Monday, May 12, 2008

Das Sozial Kapital

First of all, on the off chance that anyone reading this isn't currently in the MACT program at the University of Alberta, you may need to spend a little time on this site or maybe Wikipedia entry on social capital to follow this. I'm using this blog to meet course requirements, because I am both innovative and lame, the two great tastes that taste great together.

I'm still confused as to exactly what social capital is and what it is not, but looking at the literature it seems I'm not alone. Just about everything we've read in class, and some of the stuff I've read outside of class on this topic, include some sort of definition for the term. Often they go back and cite Bourdieu or Coleman or Putnam.

I understand the arguments against Putnam's definition as inviting circular reasoning. His proof-is-in-the-pudding approach seems to equate social capital with success, then cites that success as evidence of social capital. Being a southerner, I've seen such ideas used to justify “New South” racism. This is particularly true when a few examples of “successful” minorities can be cited as “proof” that racial inequality no longer exists, therefore anyone “playing the race card” is just making up excuses. Their lack of success is evidence of some sort of character flaw because framing it in those terms means it's not racist, even if those terms are being applied to the majority of the members of that race. Not to imply that Putnam himself is racist, just that I've seen similar lines of thought abused for such purposes.

Portes seems to be the only one to call shenanigans on Coleman for his definition. Maybe I'm the dense one here, but this is so close to meaningless as to be functionally worthless to me:

[Social capital is] “a variety of entities with two elements in common:
  1. They all consist of some aspect of social structures, and
  2. They facilitate certain action of actors – whether persons or corporate actors – within the structure.

Aren't we dealing with “social structures” any time we're dealing with 2 or more people? And since we're all people, doesn't that mean that we're dealing with social structures anytime we're dealing with even 1 other person? Some would even make the argument that social structures exist among various elements of ourselves either because our sense of identity itself is a social construct and/or the social elements of language that permeates our inner dialog and idiolect. And what the hell are “some aspects”? Can we be more vague there? And they “facilitate certain action of actors”? Really? Reminds me of “certain substances”:

That leaves us with Bourdieu's definition, which I'm still not completely clear on. I know he differentiates between the resources and the access granted to them, which helps steer clear of some of Putnam's circular reasoning. For example, say I'm a white male from a prominent family in a small town and I know that if I attempt to start my own business and fail, my family won't let me starve. This knowledge encourages me to take more risks than I otherwise would and luckily for me those risks pan out, making me quite successful. I never had to tap into the social capital afforded me by my family's status, but there mere knowledge that I could contributed to my success in significant ways. I think that's an instance of social capital that Bourdieu's definition covers but Putnam's does not. Coleman's definition seems to cover just about anything I can imagine.

But I could be mistaken. The biggest part of Bourdieu's definition that I'm left unclear about is do you have to access some more traditional forms of capital via social ties for it to count? Obviously, if the same guy in the hypothetical situation above got an interest free start up loan from a family member, that would be social capital, even under Putnam's definition. Also, when I was looking for my first job after I got my undergrad degree, I turned down some higher paying positions because I knew I would be less happy in those environments. Is such at-work happiness social capital even if it doesn't necessarily lead to increased productivity? It's a boost to my quality of life, but is that alone enough? Things that are hard to put into monetary terms are equally as hard, in my mind, to judge as social capital (or not).

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