Wednesday, 28 March 2012

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)
Indeed, the three key factors affording social capital – source of social control, source of family support, source of benefits through related networks – can each be reinterpreted as hindrances to effective decision making through imposing obligations, implying restrictions or exclusion, and entailing unintended consequences and uncertainty. Putnam suggests that such problems can be the result of an imbalance of bonding and bridging social capital in the way that “bridging social capital can generate broader identities and reciprocity, whereas bonding social capital bolsters our narrower selves” (Putnam 2000: 23); however, as with the description of civil society, the notion of “balance” is used in a tautological way.

As mentioned in criticism number four, new ways of mediating relationships can quickly change social interaction, and understanding these dynamics can be important in addressing some of the negative externalities or emerging threats to civil society from, for example, dominant groups, terrorism and organised crime. The rather general notion of social capital, even when addressing the “dark side” of such ties, does not provide instrument in detecting these dynamics or identifying ways to tackle the threat they pose in a controlled and strategic way. In this regards, the components of social capital, for example analysing the reciprocity of obligations, are more useful in analysing gang culture, than the umbrella concept.

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