the foundation is love, but love is predicated on relationship. The more “proximate” one person/entity is to another, the better/healthier the relationship, therefore the greater flourishing. “Proximity” doesn’t necessarily mean physical/spatial, although in most contexts it’s an important factor in relational health.

There are at least five factors that strongly determine Relational Proximity*:
1. Directness (the degree to which the relationship is unmediated and truthful)
2. Continuity (the degree to which it has a history, the parties meet regularly, and it has an expected future)
3. Multiplexity (the degree to which the parties know each other through different contexts)
4. Parity (the degree to which there is a symmetry in power)
5. Commonality/Purpose (the degree to which they agree and share a sense of common purpose or identity)

It’s important to recognize that you can have all of these and be devoid of love or commitment. These are not about feelings. But try love and commitment without them. And a deficit in any of these may at least reveal why the relationship struggles.

The project: 30 days of Relational Thinking and Living.
This project goal is to to gather data about, and to encourage, the health and vitality of relationships between: individuals, groups, institutions, even countries. The tasks will be twofold:
1. Build a virtual database of articles, stories, videos that illustrate the dimensions of relational proximity (positive or negative).
2. Select one relationship (of any type) and within 30 days develop a habit of relating that improves on each of the five dimensions of relational proximity.

I still need to work out how I’ll do this, how to socialize it, and when to start. The first task could be accomplished simply by posting something every day for 30 days using or Diigo or Evernote with tags for each dimension; then using some kind of aggregation or API to pull the info together. The second task could include having to blog or post an example of what you’ve done to improve the dimension. I’ll flesh this out in the coming days, probably quite a few days. I’ll also need to provide more detail and explanation on each of the dimensions so everyone who joins fully understands them.

One handy tool may be available soon from Andrew Wicklander, whom I’ve never met but is a major reason I’m doing this. Andrew is building a 30-day calendar; an idea created and given away for free by Andrew Dubber. Dubber was inspired by David Sivers after Sivers produced Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy! See this graphic from a previous post that illustrates the First Follower line of inspiration.

*Relational Proximity
The terminology and model are not mine. I’ll say more about the source and thinking behind it eventually. But for now just indulge me and go along with it. I’ve been thinking about this model since I came across it in 1992, but only in recent months has it started to finally gel in my mind and have I come to see the power and applicability of the framework. The model has in fact been used and applied for 20+ years in contexts as varied as conflict resolution in South Africa, Rwanda and Sudan; in inner-city employment schemes; in health-care management, and in economics, business and leadership. I will argue in future posts that it also provides a very useful language and analytical framework for the ‘social’ part of social media, and for building social capital.

So recall the two tasks above for the 30-day project. And for now think of a relationship that you or your organization has and consider how healthy it is with respect to these dimensions.

Let me know if you’d be interested in taking part in the project. Also, what do you think of the concept and the five dimensions?

Posted in first-follower, RelationalProximity | Tagged: , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

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