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New research suggests that stores like Walmart may undermine the social capital of communities.

Economists and sociologists have for years pointed to a number of variables associated with the rise of hate groups in communities across the U.S., including high crime rates, high unemployment, low education, and geographic location. Communities located in the old Confederate states, for instance, have been shown to have higher odds of housing hate groups.

Now come findings about a surprising new variable no one has looked at before: Is there a Walmart nearby?

A new study published online in the journal Social Science Quarterly – which seems sure to turn heads at Walmart headquarters – suggests that big box stores may be even more closely correlated with the presence of hate groups than many of the factors that have long been used to explain them.

Before anyone gets too worked up, the study’s authors aren’t saying that Walmarts cause hate groups to form (they’re also using Walmart here as a stand-in for all big box stores; Target merely got off the hook in the study headline). Rather, this research suggests national mega-stores like Walmart may fray the social capital in a community – by disrupting its economy and displacing the community leaders who run local businesses – in ways that enable hate groups to take hold.

The authors, Penn State’s Stephan Goetz, New Mexico State University’s Anil Rupasingha and Michigan State’s Scott Loveridge, examined the locations of Walmarts nationally from 1998, alongside data on hate groups from the Southern Poverty Law Center and several other regional indicators. Of all the variables they looked at, the number of Walmarts in a county was the second-most significant predictor of the presence of hate groups, behind only the designation of a county as a Metropolitan Statistical Area, or in other words an urban one.

Big box stores have previously been shown to produce steep declines in traditional downtown shopping districts, both in the towns that host them and surrounding communities. And economic turmoil, the authors write, is considered one precursor to “hate activity":

The hatred is not necessarily directed at the groups causing the change. Thus hate group members could easily shop at Wal-Mart while simultaneously striking out at other groups due to perceived changes in their community’s general economic outlook, regardless of the cause.

The researchers offer some other potential explanations for this Walmart effect, some more of a stretch than others. Big box stores contribute to a kind of anonymous social experience. And in these anonymous settings, the strong social bonds that could inoculate a community against hate groups may disappear. The authors also cite previous psychology research that suggests exposure to concepts from Protestant Puritanism may make people less tolerant, arguing that Walmart’s thrifty “Save Money. Live Better.” tagline sounds a bit like the Protestant ethic. (Speaking of buying things, we’re not sure we buy this logic.)

These findings undoubtedly require more investigation. Social capital, an idea widely popularized in Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone, plays a crucial role in communities, but one that's not entirely understood. And to the extent that big box stores may undermine social capital, the rise of hate groups may be only the most extreme of our concerns. As the authors conclude:

We doubt strongly that Wal-Mart intends to create such effects or that it specifically seeks to locate in places where hate groups form. However, our discovery of an association between Wal-Mart locations and hate groups could lead the corporation’s foundation to play a larger role in supporting the types of local groups that enhance the social capital index used in our analysis.

Top image: Northfoto / Shutterstock.com

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