Monday, 23 January 2012

Are we still talking about Social Capital?

The issue I'll be addressing in the coming weeks relate to the question "are we still talking about social capital" and if so, why. I am motivated to ask these questions as I have noticed that another "range"of papers has been published on social capital in 2012, even though they seem collectively to be uncritical of the concept. The concept of social capital emerged as an influential research theme in a number of disciplines in the past twenty or so years, as measured by the exponential growth in social capital literature throughout the 1990s the 2000s, which continues even in 2012. While some of the assumptions of social capital theory have been challenged individually, its limitations as a unified concept have not been adequately tackled within the academic literature. In this blog I’m going to attempt to address this challenge, identifying key questions that the concept needs to tackle.
Social capital is more than the sum of the various kinds of relationships that we entertain, and a social capital lens, therefore, can reveal features of reality that otherwise remain invisible (Adler and Kwom 2002: 36)
The use of the concept of social capital as a tool of analysis for social scientists is relatively recent but already has a wide variety of meanings and uses across a range of disciplines (see Portes 1998; Woolcock 1998; Borgatti and Foster 2003). As might be expected with a concept treated so broadly as to be an explanation for a multiplicity of social changes and a panacea for pressing social problems, a number of weaknesses have been identified in different aspects of the concept and its use (Durlauf 1999; Schuller, Baron and Field 2000; Fine 2002) and yet notwithstanding these critiques, the concept has expanded into new areas of social science research, with the number of articles and citations continuing to grow (see Forsman 2005 Widén-Wulff 2007).

In order to address the perceived limitations of the notion of social capital systematically, this blog will over the next few weeks examine the way in which it has been conceptualised in an attempt to draw together the different lines of criticism directed towards the unity and meaning of the concept. This is done in order to identify the weaknesses of the concept of social capital as a concept, so that it can be clarified and reconceptualised in a less ideological way that is more focussed on the role it plays in explaining specific relationships. The intention of this collection of blog articles on social capital is therefore not to dismiss the concept, but rather to set a number of challenges to scholars wishing to invoke it as a solution to a specific problem. If the concept really is more than the sum of the various kinds of relationships, as the quote that begins this article states, explaining and illustrating this “added value” as clearly as possible, will be a useful contribution to research centred on exploring these relationships.

The first question this raises is that notwithstanding such bold claims, in the absence of a framework explaining the contribution of the term, why focus on the concept at all: it is a research term that already has a large literature without yet having generated much consensus. Indeed a number of critics suggest that despite its vast literature, or perhaps as a consequence, social capital fails to provide a unified or coherent concept at all. It is, they argue, a fundamentally elusive concept, explaining almost any social science phenomenon with a “capacity to draw uncritically on any handy analysis” (Fine 2002: 796). Michael Woolcock argues that there are a number of forms or dimensions that are confusingly unified as a single concept: “social capital’s revisionist grounding in different sociological traditions risks trying to explain too much with too little” (Woolcock 1998: 155) noting:

Ordinarily, a theory’s parsimony i.e., its capacity to explain the most with the least is a desirable property; in this instance, however, a single term is being adopted indiscriminately, adapted uncritically, and applied imprecisely(Woolcock 1998: 196)
Ben Fine goes further, claiming that while it is presented as a tool of consensus for overcoming ideological divisions between left and right, it is, in fact, highly political in both neutralising dissent and systematically disregarding key questions and issues concerning the social problems it is claimed to address:

Social capital is the degradation of scholarship, independent of its popularisation and potential self-help, win-win, reactionary overtones…Isolated occurrences aside, it can only be rejected, not appropriately transformed (Fine 2002: 799) While this may be true of some uses of social capital, particularly as a policy instrument or as a political objective in itself (see DeFilippis 2001: 800-801) many attempts have been made to clarify the concept in terms of its use in research (Lyons 2001; Sobel 2002); its definition, structure, and connection with other academic concepts (Burt 2000); and in terms of the unity of its component parts (e.g. Bjørnskov 2006). Although such scholarship attests to the perceived robustness of social capital as a potentially useful academic concept, there remain, however, a number of criticisms concerning its implications as a theory, and in terms of the type of explanations it affords. These criticisms are derived from a range of perspectives and assumptions rather than from a unified critique; nevertheless, their collective force is itself in some way parallel to the multiple perspectives invoking social capital in support of a wide range of phenomena.

In order to engage with this multiplicity of critical positions thuis blog will over the coming weeks address a small number of key criticisms of social capital and examine each criticism briefly and independently, with illustrations from the literature. The blog will then draw from these lines of critique in delineating a challenge to scholars likely to be drawn to the concept as a research device or explanatory tool. This challenge, therefore, is as follows: before the concept of social capital is introduced as an explanation or description of events to support their research, scholars must be clear that it is able to add the value to their findings by being able to accomplish the work they expect it to perform. In order to develop a structure to address such a challenge, the blog will present eight criticisms of existing social capital framework. To address the challenge of demonstrating the relevance of a social capital lens, it will be necessary to develop a structure robust enough to simultaneously address each of these criticisms. While these criticisms are numbered, are not given any priority, though the first three criticisms address the reflexive nomenclature of the concept – the social, capital and theory aspects of the concept. I’ll add these questions to the blog in the coming weeks, but if you have any questions, don’t forget to write a comment.

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