Mario Luis Small is a sociologist who has conducted research that questions the standard wisdom regarding poor communities and social capital.

First, in Villa Victoria, Small compares the same neighborhood at two different times in its history. In 1990, Villa Victoria was a Boston barrio, a poor neighborhood with Spanish speaking residents who lacked significant educational accomplishments and connections to the rest of the city, but twenty years earlier, in 1970, in spite of similar poverty and lack of formal education on the part of its residents, Villa Victoria was both a barrio and a neighborhood with a significant amount of citizen involvement, numerous neighborhood festivals and lower crime. How come?

Since poverty is a constant variable in both resident groups of Villa Victoria, poverty cannot provide an accurate explanation for the different community conditions. Small suggests that the story of Villa Victoria is the “replacement of a participating cohort with a non-participating one” (p. 87).  In other words, the level of social connection in the community changed dramatically from the earlier group of residents to the next. Small believed that the explanation lay in the fact that because many of the original residents of the Barrio had recently emigrated from rural Puerto Rico they maintained traditional social connections. But, these ways of connecting eroded over time. “Their story, in many ways, is a tale of modern second-generation assimilation” (p. 85).

In his newest book, Unanticipated Gains, Small demonstrates that social capital is built less by people’s deliberate “networking” than in the sometimes informal institutional conditions of the beauty salons, churches, childcare centers, schools and other organizations in which people happen to participate routinely. While Small emphasizes the role of organizations in building social capital, he also points out that much of the brokering of connections is done by organizations is in fact done by employees within the organizations who act “…out of personal and professional motivation, rather than job mandates” (p. 193). That is, any particular day care center, barber shop, café, or community center can – in addition to the services they offer – act as social capital connectors, linking individuals to job opportunities, education and various resources of the community.

In a key part of the book, Small drives home his point by comparing various day care centers and the impact they have on the mothers who bring their children there. He found that some day care centers, in addition to the actual day care services they provided, also acted as informal connectors for the mothers. The day care workers in these centers connected mothers to educational, work and other opportunities in the community, which had strong positive impacts on the mothers (and therefore the families) they served. Again, the key seems to be the attitudes and outlooks of the barbers, the waiters, the day care workers.

This research implies an important challenge. Can we help organizations develop people who act as social brokers for others, regardless of their official job or the kind of formal services offered?

Small, M. L. (2004). Villa Victoria: The Transformation of Social Capital in a Boston Barrio & (2009) Unanticipated Gains: Origins of Network Inequality in Everyday Life