Wednesday, 7 March 2012

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)
Alejandro Portes, in his analysis of the various applications of social capital in sociology, suggesting that social capital as a rebranding exercise gives the range of processes a more attractive image under a unified concept:

The set of processes encompassed by the concept are not new and have been studied under other labels in the past. Calling them social capital is, to a large extent, just a means of presenting them in a more appealing conceptual garb. (Portes 1998: 21)

This rebranding gives the impression that the concept engages both the economic and the social dimension of association. While it might be true that social networks have economic value to participants, as a generalisation it hides as much as it explains. This is because by treating the concept as though it were a coherent whole and separated from the themes through which its meaning is derived, researchers will fail to explain how the specific mechanisms of trust, community, reciprocity, interpersonal relationships and networks impact on the features they are investigating. If, however, there is the assumption that the concept is greater than the sum of its parts and the complementarities of individual features add cumulative benefits, then this must be stated, the argument clarified and appropriate evidence mobilised. Indeed, combining a series of fragments from different conceptual perspectives is itself unlikely to produce a consistent theoretical approach, but the actual theory building part of the social capital literature is minimal, with more of a “circus tent quality” (De Souza Briggs 1997: 111 cited in Adler and Kwon 2002: 18). In examining the research literature in great detail, Michael Woolcock concludes “that a single term is inadequate to explain the range of empirical situations demanded of it” (Woolcock 1998: 159) on the basis that a range of perspectives conceptualise the concept in different, and conflicting, ways:
If social capital can be rational, pre-rational, or even non-rational, what is it not? At the very least, these different conceptualizations suggest that there may be various forms or dimensions of social capital. (Woolcock 1998: 156)
Perhaps social capital can instead be conceptualised not as a functioning theory, but as an umbrella concept with which a variety of topics and social processes can be mapped, representing exactly the type of diversity identified by Woolcock, in the above quote. This may be an indication that the concept has value in the way it is used in describing, explaining or reformulating important phenomena, such as the appropriability of social ties (Coleman 1988: 108), rather than as a fully formed theory.

To pause for a moment, it is already very clear that the strong hypothesis that social capital is a theory able to explain the mechanism of resource exchange by seamlessly dovetailing the economic dimension with the social dimension of community life, is highly unconvincing. Most academics and researchers are, though, much less concerned with questions related to the conceptualisation of social capital, and much more interested in the localised effects of social capital-related themes in social or organisationally bounded outcomes. The paper will therefore examine some of the issues related to the practical details of the concept in addressing these local experiences, turning firstly to the high profile research that brought the concept to popular attention, beginning with an examination of the status of these explanations.

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