5 questions with Harvard’s Mario Luis Small

Mario L. Small, Ph.D., Grafstein Family Professor at Harvard University, is the author of award-winning books and articles on networks, poverty, organizations, culture, methods, neighborhoods, institutions, and other topics. He is currently using large-scale administrative data to understand isolation in cities, studying how people use their networks to meet their needs, and exploring the epistemological foundations of qualitative research. His latest book is Someone To Talk To (Oxford). A study of how people decide whom to approach when seeking support, the book is an inquiry into human nature, a critique of network analysis, and a discourse on the role of qualitative research in the big-data era.

Mario serves on Capita’s Advisory Board and spoke with me recently about leveraging early childhood education and care programs to build social capital, his latest research, and what he thinks is healthiest about America today.


JW: In Congressional testimony last year you said that “early education and childcare programs may be an especially effective venue to help low-income parents generate social capital.” Why is this the case and how can early education programs be more diligent in helping parents generate social capital?

MLS: In my research I have found that parents, and especially mothers, of young children of across class backgrounds tend to expand their networks when they enroll their children in childcare centers. Childcare centers tend to have practices, such as required meetings, fundraisers, activities, and drop-off/pick-up requirements, that tend to put parents in contact with one another. At the same time, the parents in any given center tend to have a lot in common — they are all parents, of course, and tend to be facing many of the same challenges, but they also tend to be of the same socio-economic background. All of these conditions encourage people to fund bonds.

Early education programs can help not so trying to force parents to form friendships but by increasing the accountability and responsibility parents feel toward the organization. When parents are invested through hiring, fundraisers, and curricular issues in such programs — -issues with concrete consequences for the wellbeing and education of their children — -they will get involved. And they will get involved in the meaningful ways that tend to create friendships, acquaintances, and useful contacts.

Mario Luis Small, Ph.D.

JW: You have interviewed hundreds, if not thousands, of low-income people, in a search to better understand social capital. In all those conversations, what have you learned about friendship?

MLS: One of the biggest things I have learned is the we tend to be less distrustful of others than we say often we are or usually think about ourselves. If you ask a typical person if they would confide something personally important to someone they do not know well usually answer with an emphatic “no.” But once you help them recall their actual experiences, what they actually did that time they were very despondent, or the time they ran into someone with the same problem, or the time they were sitting next to a chatty person on the plane, their actions reveal a natural inclination to seek people to trust.

JW: We tend to focus on what is wrong with our country, with our people, and with our politics. I’m interested in your perspective as a social scientist: where or in what ways is America healthiest?

MLS: The United States has a strong tradition of encouraging people to pursue their interests, aspirations, in spite of the obstacles that may be on the way. This can-do attitude has benefited the country immensely over the years. In this context, it is important that we create and support both private and public institutions that support people’s ability to meet their aspirations, that facilitate their access to other people and their resources.

JW: What is one book we should read, podcast we should listen to, or piece of art we should encounter to better understand the contemporary experience of childhood?

MLS: There are No Children Here, by Alex Kotlowitz. We should all contrast what we believe childhood should be to what Kotlowitz uncovered by taking seriously the lives of two boys growing up in conditions all-too-common in our society.

JW: What are you working on next?

MLS: Last week I published a co-authored paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Society in which we studied social isolation, the extent to which people in disadvantaged neighborhoods come into contact with those elsewhere, and we found reason for concern. I am continuing to study how people form and use their networks to meet their ends. And I considering writing a book about why knowing how to think about and analyze qualitative data — -the kind of data that come from in-depth interviews and direct observation — -is important to our ability to assess the news and media commentary as responsible citizens.