Summer typically is a time of celebration and renewal for many of us. Days are longer, the sun shines more brightly and warmly. Learners at all levels of schooling are bringing another year of studies to a close, celebrating completions and graduations. Congratulations to all those who are marking milestones, big and small!
As we continue to transition to a “post-COVID” world, we are witnessing a rebirth of “in-person” life, for better or worse at times. This coming together as humans leads one to think not only of health and economic recovery but also of ‘social capital.’ Referring to the importance of social contracts, cohesion and networks, the concept has gained in popularity for more than a century. According to some, Lyda J. Hanifan was the first to explicitly reference the concept in 1916 to highlight the importance of social cohesion and networks: “The individual is helpless socially, if left to himself. If he may come into contact with his neighbour, and they with other neighbours, there will be an accumulation of social capital, ... to the substantial improvement of living conditions in the whole community.”1
Today, the idea of social capital builds on the work of many sociologists and political scientists – Durkheim, Weber, Bourdieu, and Robert Putnam, who famously coined the phrase “bowling alone” to lament – rightly or wrongly – a perceived decline in social capital in the late 20th century.
Social capital in and of itself is not a solution for the problems that afflict human society. Indeed, it might reinforce inherently inequitable or exclusive structures and groups. However, at its best, social capital is a key foundation for liberal democracy and human dignity.
Today, mutually beneficial social capital seems hard to build and sustain in the face of powerful forces that undermine social capital. War, violence, extremism, unfettered competition for ever scarcer resources, pandemics, and even something as benign as remote working all may erode social cohesion and networks.
This makes the work of the McGill School of Continuing Studies all the more critical. As a learning institution, both through our students and through knowledge sharing, as well as creation amongst faculty and staff, we build and rebuild social capital every day. Sitting on the platform during the recent convocation to celebrate our graduands together with their families and friends, I could feel and see how we all benefit from this community of learning. Another example is when we put our hearts and minds together to help those in need, such as the newly arriving refugees and displaced people from Ukraine and other war-torn regions, or homeless and others in need close to home.
As we honour National Indigenous History month in Canada, the School of Continuing Studies, and our Indigenous Relations Initiative are working to advance the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, one step at a time, building awareness, and learning with and from our partners. That too contributes to social capital – one learner, one colleague, one community at a time.
1Hanifan, L. J. (1916). The Rural School Community Centre. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences 67, 130-38, p. 130.