Bonding v. Bridging Social Capital

There are two kinds of social capital. The first is bonding social capital, which is “inward looking” and tends to “reinforce exclusive identities and homogenous groups.” Examples of bonding social capital come from things like having gone to the same university, ethnic similarity, or belonging to a specific religious denomination. Belonging to these sort of groups builds cohesion—but only among those who share a narrow identity. This kind of bonding can provide social and psychological support for individuals, but it ultimately serves to entrench division based on demographic difference. It defines “us,” but also, just as important, “them.” – Arthur Brooks, The Power and Peril of Identities

I found myself conflicted by this passage because I am constantly guilty of “bonding social capital” between myself and others. I did not understand Brooks’ point about “entrenching division” because I can easily make connections through sharing a common background or experience. The first question I ask somebody when I introduce myself is: “what is your name?” The second question I ask is: “where are you from?” The third question I ask is: “what do you do?” My hope is always the same: I will have a connection to where they are from or I will have a connection to what they do.

Clarification on this passage came to me through in-class discussion the next day. Many students spoke in reference to Brooks’ article, noting that it is easy for him to interact with people of different backgrounds because he comes from a position of power with a sense of confidence behind him. Additionally, the pressure to explain one’s self and identity is put on minorities, entrenching division. I also looked to Amin Maalouf’s “Deadly Identities.” Malouf states, “I have been asked many times, with the best intentions in the world, if I felt more French or more Lebanese.” He continues, arguing that “the identity cannot be compartmentalized; it cannot be split in halves or thirds, nor have any clearly defined set of boundaries. I do not have several identities, I only have one, made of all the elements that have shaped its unique proportions.”

Similarly, when I ask a stranger these particular questions, I am compartmentalizing them and it is easy for me to do that because the pressure isn’t on me to explain myself. Also, these questions do not allow me to truly understand them. I know where they’re from and what they do, but I do not know their “why.” Why do they do what they do? What is their purpose? What is their passion? These are the introductory questions that allow people to truly connect on a deeper level. These are the questions that “bridge social capital.”

Brooks wrote this passage as a contrast to how humans should interact through “bridging social capital.” Brooks is arguing that “bonding” segregates people on the basis of surface-level difference through categorical questions and labels. In addition to Brooks’ argument, I realized that “bonding” segregates the identity from the person because it is so surface-level. “Bonding” doesn’t allow identity to be complex as it is understood from one person to another. This relates to the questions raised in class: how is identity expressed? and why are our identities complex, but we simplify others’ identities? Brooks would answer that identity is too often conveyed oversimplified and with a categorical label because it is demanded by the person being conveyed to that another’s identity be boxed in.

Leave a Reply