Social capital yields big dividends
We live in an island-sized village, in a lot of ways, with all the benefits and drawbacks that implies
We tend to tell ourselves a lot of myths about Ireland and being Irish – it’s the best little country in the world, we basically invented having the craic, if only our weather was like this all the time our problems would be solved, if it wasn’t for our politicians and priests we’d be mighty altogether – that sort of thing.
There are varying levels of truth to all those myths but there’s one area of Irish life where the myth and the reality are fairly well aligned: the strong and enduring social cohesion that characterises our communities and gives rise to a genuine sense of belonging. It’s something in which we can, and do, take real pride.
That such pride is justified was confirmed once more in a survey by Germany’s Bertelsmann Foundation, which rated Ireland 11th out of 35 countries for social cohesion, described as “the level of solidarity exhibited by people living and working in a geographical community”. Only those peskily perfect Scandinavian countries and the likes of the Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand came ahead of us, which means we’re keeping pretty good company.
Survey after survey determining levels of national happiness and quality of life have pinpointed the abundance of social capital here as a key ingredient in what makes Ireland such a relatively content country. All those GAA cumainn and golf clubs, choral societies and amateur dramatic groups, history societies and reading groups, Mass-goers and volunteers, and yes, all those conversation-filled pubs – they all contribute to a sense of belonging to a place and having strong bonds with the people who live there.
Part of that, of course, is down to our size: it’s easier to maintain a sense of community when most people are within only a few degrees of separation from each other. Even bustling Dublin is barely big enough to get lost in, figuratively or literally.
Social capital, then, is one of the benefits that we all enjoy from living here, but it’s a precious sort of capital that has to be nurtured.
Not so long ago, it was all the fashion in policy circles to be anxious about increasing alienation, and Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam seemed to capture the zeitgeist in his seminal book Bowling Alone, published in 1995. It identified the problem of all those Americans seemingly becoming increasingly disconnected from one another and the social structures around them. Putnam was a firm favourite of that generation of leaders who liked to project a sort of wise paternalism, the likes of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and, who else, Bertie Ahern.