Sep 282008
Authors: Anne Marie Merline

This week I feel like my column mimics the commercial for the Capital One credit card. The commercial asks viewers “What’s in your wallet?” This week I ask, “Who’s on your cell phone?”

Again, this year, in my first semester class on community we study a concept called “social capital.”

Different from other ideas such as economic capital (things) and cultural capital (human capabilities), social capital is measured in the strength of the social networks that any one person has with the wider community.

How could I make the importance of this concept clear to these first semester students in a way that would resonate with them?

I’m sure you are thinking that the warm and fuzzy term “social capital” was just a word created by liberal hippies like Anne Marie. Au Contraire, mes amis. This term was first used in social science research in the 1960s and 1970s to make statements about the value of social connectedness.

Before them, 19th-century thinkers like social James Madison, Alexis de Tocqueville and John Dewey used this concept, although it remained unnamed.

I first explained the form of capital that would most easily resonate with them. Living in the U.S., most of us most easily can relate to economic capital — things.

I picked up my cell phone to show them “something.”

To set my students up for the idea that other types of capital are more important to me, I pointed out the physical attributes of my cell phone. It is over 3 years old, bulky, clunky, cracked, the charger cord frequently does not plug in, the numbers on the outside have shrunk in the last year, and I can no longer read the display.

Not many students would envy this piece of capital. A student of mine, though, humored me, and traded cell phones with me so that I could make a point about how we value “things.”

This student’s phone was way better than mine. It was thin, sleek, and I am sure, much easier to use. We traded cell phones for a minute or two so that I could make the concept of social capital clear.

More importantly than the physical phones, we traded something much more important — the names of our friends and relatives programmed onto our cell phones.

These names, I noted are the representatives of our social capital. These are the numbers of the people and organizations that are most important to us. These numbers represent the people that we call to live our lives, talk about our days, and connect with those outside of the radio signals of the cell phone.

I scrolled through my cell phone for a moment to give the students an idea of the people and organizations whose numbers I have stored over the year. Those on “speed dial” represent those most important in our social lives. On mine are my younger brother, my boyfriend, my roommate, my son’s father and my female friends who are my pillars of support on an everyday basis.

For first semester students, many of you will find that your social circles will change dramatically over these first few months of college (as will the content of your cell phone).

You will use this seemingly magic device to keep in touch with those far away, as well as connecting with a residence hall mate so that you can meet up in the dining hall for dinner. As always, mom and dad will want you to pick up when they call you to find out what you are up to while there are no parental units overseeing your comings and goings.

My question to you this week is: What do you value more, the cell phone that you have or the social support on the other end of those pre-programmed numbers?

What is true for me, I am sure is true for most — that even though I will someday trade up my cell phone for another that works better, I would never trade the social capital on my cell phone for any piece of economic capital on earth.

Anne Marie Merline is an instructor for the University Honors Program. Her column appears biweekly Mondays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to

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