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The Burdens of Social Capital: Sociologists Challenge Conventional Wisdom on Social Involvement and Stress

09/14/2011 11:32 AM

BATON ROUGE – Conventional academic wisdom suggests that people who have more active social lives, who are more involved in civic activities and who interact with a wide range of people are happier, healthier and less stressed. In a newly published study, a team of LSU sociologists challenge this conventional interpretation with data from a series of surveys conducted in Baton Rouge in the weeks and months following Hurricane Katrina.

In “The Burdens of Social Capital: How Socially-Involved People Dealt with Stress After Hurricane Katrina,” advanced published online in the prestigious journal Social Science Research, sociologists Frederick Weil, Matthew Lee and Edward Shihadeh report that in the first weeks and months after Katrina, more socially active residents of Baton Rouge, one of the communities that received the largest number of evacuees from New Orleans, reported more stress, anger, fear of evacuees and felt that there were more problems due to the evacuees than those who were less socially connected. This runs counter to the prevailing argument that social embeddedness insulates people from bad things and provides them support.

The authors argue that may be the case under ordinary circumstances, but in crisis conditions it does not apply. In disaster situations, the most socially embedded actually experience more stress because they are called on more to help others and because they tend to be surrounded by people that are highly stressed themselves. Socially isolated people are not exposed to these additional sources of stress.
The good news though, is that their longitudinal study indicates that conventional wisdom on this issue does hold true. Those who are more socially embedded may be more stressed in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, but over time, they actually recover more quickly, precisely because their social involvement does provide them more support than can be found among those who are not socially active.

“Our study is the first to empirically trace this important arc over time that social support has in the context of a disaster situation” said lead author Frederick Weil. “Like many social phenomena, the impact of social capital is situationally contingent. Having lots of social connections isn’t always a good thing, although these data do reveal that over the long term it can be beneficial to those proximate to significant disasters.”

LSU Research Communications