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psc brown bag iconThe Institutional Foundations of Social Capital: Evidence from Mothers and Childcare Centers

Mario Small (Chair, Department of Sociology, University of Chicago)

04/16/2012, at noon in room 6050 ISR-Thompson.

Co-sponsored with SRC

Social capital theorists have shown that actors will do better to the extent that they possess larger, more supportive, or otherwise more useful networks. But an important question has largely been ignored: Why do some actors have more useful networks than others, in the first place? Recent research on social capital has under-theorized the network formation process, increasingly adopting models that prioritize structure over context and focus on the consequences, not origins, of differences in networks. Addressing this question, I argue that social ties, as the product of routine interactions in everyday organizations—such as churches, colleges, firms, gyms, childcare centers, and schools—depend on the institutional conditions through which those organizations regulate social interaction. These contexts affect not merely the formation but also the nature of social connections themselves—the resulting social capital—such that ignoring context distorts one’s understanding of the origins of network inequality. I illustrate this argument by examining the experiences of New York City mothers of children young enough for daycare, using quantitative and qualitative data. Findings reveal that (a) mothers who enrolled their children in childcare centers typically increased their network size as a result; (b) mothers who enrolled their children in daycare and formed new ties therein experienced lesser material and mental hardship than comparable mothers who either did not enroll or did but did not form ties; and (c) whether mothers formed new ties depended not merely on their personal attributes but also on the institutional configuration of the centers. The findings make clear the importance of understanding social capital as an organizationally embedded resource.


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