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)
In this way, the “social” element of social capital is therefore supplementary, adding to and replacing the features of capital such that it undermines the concept of capital itself, for example capital is characterised as being depleted by utilisation; however, social capital is depleted by not being utilised. In this way, by introducing new forms of capital – social, human, knowledge – to fill in gaps in the concept, the meaning of the concept as a whole is actually eroded. This is because we can say less about the features that unifies the concept of “capital” than when it was strictly a form of non human factor of production. Additionally, social capital itself becomes a dangerous supplement (see Derrida 1976: 141-164), completing the economic explanation of a specific phenomenon without changing it, while simultaneous challenging this explanation, by indicating that the explanation was unsuccessful and thus needed to be changed. The social cannot supplement or contextualise economic explanations without changing them because it is not a substance, factor or context but is, instead a type of connection or the trace of other, non-social, associations.

While the name “social capital” and its implications for conceptualising features such as trust or community and friendship ties in economic terms are shown to be problematic, this need not imply that the concept is inconsequential if it can expose something of the nature of networks or relationships that might otherwise be hidden. The social capital literature continues to grow and its application to new research questions continues to spread, implying that the concept has resonance with a wide range of questions or approaches: to paraphrase Victor Hugo, there is nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come, especially if the idea has an appealing, even if misleading, name. The blog will therefore address this use of social capital in order to examine its potential as a theory or idea, before turning to its promise as an explanatory concept.

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