What is Social Capital?

The Economy of Ideas #5

What is social capital?

“Connections among individuals; social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.”

Robert Putnam (b. 1941) Bowling Alone: the Collapse and Revival of American Community (2001)

The American writer Robert Putnam may have popularised the idea, but he didn’t invent it.  Jane Jacobs used it 40 years before in her brilliant analysis of how cities work at the human scale which included a searing critique of much of what passed for urban planning at the time:

“A good city neighborhood can absorb newcomers into itself, both newcomers by choice and immigrants settling by expediency, and it can protect a reasonable amount of transient population too. But these increments or displacements have to be gradual. If self-government in the place is to work, underlying any float of population must be a continuity of people who have forged neighbourhood networks. These networks are a city’s irreplaceable social capital. Whenever the capital is lost, from whatever cause, the income from it disappears, never to return until and unless new capital is slowly and chancily accumulated.”

Jane Jacobs (1916-2006) The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961).

In fact, the phrase was coined in print well before, by Lyda Hanifan (1879-1932), who was the supervisor or rural schools in West Virginia and defined social capital as:

Lyda Hanifan “Those tangible assets [which] count for most in the daily lives of people: namely goodwill, fellowship, sympathy and social intercourse among the individuals and families who make up the social unit.”

Lyda Hanifan The Rural School Community Center (1916),

The OECD offers us a more recent definition:

“Networks together with shared norms, values and understandings that facilitate co-operation within or among groups.”

OECD Human Capital (2007).

The ‘capital’ metaphor is not necessarily helpful (see here). Rather than being something to be acquired and accumulated, these are skills to be developed and practised continuously in order to be of any use. This can be seen as an aggregation of practices between people which establish shared understandings and expectations and shape future interactions, even if they don’t always involve the same people. The ’social capital’ of a community or a society is a constantly evolving set of learned behaviours which form a web of relationships and are strengthened though use. It is this social-historical legacy of many interactions between people which can strengthen their sense of community.

Whatever the terminology, this kind of social ‘glue’ seems like a good thing to nurture; helping to build the mutual trust, respect and co-operation which make communities work well. However, just as it can promote inclusiveness and solidarity, ‘social capital’ can also have the effect of excluding new arrivals, non-members or those who don’t conform to the norm. In its inward-looking form, it can promote xenophobia.

As educators, we clearly want to help young people acquire the ‘social capital’ which can help them in life.  We know that students from disadvantaged backgrounds often lack the social networks and skills of their better-off peers even when they have with similar qualifications. This additional ‘capital’ is what can open doors for them and help them get their foot on the first rungs of a career ladder. Despite our best efforts, many highly qualified young people will find themselves playing a lifelong game of ‘social capital’ catch-up, with never quite enough to make good.

So we need to bear in mind that education does not in itself build a better, fairer world. We should be arguing for a society where opportunities are not so much determined by how well networked you are or how polished your social skills are and where a lack of ‘social capital’ is not just another barrier to getting on within an unequal economy. We may want to re-evaluate the way we use the idea of ‘social capital’ and start judging people less by how much of it they have and more by what they do with it.

See also:

The Economy of Ideas

#1 The marketplace of ideas (July 2015)

#2 Reducing culture to memes (August 2015)

#3 The global economy of care (May 2016)

#4 Capital as metaphor (June 2016)

About Eddie Playfair

Principal of Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) East London. Blogging about education, politics and culture in a personal capacity. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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