My response to Disconnected

Leigh, A. (2010). Disconnected. Sydney, University of New South Wales Press.

The book is short, clear and (until the last two chapters) progresses like what I imagine a well written essay should. It has a simplicity about it that would have taken many hours of work. I certainly did not agree with all of the book and found some of his claims quite puzzling. One example is

It seems probably that religious participation produces a positive social benefit, even for non-churchgoers. Just ask the homeless who visit the Jesuit-run St Candice’s Soup Kitchen in King’s Cross, those suffering from life-threatening illnesses who are visited at home by the Association of Engaged Buddhists, or drug users who receive counselling from Anglicare Australia.’ (35)

I refrained, only just, from yelling, ‘Well, what if you did ask them?’ Also, Leigh’s claims about ‘cakes’* being part of the social capital contribution of the feminisation of the workplace, and so a positive trend that will continue as increasing numbers of women have careers, did not sit so well with me. Are we expecting that future generations of females to have the same predisposition to ‘cakes’ and buying gifts for new mothers?

My initial reaction to the actual idea of the book was probably unjustifiably negative. Now that I have read the book, but neglected combing through the notes to work out what data Leigh has actually used, I feel that I am not the person to comment (but I will anyway). It is clearly going to be useful for many a first year university student wanting to think a little bit about writing using statistics, but not interested in the actual magic behind the statistics, and it seems more accessible and painless compared to much of the work I have read on social capital. Leigh even has the odd ribbon of charmingly dorky humour wound through. Leigh further endears himself at times with his suggestion that he is uncool, such as when he says, ‘As a social scientist, my holiday interests ten to be a little different from most people’s. … You too can use your built-in trust thermometer.’ (118) Although I must say my (many less years) of social science training have left me with a strong understanding that eye contact and smiles is hardly a universally valid ‘built-in’ trust thermometer, so I doubt it is appropriate for measuring trust in ‘diverse’ communities.

The mentions I had seen of Disconnected made reference to Leigh’s advocacy of Canberra as having a ‘physical environment [which] is highly conducive to social capital.’ (156) These claims were there in the last two pages of the second last chapter. However, I was a little amused to see that Leigh mentions Canberra resident’s assessments of their city as, ‘Even within the ACT, Canberra-boosting is considered mildly unfashionable.’ (156) Measuring what percent of people donate money, volunteer, cast a valid vote, play organised sport and the rate of littering for the area (155) are pretty accepted indicators I guess. Yet I cannot help but wonder why the thought of people in Canberra about the place or social relationships where they live is just a slightly humours misdirection, rather than being part of the core issue. This is especially the case when you consider it is a city set up to be capital city of Australia, with many people moving there to work in the public service so you would hope such people cast a valid vote and imagine they have an extra incentive to find organised activities in order to meet people (or build a certain type of CV valued by Canberra based employment?). Perhaps it is not just urban planning we should be looking at if we want the rest of Australia to match Canberra’s ratings, perhaps it would require more radical policies of interstate migration for work and other states removing industries that Canberra does not have? (Not that I would advocate such policies.) Leigh does advocate something about encouraging people to go to different places, but he suggests rewarding (through a HECS discount) ‘young Australians for volunteering in disadvantaged neighbourhoods’ (157). Seeing as he says, ‘There is … a dearth of material available on social capital in poor and migrant neighbourhoods.’ (152), I am not sure where this recommendation comes from.

Andrew Leigh is now an Australian Labor Party MHR for the seat of Fraser (in Canberra). With a final chapter focused on what individual Australians should be doing, and the odd bit of policy consideration, it still contrasts greatly with work by Mark Latham whose work has often had a much larger focus on policy. (Mark Latham gets a brief mention for his ‘The system is fundamentally sick and broken, and there are other more productive and satisfying ways you can contribute to society.’ quote at the start of the chapter on Politics.) Disconnected is, according to my memory, much less emotive than Wayne Swan’s book and, while Leigh makes multiple simplifications that I found frustrating, I do not think I could even begin to compare the images of Australians offered by the two texts.

In terms of the books relationship with work on social capital more generally, the debates around the idea of social capital seem to be briefly mentioned in a note and his acknowledgements include people that I thought had made slightly contradictory arguments. The acknowledgements start with Robert Putnam, and throughout the book Leigh suggests that his Australian findings fit with Putnam’s American ones. Leigh even suggests resolving the issue of diversity reducing social capital with Putnam’s argument that forms of diversity can become less important over time, such as the Catholic-Protestant divide (145).

In conclusion, I was not finding myself want to go off on hour long rants against claims made in Disconnected. This could be because I feel well rested after my holiday and/or because this is a book is underpinned by a project that is rather different to anything I am interested in doing. I am sure it will be a handy text for citing whenever anybody is writing an essay about social capital in Australia.

*’But in many Australian companies, socialising takes more diverse forms, which probably owe their origin to workplace feminisation. For example, some public service departments have a weekly ritual called ‘cakes’. … It is difficult to imagine the comfortable ritual of ‘cakes’ being implemented in a all-male workplace.’ (83-84)


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2 Responses to “My response to Disconnected”

  1. A quick reference to Leigh and social capital « Another student blog Says:

    […] ‘real world’ to be able to appreciate his arguments for randomised control trials and what he chooses to measure. Still, I have been collecting various references to his work, so I thought this link belongs on […]

  2. Tracey Says:

    Here you will find the text of a speech by Andrew Leigh that provides a rather good snapshot …

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