Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Eight Criticisms of Social Capital

Criticism 2: Social capital is a concept indicative of the colonisation of sociological territory by fundamentally economic notions – it isn’t social.

While scholars identify sociologists, such as Pierre Bourdieu and James Coleman as key figures in the development of social capital, there is the suggestion that it remains a fundamentally economic concept, fitting closely with the work of rational choice economists, such as Gary Becker, and, as such, is a Trojan horse through which mainstream economists seek, like Becker, to occupy terrain that had been the preserve of sociologists.
using the phrase probably allows sociologists more access to the ears and wallets of the powers-that-be than simply writing about, say, friendship and church attendance. On the other hand, the term has reciprocally allowed economists to colonize sociologists’ topics (Fischer 2005: 157)
Economists engaging with other social scientists could be a potentially a profitable undertaking for social science if new insights emerge within a collaborative exercise, but the notion of social capital is not engagement, but the application of an undiluted economic description on otherwise social terrain. In this way social capital is not an expansion though economic considerations, but a reduction to economic thinking. Ben Fine and Francis Green develop a similar argument, arguing that as well as being indicative of an unhealthy colonisation of the other social sciences by economics, social capital is also based on a reductionist argument. They argue that the concept is “reductionist across a number of dimensions: to the individual, to utility maximisation and to universal categories” (Fine and Green 2000: 91). Indeed, even without this direct reduction to economic concepts that Fine and Green identify, social capital can be perceived as a reductionist concept even when its use purports to give a “social context” to relationships. This is because it erases the social in order to introduce the component used to contextualise it – simultaneously reifying the social and reducing it to characteristics of something else (see also Latour 2005: 3-6). Turning to Fine again:
That “social” is attached to capital to mark a distinct category is indicative of the failure to understand capital as social in its economic, putatively non-social form (Fine 2002: 797)

Eight Criticisms of Social Capital

Criticism 1: Social capital is a concept based on a misleading metaphor – it isn’t capital

Social capital seems to be different from other types of capital as described by economists. While this need not be a problem for the concept if it is coherently explained in relation to other forms of capital, or as a complementary part of the family of capitals, its difference to the convention notion of capital has been acknowledged but rarely interrogated. One example of such an interrogation is found in economist Kenneth Arrow’s work (Arrow 1999). Arrow argues that the word “capital” implies three elements: extension in time; an intended sacrifice for deferred benefit; alienability. Arrow concludes that the concept of social capital lacks each of the three elements required to be a genuine example of capital and therefore found no reason for “adding something called ‘social capital’ to other forms of capital” (Arrow 1999: 4). Further to this, those outside economics recognise that the difference with other forms of capital weaken the explanatory power of the concept through confusion with the functions of other forms of capital. For example Samuel Bowles argues that while the concept “social capital” might describe important relationships, the term itself and the way it is conceptualised in the literature, is so unlike other forms of capital that the term “social capital” should be abandoned:
“Capital” refers to a thing possessed by individuals; even a social isolate like Robinson Crusoe had an axe and a fishing net. By contrast, the attributes said to make up social capital—such as trust, commitment to others, adhering to social norms and punishing those who violate them—describe relationships among people (Bowles 1999: 6)