Social Capital Research Paper

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In a broad and nonessentialist sense, social capital means that the relations humans enter into are a potential source of utility and benefit for them. However, the concept of social capital is perceived in divergent ways with a plurality of approaches and empirical operationalizations. Unfortunately, there is little discussion among dissenting viewpoints.

After an earlier emergence in the work of Lydia Hanifan (1916) or Jane Jacobs (1961), the term social capital resurfaced in the 1970s in the work of economist Glenn Loury. For Loury, the social context in which one finds oneself embedded strongly conditions one’s achievement. This is profoundly evident whenever social divisions that structure inequalities, such as race or class, are at play. In such a context, Loury describes social capital as the impact of one’s own social position, which acts to further or impede the acquisition of human capital (the market-valued assets of education and skills) (Loury 1977, pp. 175-176).

Pierre Bourdieu, James S. Coleman, and Social Capital

Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) was the first to conceptualize social capital in an explicitly sociological manner that is at variance with Loury’s view. For Bourdieu, capital consists of accumulated human labor that either assumes a distinct material form or an integrated form as part of an objective or subjective structure, the latter being the predispositions of mind and body (Bourdieu 2001, p. 98). Bourdieu also understands capital in the sense of power and resources (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992).

Bourdieu is concerned with three forms of capital: economic, cultural, and social, each operating in a different field. Among them, social capital, which neither derives from nor is independent of the other forms, comprises social responsibilities, connections, or linkages, and under certain circumstances is convertible into economic capital. Bourdieu also considers the family to be a basic source of social capital, mainly found among the socially powerful in the upper middle class or haute bourgeoisie; the ideal-typical institutionalized form of social capital is the nobility title (Bourdieu 2001, p. 98). By contrast, the lower social strata do not possess capital, including social capital (Bourdieu 1986).

Social capital is formed, more or less consciously, via integration into networks. Unlike economic capital, social capital has no specific material form. It is also characterized by a certain indeterminacy, so that there can be, for example, a residual sense of unspecified obligation. Social capital is, in a sense, “suspended” in midair, like social structures. This, according to Bourdieu, is an inevitable dimension of social capital. If it were clear and specific, it would simply be a series of ordinary nonmarket transactions. Social capital, according to Bourdieu, is “the sum of active or potential resources that are connected through the possession of a network of permanent relations of mutual acquaintance and recognition, which are more or less institutionalized, or, in other words, with the inclusion into a group” (Bourdieu 1994, p. 90). Participation in a group provides each member “with the backing of the collectivity-owned capital, a ‘credential’ that entitles them to credit in the various senses of the word” (Bourdieu 2001, p. 103). Importantly, the agent of action is the separate individual member of the group.

Transactions between group members require a minimum degree of homogeneity, and the profits that accrue from membership form the basis of the solidarity that makes such transactions possible. Bourdieu clearly holds that the reproduction of social capital requires a continuous effort of “sociability” and continual repeated contacts during which mutual recognition by group members is confirmed in order to sustain group cohesion (Bourdieu 2001, p. 104).

For his part, while studying school failure and aiming at the reinforcement of human capital, James Coleman (1926—1995) came to regard social capital as a means of support. In particular, he claims that social capital strengthens students’ school and university performance and, therefore, the generation of human capital. This view is much in line with Loury’s conceptualization of social capital, yet here social capital is explicitly a positive and enhanceable quality (Coleman and Hoffer 1987; Coleman 1988).

Coleman uses this notion of social capital in connection with other forms of capital, such as economic-financial, natural, and human capital. Specifically, social capital results from changes that take place between individuals, facilitating social action (Coleman 1990, p. 302).

Coleman defines social capital on the basis of its function, as a range of entities with two common attributes: These entities are all aspects of social structures, and they all facilitate certain actions within structures, by individual or collective agents (Coleman 1988, p. S98). Social capital may assume three forms: “obligations and expectations, which depend on trustworthiness of the social environment, information-flow capability of the social structure, and norms accompanied by sanctions” (p. S119). Coleman, like Bourdieu, stresses the nonconcrete, nonmaterial, and indefinite character of social capital as compared to other forms of capital. However, in contradistinction to Bourdieu, he notes that unlike other forms of capital, social capital is a public good, because those who generate social capital enjoy only a limited part of its benefits (pp. S116-S118). Social capital is not solely a property or benefit of the individual agent who generates it, but also of other individuals, as well as of the community. Because social capital is embedded within the social context, certain characteristics of social relations can facilitate its appearance, including trust and reciprocity among the members of the inner-group, effective normative regulations, and open social structures (pp. S102-S105, S106).

It is important to distinguish resources from the ability to acquire them, through participation in networks or social structures. This distinction is clear in Bourdieu, but vague in Coleman. By equating social capital with the resources through which it is acquired, or which it creates, one is led toward tautology and a vicious circle. In this sense, it can be argued that Coleman’s conceptualization gets blurred and eventually loses much of its value.

Robert D. Putnam, Social Capital, and Critique

Parallel to the ongoing sociological interest in social capital, this notion has also been adopted by other disciplines. Political scientist Robert Putnam, for example, has developed his ideas in relation to social capital especially. He points out that social capital is formed by “features of [social organizations, or ] social life —networks, norms, and trust—that enable participants to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives” (Putnam 1995, pp. 664-665, emphasis added; Putnam 1993, p. 67).

Putman broadens the notion of social capital from the level of individual and collective actors to the level of organizations and communities (Wollebaek and Selle 2002, p. 34; Portes 2000), and from there to social life as a whole. The latter includes cities, regions, and even entire countries. Coleman had already attempted such an expansion of meaning, as we have seen. However, the problem of silence relating to the supposedly neutral character of horizontal ties, raised in sociological discussions of Coleman’s definition of social capital, cannot be tolerated in Putnam’s conceptual transference. In the neopluralistic participatory context that the latter has adopted, differences in economic, social, or other forms of power do not raise a significant issue; hence what prevails is participation as such and the extent to which it appears.

Participatory attitudes within the context of community networks seem to generate additional forms of social capital. Thus, social capital can do the “bonding,” “bridging,” or even “linking” of social groups. This means, respectively, forming ties between people in similar situations, bringing together people in different situations who belong to different social groups (Svendsen 2006), and mustering heterogeneous social groups together (Woolcock 2001). All result in synergies that effect positive outcomes in virtually all fronts. Undoubtedly, in this way networks appear to be vehicles of social capital.

In fact, in Putnam’s approach, social capital stock is equal to the participatory attitude in a community. Specifically, social capital is not researched directly, but instead proxies are used: Social capital is operationalized through indices such as, primarily, the degree of participation in volunteer organizations (Welzel et al. 2005, p. 121); trust toward authorities or others; the reading of newspapers, which reflects an interest in public affairs; and similar indices that mostly apply to the mezzo- and macro-levels (Putnam 2000). So, the key in researching social capital is the keenness of participation, or more broadly civic values or the ethos of “civicness” from which willingness to participate originates.

Attempts at deconstruction and critical recomposition of social capital have been made by sociologist Alejandro Portes and his associates, among others. Portes and Julia Sensenbrenner (1993) suggest a clear distinction between the sources of social capital and the results of its action. They recognize four sources from which social capital originates: (1) internalization of values; (2) transactions of a reciprocal character; (3) forms of collective solidarity; and (4) the trust imposed by negative or positive sanctions. It is accepted that the sources of social capital are embedded in the motives of network/group members to provide resources. These include consumma-tory motives, and those cultivated within the community, with solidarity strikes being a typical case. They may also originate from instrumental motives involving the expectation of reciprocity and trust (e.g., the sponsor is secured against fraud) (Portes and Sensenbrenner 1993; Portes 1998, p. 8).

The various sources of social capital lead to its composite formation so that social capital is the ability to secure benefits via “participation in networks and other social structures” (Portes 1998, p. 6). Of course, the idea that interconnections favor individual upward mobility may also be found in writers like Mark Granovetter (1973, 1983) who avoid the term social capital.

While Bourdieu does not take an interest in whether the effects of social capital are positive or negative, in Coleman’s work, social capital is presented as exerting a fundamentally positive social influence, especially in the case of social problems tackled through the effectiveness of social capital. For Putnam too, social capital is a “blessing” that reduces anomie, promotes democracy, and produces wealth. However, Portes and his associates reject this all-positive account of social capital and its effects as one-dimensional, while stressing a number of negative aspects: Of prime importance is the exclusion of non-members, and the excessive demands made upon rich members of the social capital network (or group) for compliance, uncensored acceptance, and so forth.

Portes’s interventions offer a more balanced understanding of social capital and its potential. The notion is not rejected but rationalized, with emphasis on the need to systematically study the effects of social capital and avoid attributing irrelevant, accidental, or spurious effects to it (Portes 1998, 2000; Portes and Landolt 2000; Portes and Mooney 2002). This perception has led to conceptualizations of social capital more akin to the micro-level that focus on the individual’s relationships to her or his network of social connections and the benefits and resources she or he may muster. Such approaches tend to restrict the agentic impact, even if they give a place to it, while underlying that of social structure (Lin 2000, 2001). In such explorations, which tend to utilize qualitative methods, one of the main concerns is to decipher causality in generating and activating social capital (Mouw 2005; Smith 2003).

The wider promotion of the contentious notion of social capital, and the strengthening and broadening of its usage, mainly took place through the work of Putnam, who came to influence key politicians, including U.S. president Bill Clinton, plus a series of international organizations like the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the European Union. At the same time, social capital has come to be used in ever-increasing ways as a recipe for non-economic solutions to social problems (Halpern 2005). The overextension of its meaning and the consequent slackening of its application have led to contestation about its true content. It now appears that the notion of social capital has, to a significant extent, been taken over by agents of ideological and political intervention (Koniordos 2006). However, the social capital notion is certainly of social-scientific interest if its use is suitably restricted to what it may substantively explain.


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