Winter 2010 - Volume 13 Number 1
|Reviews||Social Capital and Diversity: Some Lessons from Canada
Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang, 2009
Capital comes in many forms. Most of us have a fair appreciation of the term in its economic sense. The word has been with us at least since Adam Smith. It is easy enough to grasp. It refers to wealth, and especially to wealth that is invested in some sort of private, profit-making venture. It may, for instance, signify the machinery or the physical plant that is owned by a manufacturing firm. In The Wealth of Nations, Smith included ownership of land as well as tools and buildings as sources of income and therefore as capital. Of course, there are now numerous subspecies of capital. Venture capital, for example, describes funds that may be put to the use of new and potentially prosperous businesses, though people who put their capital in “adventurous” investments assume a certain added risk.
Human capital is a more recent addition to our vocabulary. Although Smith wrote of the talents and abilities of workers as a form of capital, we have not generally spoken about people in these terms, at least not since we set aside slavery as a component of economic reckoning. Though Marxists were quick to jump on the idea of compensation for “free labour” as “wage slavery,” most mainstream economists have not spoken of employees “selling” their time, thus giving credit to both Marx and classical economists such as Ricardo, who were united in their understanding that human labour alone is the root of all material value. In any case, human capital is now a well-accepted term, somewhat like the equally inhumane notion of “human resources”. Human capital means the store of productive capacities and qualities that exist in a worker or a workforce. As a polite phrase, human capital has only been in play for about half a century, but it currently includes skills and competencies, levels of education and training, pertinent work experience and cultural habits such as perseverance, honesty, frugality, dedication and, of course, individual initiative precariously balanced with being a “team player” and … oh yes, the ability to “think outside the box.”
Political capital is an even more recent expression. It has been in common usage for only about a quarter of a century. It means the wealth of good opinion and strategic support that a public figure enjoys. It can refer to a combination of elements including personal likeability and perceived reliability, favourable treatment by influential media, timely endorsements from critical community and national leaders, and the store of favours owed by powerful individuals and groups. The clear winner of an election can generally be considered to have ample political capital which might best be conserved, but may also be occasionally spent on championing an unpopular cause without necessarily resulting in a crushing defeat in a forthcoming electoral contest. Political capital is fragile, however, and anything from a felony indictment or a sexual scandal to an off-hand verbal gaffe, tactical misstep or a broken promise can drain it as quickly as a poorly timed investment in coffee futures or the imprudent purchase of a “toxic asset.”
Least tangible, least fungible and least familiar to most people is the wealth stocked in social capital. It may, however, be the most valuable capital of all.
The term and the concept, according to Abdolmohammad Kazemipur, was “invented” in the early 1980s by Pierre Bourdieu, and explained in an article entitled “Forms of Capital,” most conveniently to be found in Granovetter and Swedborg’s anthology The Sociology of Economic Life (Westview Press, 2001, pp. 96-111). Following in Bourdieu’s path, and replicating a considerable body of research performed mainly in Europe and the United States, the author has compiled a rather extraordinary book about Canada and its social capital.
Excluding sizable introductory and concluding chapters, it contains 177 pages of text, in which are embedded over 100 graphics depicting statistical measures of community trust, communication and signs of cohesion. It is measured by the reported frequency of family get-togethers and regularity of contact with friends, by commitment to volunteering and the number of blood donations, by active involvement in religious ceremonies and the attention paid to political campaigns. In short, it is the summative value of investment and engagement which brings people together in a community and constitutes what might once have been called the warp and woof of the social fabric.
Informally, social capital has been recognized since time immemorial. Prehistoric societies recognized that some of their members possessed special skills or talents, and held them in high esteem, for they were crucial to the survival of their communities. They also recognized threats to the community and dealt with them accordingly. Ethnic cohesion is but a modern form of this attention to adherence to social mores and participation in tribal life. In fragmentary ways, social capital has cropped up in innumerable social scientific studies almost since there was genre of scholarship known as sociology. Emile Durkheim was thinking about such things when he reported the inferred importance of alienation in his classic study Suicide (1897). Social fragmentation and isolation as well as social cohesion, he learned, can have dramatic effects.
Karl Deutsch, in his influential treatise Nationalism and Social Communication (1953), linked the characteristics of disparate peoples and theorized about how distinct societies come together and form a common national identity. In this sense the American motto “e pluribus unum” stands as a credo for all those who would forge previously competing clans, tribes or waves of immigrants into a single national character. Abdolmohammad Kazemipur has examined a host of related variables in Social Capital and Diversity to examine the state of social capital in Canada.
The fact is that the Canadian polity, comparatively young by global standards, has experienced rapid and transformative change in the past half century. Anecdotally, I can relate that I grew up in a small rural village of little more than five hundred people. Almost everyone was of English or Scottish origin, though there were a few Irish hidden somewhere in the cracks. It was not until about 1955 that the uniform ethnic egg was scrambled by exotic creatures from alien cultures. That was the year when three unusual families moved into the area. Two were Dutch, and one was German.
That village has now disappeared into a newly urban polyglot community with residents as multicultural as it may be possible to imagine. What any of the newcomers would make of a photo of me as a child proudly holding up a “Union Jack” on “Dominion Day” in 1948 is anybody’s guess. What my old neighbours would have made of the transformation of their little village from a mainly agricultural community into a densely populated conglomerate of apartment buildings and townhouse developments in a scant sixty years is, for me at least, not quite as big a mystery, though I like to think that they’d be more worried about what the urban holocaust had done to the landscape than about the ethnic origins of the incoming population. In any case, each of those new apartment buildings house almost as many people as inhabited the entire area in the late 1940s, and a sizable number are recent immigrants from the Caribbean and South Asia.
What is true for the little hamlet of Highland Creek is true for much of Canada. The once dominant “founding [European] cultures” are minorities themselves. Meantime, immigrants from six continents have adapted to Canadian society, at least partially assimilated into Canadian culture and, in the process, helped to transform that demography, its identity, customs and traditions in ways unimaginable in my earliest memories. The entry of people of all available cultures and colours is a defining fact and possibly an existential test of the country. Chinese, Tamils, Somalis, Jamaicans, Chileans, Russians and endless others now mix together in what some regard as an exemplary experiment in multiculturalism, and what others worry is an illusion of tolerance with preternatural or historical bigotries lying beneath a veneer of civility.
Abdolmohammad Kazemipur has plenty of data which tell us not only how much Canadians are involved in their society, but how much they trust other Canadians. We learn how much confidence they have in the press, the police and political parties. I shall not go into detail about the various social models that are used to frame the telling of the tale. I shall, however, attest to the fact that the information is intended to be more than a collage of public opinions, images and symbols. A variety of demographic factors is described and explained. As the subtitle promises, there are some worthwhile lessons to be learned. Most of them have to do with the phenomenon of diversity. This is not just a characteristic in Canada and a challenge for its citizenry, but it is also an increasingly important aspect of the planetary population as it shifts about looking to satisfy at least the lower strata of Maslow’s far-famed hierarchy of needs.
Migration has been endemic to our species since we moved out of Africa tens of thousands of years ago and carried on to populate every barely hospitable territory on Earth. In the 21st century, movements not only from rural to urban areas, but from region to region and from continent to continent are commonplace. Inevitably, mass migrations generate tensions and they often produce conflict, sometimes of the most hideous sort. Some of these tensions have been endemic to Canadian history. Some of the consequences are matters of national shame.
Kazemipur teaches important lessons. One of those that is especially timely concerns the tendency of many ethnic communities to maintain tight internal connections. The reliance of people on others of “their own kind,” however, are often necessary bridges to the larger and sometimes less than fully welcoming society. The crucial role of ethnic solidarity as a conduit and not an obstruction to successful assimilation needs recognition. Another significant lesson relates to the institutional arrangements and proactive cultural policies in Canada.
In 1971, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau introduced the federal policy of multiculturalism, committing Canada to an unprecedented degree of recognition and support for what were then called “new Canadians.” Sceptics (not without justification) saw in this initiative a cunning and calculated move to win votes for the Liberal Party and simultaneously to diffuse Trudeau’s fierce and lifelong foe, Québec nationalism. Whatever the motives, however, Canadian society was advertised as cosmopolitan and celebratory of diversity. Add to this the fact that, although some countries admit more immigrants than Canada does, none approach the proportionate numbers as the country routinely welcomes at least 1% of its total population each year. These factors combine to support the “contact” thesis of ethnic accommodation. Whereas a large influx of immigrants is sometimes said to trigger a negative reaction out of xenophobia, the Canadian experience (with some exceptions that are described and explained) has recently been different.
Canada has, like many countries, an undeniable history of racism. This is evident in the treatment of aboriginal peoples, legal discrimination against Asians at the turn of the 20th-century and the incarceration of Japanese citizens during World War II. It is apparent in any number of specific incidents such as the notorious 1914 rejection of 354 East Indians aboard the Komagata Maru in Vancouver and the 1938 refusal to allow 900 Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany on the German passenger vessel MS St. Louis to land in Halifax. Yet, despite this blemished record and the ongoing internal colonialism with respect to Canadian First Nations, Kazemipur reveals in his charts, graphs and clear and precise narrative the basis for optimism both for Canada and for countries which might wish to address parallel issues sooner rather than later.
The record of past challenges to our collective humanity is not a mere inventory of incidents worthy of historical embarrassment. Today, people in Canada and in liberal democracies world-wide are being encouraged to react with fear and loathing as stories of cultural clashes increase. Our response will be a test of our fundamental values which may depend, in part, on accurate accounts of our political history and of the demographic basis of our society. The importance, for example, of the Canadian Census has never been greater, and the motives of those seeking to marginalize, reduce and distort it have never been more obvious as well.
As with most such projects, the almost statutory appeal for further empirical research is made by Kazemipur. The motion is hereby heartily seconded.
Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at
The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
Copyright © 2010 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology