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.

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