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Mario Small on How Social Networks and Social Capital Matter for Human Services Programs

Mario Small
Mario Small

Mario Luis Small of Harvard University talks about social networks and social capital and about some of his work looking at those things in the context of programs like Head Start.

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Chancellor: Hello and thanks for joining us for the Poverty Research and Policy Podcast from the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. I’m Dave Chancellor. For this episode, I had the privilege of talking to Mario Luis Small of Harvard University about social networks and social capital and especially about some of his work looking at those things in the context of Head Start programs. Professor Small has visited IRP in the past, but I connected with him here through our mutual colleagues at the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation or ASPE at the Department of Health and Human Services. And he’s worked with them on an initiative to look at how social capital and social networks matter in the context of human services programs. So if you’re interested in what you’re hearing here, you should check out ASPE’s website and publications on social capital. We’re releasing this episode in mid-May of 2020, so these questions about social networks and social capital are very timely right now given the COVID-19 pandemic that we’ve all been working through over the past couple of months. And we talk about that a little bit in this interview. But we recorded the interview over the phone back in the middle of March just as a lot of the major efforts at physical distancing were starting to be put in place around the United States. So, we know a lot more now than we did then, but I think you’ll find that the questions and concerns that Professor Small addressed then are still very relevant today. So let’s move to the actual interview. To start off, I asked Professor Small to introduce himself.

Small: My name is Mario Small. I’m a professor in the Sociology Department at Harvard University. I’m actually also a visiting professor here at the business school. I’m an expert on social networks, social inequality, poverty, and then field methods.

Chancellor: Just an introductory question here, what is social capital? What are social networks, can you give us some working definitions so we can understand what we are talking about here?

Small: Yeah, yeah, great question. It’s an important question because social capital has been used out there to mean so many things, it’s easy to get lost in the wilderness of the terminology around it. I think the easiest way to think about social capital is by remembering that you can be speaking about the social capital of an individual or about the social capital of a community or a nation and those are two different things. The social capital of an individual is ultimately the set of resources that a person has by virtue of their social networks. And these resources can be information. So, if you’re well connected, you can have access to information for things that are useful to you like where there’s a job available, or how to effectively deal with Covid-19. Another resource you can have that’s a form of social capital is the set of obligations that are part of your networks. So if you’re connected to a set of people who feel some sort of obligation to you, you can use that to meet your needs in some way and we can talk about details in a minute social support of course as you can get through your networks and also the reinforcement of your norms is the fourth. So, there are lots of different kinds of resources, there are probably more, but the point is the generally the social capital you have is the kind of capital, the resources that you have by virtue of the people you’re connected to.

Chancellor: We’re curious about the research and you’ve been doing a lot on this for a few years now, but what’s the quick and easy literature review on this, especially as it affects low-income populations, what sort of baseline information should people know?

Small: Yeah, I guess I should note a couple of things. First, that social capital is useful for everyone, regardless of their point in the income distribution. A lot of the things that we get, we get through our networks, so people both low-income and at the upper end of the income distribution are more likely to get jobs through their networks than many people give credit for and so everybody, often, everybody at any point in the distribution will often get their jobs through their networks and therefore, by enacting their social capital. And the second thing that’s important to note is that social capital can be a useful substitute when you don’t have other kinds of capital. As a result, it can be extremely useful at the lower end of the income distribution. If you’re part of a network in which people are willing to swap babysitting duties for example or offer to lend money or goods during difficult times, social capital can be very valuable and therefore in this respect can be very, very valuable at the bottom end of the income distribution. A third thing I would note is that social capital however often comes with costs. So, it’s easy to sort of paint a rosy picture wherein if everybody just cooperated more, things would be easier. But the truth is, part of what you get from your networks is connection to people to might have an obligation to you. Well, it’s not that hard to imagine that typically the people who feel an obligation towards you are people you also feel an obligation towards. And so social capital can bring benefits, but also costs, I think it’s important to note. And those costs can also be heavy at the bottom end of the income distribution. And I guess the last thing I would say is that an important way in which people acquire social capital, meaning not only form the connections necessary for you to have social capital in the first place, but often even get a lot out of those connections, is through the everyday local organizations in which people participate and this is for sure the case in the bottom of the income distribution so not just things like churches and mosques and temples, but also barbershops and nail salons, child care centers, areas where you interact with many people frequently, so the same people over and over. And where you have an opportunity to interact with people over long periods of time, which happens in different organizations to a different extent. But these local organizations end up being extremely important for the formation of social capital.

Chancellor: Would you want to tell me about a couple of your pieces of research? I know you’ve done work looking at Head Start programs and the formation of social capital around that. Can you give us the quick view on that?

Small: I would say that one of the most important findings we’ve had is if you look at a national population of mothers of young children and you compare those who, when the children are of child care center age, those who enroll their children in child care centers, to those who don’t, and you match them as well as you can statistically on all of their observed characteristics, you see that those who enrolled in centers, who enrolled their children in centers and who therefore themselves became part of centers expanded their social networks as a result. So, literally, if you ask people how many close friends they have, those who enroll their children in centers tend to report about one more close friend, so from about three to three and half friends for mothers who don’t to about four, four and a half for mothers who do. And, in addition, they’ll report that these larger networks is due to friends they make specifically in child care centers. But more importantly, if you then look at whether this makes any difference—this is in a book I published a few years ago called Unanticipated Gains—you find that those who enroll their children in centers and make friends there had much better outcomes, both with respect to material hardship among the poor, and with respect to mental hardship among everybody, poor or nonpoor so that the odds of experiencing depression and the odds of experiencing material hardship went down dramatically when enrolling their kids in a center, even conditional on what their prior mental hardship or what their prior material hardship was. And so we have evidence that for a very important population, the increased social capital that resulted from expanded networks toward additional connections had a major impact on their wellbeing.

Chancellor: So, you’ve been connected to the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, helping to inform some of their work because they’ve been very interested in how programs can contribute to increasing social capital among participants. Beyond Head Start—that’s a terrific example there, but how would a program go about doing that if they were interested in doing that and are there examples where programs have made that part of their explicit aim for participants. Can you tell us about that?

Small: Yeah, so I would say a couple of things. One of the most important things for a program to do is to think about the ways that they may inadvertently be reducing social capital and therefore be reducing the social capital that there is in the communities that they serve. So if you give me a minute, I can give you an example that makes this clearer. So, the example is related to a Head Start Center, but different from the work I cited a minute ago, but you’ll see that the work is relevant across different kinds of entities. So we looked at—these were some Head Starts that were in a major city that were reaching a very, very impoverished population. There’s a lot of hardship. Tough neighborhoods to grow up in and the community was very, very poor, very depopulated, low organizational capacity across the board. And one of the things that it had is at many Head Starts and childcare centers in general, but at Head Start it’s especially important, the attendance rate was often low. So the way it worked is you get a slot—many Head Starts—once you get a slot, that’s your slot for the year. It’s like school. And so what happens is if you get a slot in August and the school year starts in September and you’re not showing up a lot by October, November, that’s really just an empty seat in the classroom. So fiscally, it doesn’t actually make a lot of sense, but it’s also of course a problem that the child is not actually getting the access and so we went to this center that had a large number of classrooms and we talked to some of the parents and we learned a couple of things. First, we learned that the attendance rates usually began pretty high and then as the weather got colder, they started lowering and getting lower and lower, and by the time it was about February, there rates were as low as 50 percent attendance over the course of the month which is very low. Literally half of the kids were there on a given day. And then they went back up, but never to the full degree that they were in September by the time they reached May. And when we talked with their parents about this, what was interesting was that nobody said, ‘well, I just don’t think that education is that important,’ or ‘I just don’t care that much about the Head Start.’ When we talked to the parents, what they talked about is all of these little things, these things that you and I and those in the middle class would normally pay for. Things like, well, my older child got sick and I had to take the child to the doctor and I had nobody to take the kids to the center. Or the bus line was down or the schools were closed and so I had to stay home and watch the other. All sorts of things that middle class parents have other kinds of resources to address. Logistical issues, practical issues. But what was interesting, and this gets us back to the idea that programs can get in the way, is when we separately talked to the teachers, they all did what would sound to the team, what would seem to be the rational thing. They talked about doing the best they could as teachers to help the parents. One teacher who was clearly a very popular teacher, kind of a small hero, said, you know usually what I’ll do is anything I can to bring them in so sometimes I’ll just bring them into the center myself, I’ll stop by in the car in my way into the center and say, hey, I’ll take your child home and these kinds of things. And so they saw this and applauded and so on—it’s the dedication of a truly dedicated Head Start teacher. And of course, how could you oppose that in a sense? But if you think about it, what’s happening is that the program or the teachers are giving themselves tasks that the parents, if they organized among themselves, could actually do for one another. In other words, another parent could bring the child to the center just as well as the teacher could. And so what we did is—but of course the model the teacher had is that you serve the person rather than you let them empower themselves. And so the model was getting in the way and so we tried a pilot. What the pilot did is we, in these centers, we threw a few parties in the fall, and we essentially gave people the opportunity to form friendships. We said, hey, we’re going to—here’s a party, we’re going to throw a couple of these in the fall, and what we’re going to ask you to do, not require, just ask, if you want, is that you find one other parent in your neighborhood, who is going to be your attendance buddy. And what we’re going to ask you to do with this attendance buddy is two things. One is, if you’re not going to come that day, that you let your attendance buddy know so that they can let your teacher know. That’s the first thing. The second thing is that if you hear that your attendance buddy’s not going to come, we ask you to bring their child in if you can. And that’s it. You don’t have to do it, you don’t have to pick an attendance buddy, you don’t have to come to the parties. So we did that, and what we found is that in the centers where we launched the intervention—and we did a randomized control trial with multiple treatments—and there’s other elements of this—but this is the bottom line, that the simple induction increased attendance by 7 percentage points in the heaviest, most difficult months in January, February, where attendance was lowest. And all of it was a function of social capital. It didn’t cost anything, nobody got paid any money, and it was just using social capital that was already latent, but present in the center, more effectively. I think a lot of programs can do versions of this themselves.

Chancellor: Just an aside, I’m a runner, I run quite a bit and I often meet friends to run at 5:30, 6:00 in the morning. And if I know nobody’s meeting me, the likelihood of me getting out of bed is substantially lower.

Small: Actually, what you just pointed to if I can just follow up on your point, you just actually illustrated an example I often give when I give talks and talk about social capital. So a couple years ago, I turned 40. A few years ago. As you know, you realize, oh my goodness, I’ve got to start working out and taking my health more seriously, etcetera. And, for me it was deciding to lift weights more regularly. Now here’s the thing. This is already something that you in your head know you need to do. You decide you want to do it, nobody is telling you, nobody has to convince you of the importance of exercise, etcetera. But, imagine what happens in a scenario where I try to lift every day on my own versus one where I try to lift in the company of others. If I were just to pick one buddy, one equivalent of my attendance buddy, at least three different things happen. First, literally, information. Any time you start an exercise regime, you start learning new information and whoever you’re lifting with, they’re going to know things you’re not going to know. They’re going to know positions or routines or exercises that you’re not going to know and vice versa. The second thing they’re going to give you is support. And you can literally lift heavier weights when you have a spotter. It’s literal social support in as literal a sense as there is. And so in addition to information, you get support. And the last thing you get is sort of the norm reinforcement, the obligations that you talked about. At 6am in dead of winter, I may just not go, but if I know the other person is going to be there, you better believe I’m going to get up and be there because I’m going to feel awful standing them up. And those three things, the information, the support, the obligations are three of the most powerful forms of social capital. And a metaphor for a lot of how organizations can do this in their own contexts. How can you mobilize the people who are already there to increase access to information, support, and obligations? And that is exactly what we did, essentially with the attendance buddy program.

Chancellor: I do want to ask about measurement questions. In some ways this seems—and maybe it’s not hard to measure—but in some ways it seems that it’s a different way we have to think about it in terms of the measurement. How do you think about measuring it or what sort of things can you look at that are measureable factors that programs can look at or that researchers can look at when they’re evaluating programs?

Small: I would say that the most important thing to do is keep in mind the distinction between measuring social capital and measuring social networks. I would say this is like the foundation. It’s very straightforward today to measure network size and composition. There are actually lots of ways of doing it. So, for example, in a study we did, we literally asked people to give us the names of the people in their life that they typically talked to about important matters. You can them the people they typically turned to for support, you can ask them the people they’re closest to. You can ask them the people they see most frequently. But the most important thing for that measure or any of those measures, which are measures of networks, not of social capital, is eliciting the names of these people. Because what you can do once you have an actual name is first to know that you’re talking about a concrete person rather than asking people, about how many people in your life do you think you can rely on? People are going to give you some number that’s hard to connect to reality. But second, you can track changes in that over time. And so I’ve done quite a few projects for example where in general I can tell you that the composition of the people you name changes a lot even though the size of the network doesn’t change that much if you ask the same question over and over. So people will name between three and five people depending on how you ask the question and if you wait six months, they’ll name a different three to five people, but still about three to five people. So there are ways of measuring networks stably that are actually very straightforward. But then the second thing I would do separately from that is actually measuring social capital. And here what matters is the kind of capital that you care about—the kind of social capital that you care about. So for example, we talked a minute ago about obligations. You can literally ask people about the kinds of things they would feel obliged to do for the other person and vice versa. A different kind of thing you could do is measure information. You can actually look at kinds of things people would turn to the other person for, or have turned to the other person for with respect to information. For example, if you were looking for a job, would you go to this person? If you needed somebody to take care of your kids, would you go to this person? If you needed to borrow $500, would you go to this person? All of those are indicators of social capital that we can tap into actually pretty accurately.

Chancellor: I do have a question about gaps in research in this area. What are the research gaps or what do you think we need to understand more about this, is that something you could talk to?

Small: MS: Yeah, so one thing I would love to see more of is clear analyses of how much, from a cost benefit perspective, social capital-based interventions save. So I just gave you an example of, we were able to increase attendance rates by 7 percentage points in a randomized control trial in one year. So literally one season. It didn’t take years of learning or anything. It was an instant effect and it cost almost nothing. Nobody was paid any incentives. There was no money involved. There was no big campaign to force people to do this, it was just a very simple nudge to mobilize social capital. I don’t know—I have not seen at scale efforts to measure interventions of this and other kinds. And there are lots of social capital interventions all over the place that can tell us, you know what, if Head Starts could save x amount of money, by doing these kinds of interventions, at this level over the next 30 years. That kind of research I think would be extremely valuable by concretizing the consequences and benefits of social capital and helping in the broader sense legislators see the value in doing this. Because often cost benefit analyses of this kind are often what legislators will listen to. That’s one big one. I think a second issue that we have pockets of information on, but I think another is sort of the costs of social capital itself. So, among very, very poor people who are more dependent on social capital for certain kinds of things than others, what happens when you keep drawing on your social capital—to follow the metaphor? At a certain point, if you keep asking, your account, so to speak, is going to be overdrawn. So, what happens over time for people whose lives are so precarious, so uncertain, so unstable—financially and in other ways, so they end up turning to social capital resources a lot. There’s some evidence to suggest that people’s ties end up being very temporary, and they end up forming a lot of new ties and dispense with them very quickly. But I don’t think we have a very good sense of this on a large scale. I think that’s a really important thing in our understanding to figure out. I think the last thing—it’s not something I would have said a month or two ago, but I’m certainly aware of now, has to do with the long term consequences of isolation that we’re going to see as a result of the restrictions based on Covid-19. Things as you know are going to get a lot worse before they get better. And eventually society will go back to normal but as with the Spanish Flu and the Great Recession and so on, there will be large scale consequences—long term consequences—excuse me—at scales we don’t understand yet. And I don’t really know what the consequences are going to be for the poor with respect to their network reliance. I just don’t have any idea and I would love to see good work on that.

Chancellor: Are there specific things related to policy that we should be thinking about when it comes to social capital and social networks? What do you have to say about that?

Small: One thing I can’t help but mention is I think we can think about Head Start as a great vehicle to leverage social networks and social capital to accomplish far more than what Head Start was originally intended to do. Actually, Head Start originally had very much of a social capital orientation. It was supposed to be a community building entity, parents were a big focus, etcetera. And over time, some of that focus got lost. But I think reinvigorating that would be really important. Because it’s a reasonably popular, large scale, well-researched institution that can be leveraged for a whole bunch of other things if you just think a little big creatively. And some organizations are starting to do this. So in Oklahoma, if I’m not mistaken, there are Head Start center groups that are leveraging parental interventions focused on workforce development for Head Start parents. So this kind of idea where you take advantage of this captive population that you have to build on the network capacity that’s there to do something more than just help the children I think is a really exciting opportunity that should be appealing to people on both sides of the aisle to be honest. That’s an area I would spend a lot of time thinking and focusing on. I think the work the Office of Program and Research Evaluation is doing right now on putting together the best knowledge we have at the moment on social capital and how it can be leveraged by organizations at the local level I think is important. One idea that I found very useful there for example, and it’s an idea that, you know, the experts who are convened did not know one another. Well, I didn’t know everybody there and I’m sure everybody else didn’t know everyone there. And one of the ideas that, in spite of the fact that this group of people didn’t know one another that emerged was the notion of working in cohorts. So, to the extent that programs have been working individually to structure themselves to operate in cohorts, the benefits of the program are likely to be magnified for many kinds of programs. I think that’s, again, a very low cost, very straightforward, very straight forward intervention that can have huge payoffs if we’re just willing to open up our eyes a little bit to the power of social networks.

Chancellor: Do you have any parting thoughts for us? Is there anything else you would like to add?

Small: I guess I would say one thing. Social networks are extremely important. We all know that. I think over the next month or two, Americans are going to realize even more than they did before how important they are. And I would encourage people, this is important for everything, but I’m thinking specifically for mental health. And I would encourage people to, in the midst of social distancing and isolation which I think are going to be essential for the survival of everybody and to keep death rates low and to keep the hospitals from being more overwhelmed than they need to. I want to encourage people to think about creative ways of not just maintaining their connections but developing new ones over the course of this period. I think this is going to end up being far more important to their own mental health, but also to the ability of dealing with some of the things that are already happening, like shortages in basic supplies, everything with supermarkets and so on. I think the ability to turn to networks is going to be really important and I’m going to encourage everybody to—this would be the time to turn to your Facebook friends, to maintain contacts, to set up Zoom calls, to contact long lost friends, to take advantage of the fact that nobody’s going to be quite as productive over the next couple months as they were even a month or two ago, to reestablish their social networks.

Chancellor: Professor Small, I’m so incredibly grateful that you took the time to do this and I just really appreciate this interview. So, thank you so much.

Small: Excellent. Thank you.

Chancellor: Thanks so much to Mario Small for taking the time to share his work and his insights with us. If you’d like to learn more, you can check out his research on his Harvard scholar webpage. This podcast was supported as part of a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation but its contents don’t necessarily represent the opinions or policies of that Office, any other agency of the Federal government, or the Institute for Research on Poverty. To catch new episodes of the Poverty Research and Policy Podcast, you can subscribe on Apple, Stitcher, or Google Play Podcasts. You can also find all of our past episodes on the Institute for Research on Poverty website. Our theme music for this episode is “Staring Straight” by Maarten De Boer. Thanks for listening.


Early Childhood Care & Education, Education & Training, Family & Partnering, Family & Partnering General