Saturday, 23 May 2009

It takes a village I've always been suspicious of bald calls for heavy cash investment in areas as the solution to social problems, and I've seen enough of some heavily-funded local projects to know how money can generate new unwanted difficulties and tensions. We need to know more, in particular, about low-income neighbourhoods that function well because levels of interaction are relatively high. The other day my attention was drawn to some research on prosocial behaviour, reported by David Sloan Wilson and colleagues, in Evolution and human behavior (subscription required). The article describes a study of students in a small city in New York state, and finds that prosocial (or 'altruistic') behaviour correlates strongly with the level of self-reported social support at local level. That support is evidenced in terms of family, school, neighbourhood, religion, and extra-curricular activities. Further, the researchers note that 'it appears to require social support from multiple sources... It really does take a village to raise a highly prosocial child.' The untrained and untamed anthropologist in me is revelling in the way the authors combine evolutionary, economic and social capital theories to seek to explain why social co-operation can succeed as an evolutionary strategy and not be subverted from within by individual selfishness. It's interesting that the neighbourhood level of income does not seem to predict prosocial behaviour and indeed may be a negative indicator: 'the most prosocial students live in neighborhoods that are high in quality and low in median income - perhaps because, in the absence of financial capital, they need to rely more on social capital in their everyday lives.' This could be a seminal research finding. Does it mean that policy should be focusing more on local social relations rather than financial investment and the generation of wealth? The study is part of the Binghamton Neighborhood Project. More here.

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