The Rural Development Initiative Project team, led by sociology professor Terry Besser, has spent the past 20 years studying changes in the quality of life for 15,000 residents in 99 small towns in Iowa…
“Small towns often don’t have much in the way of financial resources,” Besser said. “If they’re able to marshal their social capital, they have a network of people they can call on who trust each other to get things done.” High social capital can mean better economic prosperity, cultural amenities, and high-quality public services.
The researchers have already found certain traits, that seem like they should be positive attributes, can actually be a potential weakness for small towns.
Besser says the feeling of belonging to a tight-knit community could result in excluding newer residents, thus closing off some outside ideas and resources and potentially stunting community growth and development.
Narrow leadership channels, through one person or family or organization, might help in the short term but also can discourage other residents from getting involved. Leaders who can work separately – and as a team – provide more effective, sustainable leadership according to the early study results.
While this comes from studying small towns, it could apply to many in-groups: they often face issues about how many resources should be devoted to building and maintaining internal solidarity versus engaging with outside groups and institutions. Being completely insular may not be ideal but neither might low levels of group togetherness where there is little cohesion. I suspect there is no “ideal level” of balance between these two purposes but rather a range of possible positive outcomes where communities could engage the outside world while also building themselves up.