Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Last Thoughts on Social Capital (for now)

Even the past few weeks I have been examining a range of criticisms of social capital and I think the eight criticisms posted has demonstrated that concept of social capital has a number of serious weaknesses. The nature of its weakness is not that it is based on fallacious interpretations or incorrect descriptions but rather that it produces descriptions that retain unresolved tensions. Though perhaps like suspension bridges, such tensions are responsible for the concept’s strengths, indeed, Schuller, Baron and Field (2000) argue that weaknesses such as its definitional diversity and extreme versatility can in some contexts become strengths (Schuller, Baron and Field 2000: 24-25). They conclude that the concept is a useful heuristic and can help, in particular, in reinserting value into social science discourse, overcome disciplinary boundaries and provide a link between the micro, meso and macro levels of analysis. While these assertions are supported with some examples of empirical research, such claims are still rather vague and apply equally to social networks explanations, which at least have the benefits of clearer methods of analysis.

An earlier post began with a quote from Adler and Kwon, and it would be unfair to these authors not to mention that they concluded their review of the concept with a note of caution:
There does not, as yet, seem to be anything resembling a rigorous theory or metatheory that can incorporate the strengths of the existing, competing theories and transcend their respective limitations (Adler and Kwom 2002: 34)

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Eight Criticisms of Social Capital

Criticism 8: the concept is difficult to operationalise, attempts to do so have been inconsistent and obscure the way more specific concepts have been applied.

The concept of social capital remains somewhat indistinct, but other imprecise concepts have been useful to the social sciences, often with their importance emerging though the process in which they become operationally defined, as with many of the core concepts of critical geography. To be useful to researchers, the concept of social capital has to be comparable from case to case, which leads to the crucial question of how the concept of social capital becomes operationalised in research. This problem can be exemplified by examining the way in which social capital research has been applied to the innovation process.

The process of innovation has been analysed in terms of technology networks, in particular the systems of innovation literature (e.g. Lunvall 1992) and social network (e.g. Obstfeld 2005). In relation to such networks, a sizable body of research suggests that social capital plays a key function in the innovation process, identifying its function in features such as learning and communicating, and developing relations based on trust (for example Maskall 2000; Landry, Amara, and Lamari 2002; Molina et. al. 2008). Peter Maskell, for example, focuses on the features that are built though sharing a common goal or connected by a mutual fate, stating:
Social capital enables firms to improve their innovation capability and conduct business transactions without much fuss and has, therefore, substantial implications for economic performance (Maskell 2000: 111)

Eight Criticisms of Social Capital

Criticism 7: Social capital, as outlined in the literature, can be a hindrance to economic success, with different types of negative externalities, barriers to meritocratic and efficient decision making. Social capital has a dark side.

A further set of problems for the concept of social capital relate to the negative effects of social networks. Social capital, as described by leading advocates such as Robert Putnam (2000), relates as much to the negative consequences of networks as to the positive but even though there is a growing recognition that often one person’s advantage from social capital is at the opportunity cost of the exclusion of another, most research emphasises the positive aspects of network relationships linked to social capital, though a growing amount of research addresses this imbalance (see Adler and Kwon 2002: 30-31; Portes 1998: 15-18; Quibria 2003: 29). So if the social capital thesis were correct, i.e. that greater participation in social networks provides more opportunities for participants and communities, this implies that there is a trade-off between features such as community solidarity and individual freedom, create barriers to meritocracy, while at the same time suggesting that increases in social capital also enable opportunities for pursuing negative or anti-social ends. Mancur Olson, for example, illustrated the way professional associations, trade unions and trade associations can sometimes hinder the economic opportunities of members by placing obligations and restrictions on their activity (Olson 1982) and other forms of limitations or negative externalities have been observed in much the same way as positive effects are said to emerge from social capital:
Sociability cuts both ways…it can also lead to public “bads.” Mafia families, prostitution and gambling rings, and youth gangs offer so many examples of how embeddedness in social structures can be turned to less than socially desirable ends (Portes 1998: 18)

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Eight Criticisms of Social Capital

Criticism 6: Social capital is difficult enough to define, but it is impossible to measure.

Following from the difficulty of defining and mapping social capital’s network contours is another pressing problem: that of measurement and other empirical indications related to the amount, or the importance of recent changes, in the type and quantity of social capital. Neither social capital nor its effects can be accurately measured in comparable ways, with some very influential research based exclusively on oversimplified measures and misleading comparisons (see Maraffi1994; Morlino 1995). Other attempts require reconceptualising social capital as assets or resources embedded within networks or to the value of a position within such networks, though these surrogates are based upon valuations of wealth, power, and status or access to bridging facilities (see Lin 1999: 37-38) and, as such, are factors that are arbitrarily valued or difficult to determine or grossly oversimplified. The most cited measures and statistics are also those with the most narrow conception of the concept, i.e. those cited by Robert Putnam, in which large United States data sets, in particular the General Social Survey and other longitudinal, national surveys, are analysed in detail to detect changes in a number of key measurements to account for the decay of social capital and a decline in engagement in American society (Putnam 2000). Rather than giving clear indications of such change, the research data is, on closer inspection, inconclusive. In an attempt to reconstruct Putnam’s findings using the same measures as Putnam, though on a smaller scale (trust, voting, church attendance, organisation membership, meeting with neighbours and friends, philanthropic giving) Claude Fischer shows that the relationships between the variables Putnam associates with social capital is not supported by the data:

Eight Criticisms of Social Capital

Criticism 5: Related to the previous criticism of circularity is the problem of the direction of causality. Changes in social capital and changes in communities, even if they are related, it is difficult to show which direction causality originated.

While circumstantial evidence suggests that social capital, as measured in terms of active participation in associations that knit society together is associated with perceptions of decline in the community (see Putnam 2000) if the two are causally related, its direction that has not been fully resolved, as Steven Durlauf notes:
Do trust-building social networks lead to efficacious communities, or do successful communities generate these types of social ties? As far as I know, no study has been able to shed much light on this question (Durlauf 1999: 3)
More recently, a number of studies have attempted to provide a causal relationship using different methods (see, for example, Rose 2000; Mohan and Mohan 2002; Landry, Amara, and Lamari 2002); however, even these results are far from conclusive. The lack of precision concerning the causes and consequences of features associated with social capital is a direct consequence of operating a multiplicity of concepts under the same umbrella term. The importance of trust, social support and social exchange depend on different mechanisms and the nature of the interdependencies and feedback mechanisms that exist between these factors in different circumstances is not clarified by grouping them together as homogenous components. The complex nature of the interdependencies and feedback dynamics implies that linear descriptions of causality are unenlightening at best and in danger of presenting inappropriate policy instruments, and yet the literature, while acknowledging this challenge, neither address it, nor challenge the conventional direction of causality:

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Eight Criticisms of Social Captial

Criticism 4: Social Capital is not an explanation but rather a tautology.

A key weakness, even for some of the most influential social capital explanations (for example Putnam 1993), is that they begin with the effects of social capital and describe the differences between positive and negative examples in terms of the way social capital has been responsible for producing these effects. These explanations are thus not explanations at all, but rather circular arguments. As Portes points out, when Putnam argues that a town is “civic” because it has civic participation and “incivic” if it doesn’t, it explains nothing since: “equating social capital with the resources acquired through it can easily lead to tautological statements” (Portes 1998: 5). Untangling the causes, effects, correlations and conjunctions is a difficult undertaking when dealing with networks and complex interdependencies, and bold claims should be based on theory, a mechanism, excellent case studies or other solid empirical findings, preferably triangulated with other data. And yet it is exactly the bold claims made on behalf of social capital that are gaining it currency (DeFilippis 2001: 801) claims based on co-location (Fischer 2005) the product of many additional factors that difficult to reduce to mere resources.

Furthermore, the research analysis into the loss of social capital is equally flawed in failing to consider or give attention to ways in which social relationships have found new ways of expressing themselves (see also Lin 1999: 43-48). Technology mediated communication through blogs, posting on message boards, or social networking, with its 500 million members, lead to social interaction, relationships, campaigning and dissemination of knowledge (see, for example, Williams and Gulati 2006). Robert Wuthnow, for example, shows that there are indeed changes in participation rather than a decline, with shifts from bureaucratic forms to more ad hoc forms of participation, which have manifested themselves in many forms that social capital research has not always picked up on (Wuthnow 1998). When it is convenient to explain change in terms of social capital-like ways, such intangible resources can be invokes, and yet when there is a need to show the absence of social capital, these networks and modes of communication can be conveniently downscaled in importance. Social capital interpreted as the “right kind of connectivity” can be a form of hindsight bias or confirmation bias even when it seems to be a cogent explanation.

Eight Criticisms of Social Capital

Criticism 3: Social capital is not an original concept, but rather a rebranding of a loose collection of themes related to trust and group participation from social psychology, sociology and economics – it isn’t a theory.

Different fields of research use the word “theory” to mean different things, though it is generally taken to mean an explanation or descriptive assertion related to specified events. While there might be disagreement on exactly might constitute a theory, social capital doesn’t seem to possess the characteristics that would make it a theory at all. After difficulties with the social and capital dimension of the concept, the failure to generate theoretical analysis is, as Bruno Latour said of the theory element of Actor Network Theory in 1999, the third nail in the coffin:

To a large extent social capital is “just” a powerful renaming and collecting together of a large swath of network research from the social support literature to social resource theory (Borgatti and Foster 2003: 993)