Halloween and Social Capital

Once again, I am simply blown away by the participation rate in my kids’ school Halloween parade this year.  In a school of around 500 students, I’d say 98%+ wore a costume today for the Halloween parade.  A substantial fraction of the parents wear something, even if just a silly hat, as well.  Based on my experience growing up on the North Shore of Boston, each year I find this phenomenon hard to fathom.  When I was in school, maybe 10% of kids would come to school in costume.  I suppose that this could just be revealing period differences and (yet again) the fact that I’m not as young as I once was.  However, I think it’s something different. 

Palo Alto is a very affluent, highly educated, community.  Parents are amazingly involved in school.  In fact, coming to Palo Alto has given me tremendous insight into the travesty that is American educational disparity.  Why is it that Palo Alto has such a great school system?  I’m sure that dedicated teachers and competent administration plays a major role.  But there is also the fact that so many parents give a lot of time and money to the school.  When our son was in kindergarten, at least two parents volunteered in the classroom each day.  They did all the busy work that goes along with teaching kids to read — getting appropriate level send-home books into kids’ backpacks every day, checking back in the read books, etc. — allowing the professional teacher to, well, teach.  When a class is having a party and the teacher sends around an email to the parents asking for help, all the needs are taken care of within a day.  “I’ll bring cupcakes.” “Oh, I can bring mini sandwiches.” “Can anyone come and help ladle punch?” “Oh sure, I can do that!” You get the idea.  It’s also not hard to imagine when this is lacking (because parents don’t have the luxury of participating because they are working multiple jobs to stay afloat or a large fraction of kids only have one parent or kids don’t have a neighborhood connection to their school or because violence and apathy make school a frightening place or because parents collectively put their material desires above the needs of their children or communities), teachers have to spend much more time doing drudgery.  Probably all but the most energetic and dedicated scrimp.  Kids and school districts suffer.  

We are very lucky here.

My hypothesis is that participation rates in Halloween parades is a marker of social capital.  This is the concept popularized by Robert Putnam’s terrific book, Bowling Alone , in which social relationships are strengthened by shared civic or other community experience. Such ideas go back to Merton and functionalist social analysis. Bowling has the manifest function of being an enjoyable way to pass the time.  It’s latent function though is building community by strengthening social capital. Social capital takes on a more explicity instrumental form in Bourdieu’s (and others’) notion that it is the sum of social resources that an individual can call upon to accomplish social ends.

Coming to school in a costume takes effort.  It takes parental cooperation.  It means buying or making a costume.  It means, if you’re a kid, taking the risk that other kids might make fun of you (of course, if enough kids do dress up, then you might get made fun of if you don’t dress up, but that’s another story).  It typically means that parents (at least one, though I’m always blown away by the number of couples there) have to commit to come watch the whole spectacle.  My Stanford colleagues Rebecca and Doug Bird have done a bunch of terrific work on the role of costly signaling in mediating social roles, particularly where fluid status hierarchies are involved. Costly signals are honest signals because they are harder to fake.  When men do difficult and dangerous things (like hunt large game), they send a signal of their quality.  This aids them in securing political allies among other men and mates among women.  When men or women share food widely, they signal their good citizenship and probably make it more likely that others will share with them at some later date. For a nice discussion of these and other aspects of signaling theory in Anthropology, see Rebecca’s (2005) paper with Eric Smith on the topic.

So, here we are in affluent Palo Alto, where 98% of kids, nearly all the teachers and administrators, and a large fraction of their parents participate in an annual (costly) ritual that strengthens community bonds and signals the health of civic engagement and our collective investment in the future.  One can only imagine the types of returns our kids will receive on the social capital thus accrued. This raises major questions about society, democracy, the future.  Is strong social capital really necessary for a functioning democracy, as Putnam argues?  What are the effects of such collective social expressions on the world views of  developing minds?  What are the consequences for developing minds of not experiencing such expressions of community?  How can we enable the formation of social capital in communities for whom the deck is less positively stacked? 

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