social movements depend on social capital (but you can make your own)

The Montgomery Bus Boycott was the glorious chapter in the American Civil Rights Movement that began when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the segregated bus. This story is usually misrepresented in ways that hide Parks’ planning, leadership, skill, and feminist radicalism (see the real Rosa Parks). In any case, at least 99 percent of the city’s African Americans quickly started boycotting the bus company. That meant that 17,500 workers needed a different way to get to work.

At first, Black-owned taxi companies carried them for the price of a bus ticket, but then the city threatened to enforce a minimum-fare law. Next, more than 150 people volunteered to drive boycotters to work in their own cars. These volunteers “responded immediately,” Martin Luther King recalls in Stride Toward Freedom, but “they started out simply cruising the streets of Montgomery with no particular system.” That must have meant that many workers missed getting available rides. Ministers responded by calling for new volunteers from their pulpits, and even more drivers came out, but that meant (King writes) that “the real job was just beginning–that of working out some system for these three hundred-odd automobiles, to replace their haphazard movement around the city.”

Committees were formed and roles were assigned. It was easy to identify [morning] pickup locations, because African Americans lived in dense urban neighborhoods. But “we discovered that we were at a loss in selecting [afternoon] pick-up stations,” because domestic workers were employed all over the White neighborhoods. Two Black postal workers helped design regular routes. King recalls all this organizational work with evident pride, and concludes, “Altogether the operation of the motor pool represented organization and coordination at their best. Reporters and visitors from all over the country looked upon the system as a unique accomplishment.”

I’d like to draw two theoretical implications from this story.

First, we tend to think of social movements as examples of contentious politics, along with protests, strikes, and even revolutions. Contentious politics has a substantial literature. A separate literature concerns how communities organize themselves to provide services and manage common resources over the long term. For the most part, these two discussions are rather separate. They draw on different disciplines and have different dominant rhetorical styles. But actual social movements rely heavily on what could be called “common pool resource management.”

The two postal workers who designed routes exemplify lessons from the research of Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues: local people tend to have the most detailed relevant information; clear rules enable coordination; and public goods can be rotated geographically to serve many people. I’ve been arguing that we should combine the political-economy of Elinor Ostrom with the insights of Gandhi and King for a more complete civic theory.

The practical implication is that people who want to confront power often benefit from learning how to organize systems and processes that look like nonprofit enterprises.

Second, it’s commonplace to note the dependence of the civil rights movement on “social capital,” especially in the form of churches and unions. Both institutions play explicit roles in Dr. King’s narrative of Montgomery. But this analysis can leave you at a loss if you’re part of a community that doesn’t happen to have much social capital. And social capital can be mysterious, for it is invisible, and its connections to tangible outcomes seem obscure.

Indeed, social capital is a metaphor: Montgomery’s African Americans did not have a literal deposit of social capital in the bank. When social capital is measured by asking individuals about their tendency to join groups and to trust one another, it’s hard to see how we could boost these assets or why they would be important politically.

A different way of looking at social capital is as a concrete capacity to solve collective-action problems, such as providing free rides to 17,500 people every day. That may have been easier in Montgomery because so many people were already organized in other successful, functioning groups, such as the Black churches. “Labor, civic, and social groups were our staunch supporters,” King writes, “and in many communities new organizations were founded just to support the protest.” Like other forms of capital, social capital can be built up in one place and used in another. But what mattered was actually organizing the carpools to sustain the boycott. Skillful citizens can pull off such successes even in the absence of existing high levels of social capital, when they design good structures.

In short, social capital is a metaphor for self-organization, and people can self-organize.

See also what is a social movement?Ostrom, Habermas, and Gandhi are all we need; and Habermas, Ostrom, Gandhi (II).

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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  • I agree with your point that social capital and the capacity for self-organization are interrelated and perhaps interchangeable. However, I am confused by your assertion: “Skillful citizens can pull off such successes even in the absence of existing high levels of social capital, when they design good structures.”

    Are you suggesting that sufficiently skillful citizens can create sufficiently good structures for mobilization without the need for existing resources like social capital or community norms? Perhaps you mean that good structures include social capital building associations such as Black churches, or that good structural design should be able to include and activate community networks in ways that exploit necessary local knowledge.

    In the case of King asserting that “new organizations were founded just to support the protest,” that doesn’t mean these organizations weren’t founded by existing networks of people that were already homogeneous in terms of norms, incentives, goals, and other demographic and psychological categories which we know to be foundational to social trust and thus social capital.

    Without such clarifications to your definition of good design, I would want to see empirical evidence that pop-up structures could support the kind of sustained, high-risk activism of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. (Though, I am willing to imagine cases of sustained, low-risk forms of activism like the digital sort we have seen self-organize in recent years.)

    • PeterLevine

      Hi Erhardt, Thanks for the good question, which forces me to clarify my own thinking. I guess I am arguing that what a group actually needs is effective ways of coordinating action. Groups that do not have much prior experience with working together can collaborate for the first time if something or someone motivates them and if key members develop good ideas: strategies that fit the circumstances. Their success then = “social capital.” To be sure, every time they do that, they develop skills, habits, and relationships that make the next effort a bit easier. That is why we find that Robert-Putnam-type measures of community-level social capital predict good outcomes (as a statistical generalization). However, the point is to solve collective action problems, not to build up average levels of belonging and trust. Whatever your level of social capital is, you can still work to overcome collective action problems.

      King’s narrative reveals the existing forms of social capital in Montgomery’s Black community (churches, etc.). Those were resources that he and his fellow organizers used. But we know that the American South exhibits low levels of social capital, as do poor Americans. Being African American, on its own, tends to be a positive predictor of civic engagement, but class and region would suggest low social capital in Montgomery in 1955. The lesson is that everyone has some social capital, and the question is how to turn it into a resource.