Alex Shaw (AS): First off, what is your thesis topic?
Zander Biro (ZB): My thesis topic is essentially looking at developing social capital while in the institution of higher education and how the role of alcohol can actually be beneficial in lowering relationship costs in order to establish a more broad base social network.
AS: I’ve heard there is a bit of a story from how your thesis started to what it ended up being, could you elaborate?
ZB: It has definitely been quite the process. Starting in the fall, it started very broad as everyone says it will, and then through repeated meetings with our thesis class and one-on-one meetings with Bruce Mann, slowly but surely it finally found focus. I really started at first looking at potentially exploring the topic of binge drinking in college, but from there, that was way too broad, so it slowly got chipped away into looking at the benefits of social capital in college drinking, so it was this semester long process where it was just a matter narrowing the focus every single day.
AS: What brought you to focus on alcohol/binge drinking?
ZB: Being a student in college, I’ve had a few experiences with drinking, and just kind of the classic college experience in America involves in some capacity alcohol or binge drinking, and it’s something that I associated with college and I think many people do too. It’s interesting to think of it from an economics prospective, why might alcohol play such a big role in college and if it is positive and it still exists, why does it still exists, what are the positives, and how can you explain it through economics?
AS: What were your findings through this process?
ZB: Essentially my findings are that to gain access to these social capital networks which your receive benefits from some time in the future, you need to develop trust-based relationships, so what I’ve been slowly chipping away at is that alcohol has a beneficial role, almost like a u-shaped curve, where maybe one or two drinks will actually lower your cost to form a trust-based relationships to gain access to that network, but there is a tipping point where too many drinks, too much influence of alcohol can make it near impossible; skyrocket those costs where you can’t make a trust-based relationship because no one can understand you or relate to you, so there is fine line between where there’s the price of alcohol and the social constraints, but essentially I’m trying to find if there is a balance where alcohol is beneficial.
AS: Can you show/explain to me the model you have?
ZB: Here’s a rough model, there’s a primary, secondary, and tertiary level of relationship, where the first level is an acquaintance, someone you see passing by. So cost wise, it’s just going to take some time and some emotional cost, but there aren’t really any social capital benefits; you haven’t developed those yet. You’ll have tons of acquaintances over your college career. From there, there are friends/social relationships; not someone you’d be willing to pour your heart and soul to, but it’s someone you hangout with, maybe it’s someone you could grab a few beers with to lower the cost to get to the next level. There is still a time and emotional cost, but relatively few benefits. Then, you’ll move on to the final level, trust-based relationships which was defined by Robert Putnam. It would require a high level of time and emotional cost, but you arguably receive the social capital and the social capital network.
My thesis hinges on the point that there is an interaction with the number of drinks and the emotional costs, so you start at some imaginary level ‘’y,” and you have one or two drinks and that slowly starts to drop your costs until you hit that prime level of “x” drinks (where emotional cost is at it’s lowest to move to the next level of relationship). You lose that inhibition and you start telling stories and developing that stronger relationship. After that point “x,” your costs are going to skyrocket; that’s where you can’t talk; you’re asleep somewhere.
AS: Do you have any advice for Juniors about the thesis process, or something you wish you knew about the process going into it?
ZB: I definitely would say stay on top of it, come in with a flexible mindset, and a rough idea of what you want to do. Have some avenue you want to go down, and be receptive to advice from your peers, and your professors as well. Everyone really is a source of positive criticism that can help you stream line the process, so it’s not you sitting alone in a dark room, but rather you having a conversation to move your topic forward, to help you develop your point, and what you really want to look into.