This paper offers theoretical and empirical contributions to understanding the micro-sociological processes behind the creation of social capital. Theoretically, we argue that the emotional and shared experience of participating in symbolic interaction rituals may affect social capital in four different ways, via: (i) a 'citizenship' effect, connecting participants symbolically to the broader, civic society; (ii) a 'supportive' effect, bonding participants with each other; (iii) an exclusive 'tribal' effect, which crowds-out connections with other groups and the wider society; and (iv) an 'atomising' effect, whereby intense experiences create mental health problems that damage social capital.
We illustrate this with a case study of Australian veterans of the Vietnam War. The randomness of the National Service conscription lotteries of that era translates into a high-quality natural experiment. We formulate several hypotheses about which of the four effects dominates for veterans who participated in the 'symbolic interaction' of training and deployment. We test these hypotheses using data from the 2006 Australian Census of Population and Housing, and the NSW 45 & Up Study.
We found that war service reduced 'bonding' social capital, but increased 'bridging' social capital, and this is not explained completely by mental health problems. This suggests that while the combined 'tribal' and 'atomizing' effects of service outweigh the 'supportive' effects, the 'citizenship' effect is surprisingly robust. Although they feel unsupported and isolated, veterans are committed to their community and country. These paradoxical findings suggest that social capital is formed through symbolic interaction. The emotional and symbolic qualities of interaction rituals may formulate non-strategic (perhaps irrational) connections with society regardless of the status of one's personal support networks.