Every now and then, we hear something about a new world order where every country will use the same currency, use the same policing system, etc. Religious people say it’s a sign of the ‘end times’, you know, just before the world comes to an end. I remember the panic I felt some years ago when some countries switched their currencies to the euro; I remember begging God to at least let me have my own family before the world ends!
The first time I heard of social capital ever, was at the Social Capital as the New Currency event at the MAC. To my mind, it sounded like this was it, this currency would trump my new world order ideas because this we wouldn’t even need money for! Just be friends with a bunch of people, be nice to them, and start calling up favours as you need them!
Award winning Director Natasha Carlish gave a brilliant example with the Turbulence film where everything needed for the production of the movie was sourced via social networks (including the 3000 pounds of lighting)! I remember telling myself that if she could do it, I could, and started imagining myself at the première of my movie (done from concept to edit on social capital of course)!
Yes there was the bit about social capital not being a genie you could rub the right way and get results, you would have to invest in the networks but honestly, I wasn’t listening. I related to it like I would do the basic form of barter; your milk for my flour.
Jon Hickman’s class shook the very foundations of my naivety, practically uprooted them from the ground. First off, it wasn’t as simplistic as I had thought it to be, it was academic! As a matter of fact, even though an emerging consensus has been identified by Woolcock (2001) defining social capital as “the norms and networks that facilitate collective action”, it is still a highly contested idea at the moment.
That class took away the equation of social capital to anything monetary, even though further reading on Johnston and Percy-Smith’s “In Search Of Social Capital” showed that a number of scholars likened social capital to finances and suggested that potential finances or monetary gain were some of the origins of social capital.
Since then, I’ve done a bit of random reading on the subject to get myself out of the dark and this is what I’ve come up with, in my own words.
Social capital is not owned by one person alone but is the sum of strengths drawn from social networks; you have to contribute and actively participate to gain the right to draw from it. This thought is corroborated by Gidden’s (2000:78) definition of social capital as ‘‘trust networks that individuals can draw from for social support’’. Also agrees with Bourdieu’s definition of it as ‘‘the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to a durable network of somewhat institutionalized relationships of mutual recognition or acquaintance’’. Almost sounds mathematical!!!
A lot of other big weights (Coleman, Fukuyama, Becker, Webber, etc.) have defined social capital as it speaks to them but I found that three underlying principles that cut across all their definitions are reciprocity (or do unto others what you would have them do to you), trust, and the fact that you need to belong to a network and participate to be able to reap anything from it.
From Jon Hickman’s class I learnt that policy makers see social capital through the eyes of Robert Putnam, believing that when people come together to collaborate, they reduce reliance on the state, increase opportunities for each other, and generally make their society better.
Reading ‘Social Capital: Beyond the Theory’, a 2003 research document by National Council for Voluntary Organizations (NCVO) identified more positive outcomes of social capital including (but not limited to) improved labour market participation, good election turnout, economic growth, and government effectiveness. Woolcock (2001) does a good summary of the benefits of social capital when he says “the well-connected are more likely to be housed, healthy, hired, and happy”.
All this is apart from social capital being both a public and private good to all concerned. A good example would be members of a community volunteering to get together to repaint and redecorate an orphanage. Public good = doing something good for the community. Private good = providing the volunteers new friendships and contacts that might benefit them later. Sounds nice doesn’t it?
Unfortunately, social capital is not all heavenly. Its positives ironically also constitute its negatives. Portes (1998) identified four negative consequences of social capital to be exclusion of outsiders (so people outside a circle find it difficult to get in); excess claims on group members (making them do stuff they normally would not do just because they belong to a network); restrictions on individual freedom (making them feel like because you belong to this group you can or cannot do stuff) ; and downward levelling norms (where a community that has experienced adversity consciously or unconsciously restricts its members from seeking to better their lot).
Narayan (1999) explains the exclusion component of social capital by saying it sometimes results in “unequal opportunities for participation, meaning that those who have access to resources and people with the power to make decisions are likely to continue doing so to the detriment of those who are already not in that circle”. That made me think again about the ‘rich getting richer and poor getting poorer’ phrase.
Also, the ties between members of criminal networks and the mafia are also due to social capital or the “strong internal bonds they have”, so says NCVO.
Bottom line, there’s still a lot I need to learn, a lot more I need to understand about this thing called social capital but I know I have moved from being the starry-eyed youth seeing social capital as the genie with my three wishes.
P: S – it took a lot to expose my ignorance on this subject so…..be easy with it!!!