The term social capital first began to be defined in the 1970s and remained largely restricted to the academic world of the social sciences until the 1990s, when it suddenly emerged as a central element in public discussions and policy debates about the quality of civic culture in Western nations, especially the United States of America. At the same time it also gained a place of prominence in discussions of political and economic "development" in the non-Western world by international agencies such as the World Bank. Despite this rapid ascent—becoming a key analytical concept used by academics (primarily sociologists, political scientists, and economists, but also anthropologists and historians), government policy planners, and international officials in development agencies within less than a generation—a firm definition of the term has not yet emerged, which is not surprising given that what it seeks to describe is largely intangible, diffuse, and elusive. As a result there has been a proliferation of usages, which has weakened the conceptual cogency of the term.
Broadly defined, what most authors mean in the early twenty-first century, when they write of social capital are social networks of cooperation in which people invest and from which they may ultimately derive benefits. According to most contemporary theorists of the concept, the three most important diagnostic features of such networks are social interaction, civic trust, and normative behavior.
Social capital is a theoretical concept rather than a clearly tangible phenomenon. Interaction, trust, and norms are observable and even measurable phenomena, whereas social capital is not itself perceptible, and hence difficult to define. Nevertheless, the first references to the term (as opposed to a defined concept) of social capital were observational rather than theoretical.
Most studies trace the first use of the term to a 1916 academic study by Lyda Judson Hanifan, a school supervisor, on the deterioration of civic culture in rural West Virginia. The next and perhaps most influential use of the idea came with Jane Jacobs's 1961 study of the decline of American cities, a study that was based on her close observations of the changing nature of urban communities in New York City. Both authors called attention to the features and benefits of close social communities, and hence the need to preserve them.
It was not until the 1970s that the idea began to attract theoretical attention in the academic world; elements of the theory of social capital predate these attempts at definition, having been traced back to the idea of, among others, Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), James Mill (1773–1836), Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859), Karl Marx (1818–1883), Max Weber (1864–1920), Georg Simmel (1858–1918), John Dewey (1859–1952), and Emile Durkheim (1858–1917). It is widely accepted that the three most important proponents of the concept of social capital have been the French social theorist Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002) and two American social scientists, the sociologist James Coleman and the political scientist David Putnam. Their definitions of the concept, which vary considerably, usefully summarize a range of analytical and definitional perspectives.
Bourdieu's conceptualization of social capital, which owed nothing to the work of Hanifan and Jacobs, came out of his understanding of the workings of cultural capital among the upper classes of French society. He was interested in elucidating disguised or invisible forms of capital that were deployed by elites to maintain social inequality. He saw the nonmaterial exchanges inherent in social relationships as producing resources that members of elites drew upon to maintain their positions within the existing social structure. This view of social capital was very hierarchical and exclusive in its conceptualization, whereas Coleman's understanding of social capital was egalitarian and benign. His interest in social capital came out of his research on the importance of family and community in educational results. He found that familial and community resources, which he defined as social capital, were sufficiently powerful to compensate for economic disadvantages. For Coleman, whose definition of social capital drew on the concept of human capital that had been current in economics for over two decades, not only individuals benefited from social capital, but also society as a whole.
The highly influential definition of the social capital put forward by Putnam in the 1990s originated in his examination of the differences in civic engagement in northern and southern Italy; he used the concept to explain the more successful integration of civil society and the state in the north, which he traced back to medieval guilds. He went on to apply the concept of social capital to his study of civic culture in the United States; in an article published in 1995, which anticipated and summarized the argument of his book Bowling Alone, he brought the concept of social capital into the world of political debate and the popular media, first in the United States and then internationally.
Putnam looked at social capital primarily in terms of its benefits to society rather than the individual. He argued that there was a direct correlation between the quality of civic culture and levels of poverty, violence, and democracy. The diagnosis became popular in no small part because it suggested noneconomic solutions to social problems: increase social capital and solve a range of social problems. However, there was at least one major flaw in such reasoning: Putnam had failed to consider the role of economics adequately in the deterioration of civic culture in the first instance. Furthermore, as critics of Putnam, such as Alejandro Portes, have noted, social capital can itself lead to social problems, whether in the form of organized crime associations, prostitution and gambling rings, or youth gangs. These negative forms of social capital are much different than newspaper readership, voluntary associations, and political trust, which were the positive forms Putnam examined.
Social capital has been appealing to both conservatives, who use it to argue for the devolution of former governmental responsibilities onto society, as well as to liberals, who see it as a means for the state to deal directly with the causes of social problems rather than merely their symptoms.
Despite the divergent ideological lessons drawn from it, there is wide agreement about the importance of the concept in both academic and public policy circles today. However, there is no consensus on how to measure it. Unlike conventional forms of capital, social capital is primarily relational rather than material. Some economists have been skeptical about the cogency of the concept as well as about the ability of proponents of social capital to arrive at quantifiable measures. Measuring social capital has been a particularly important task because of the prominent role the concept has assumed in discourses concerning economic development in the non-Western world, where the emphasis is not on civic culture but directly on amelioration of economic and political conditions.
By bringing the social to the forefront of discussions of economic and political conditions, social capital has had an important impact on the thinking of institutions such as the World Bank about development in the non-Western world. But the application of the concept beyond the West has raised a series of important questions, the central one of which is its relationship between society and the state. Some forms of social capital have been seen as inimical to economic and political development; where states have collapsed or become oppressive and economies deteriorated, and where accordingly survival strategies have heightened the importance of social capital, the symptoms have been read as a cause of continuing economic and political failure. Many forms of social capital that appear to be negative in the context of the West, must be understood within the much different historical origins and more problematic dynamics of the relationship between state and society in many parts of the non-Western world.
Both within the West and for the non-Western world, the idea of social capital offers new ways of thinking about social problems. In particular, it offers the possibility of integrating our understandings of the social and economic; however, if not properly integrated there is a real danger of the latter merely colonizing the former, thereby reducing social interactions to sets of instrumental strategies and rational calculations. Simply because it is a relatively recent concept, it requires further elaboration and refinement, which it is already beginning to attract. Even more nuanced insights will result.
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