Andy Blunden April 2004

Some comments on the
Blue Book on “social capital”

This article appeared in   Arena Magazine   No. 71, June-July 2004.

Christopher Scanlon’s “Blue Book” on social capital theory in the previous issue of Arena is a welcome opening to a discussion on this phenomenon, particularly in exposing how the concept of “social capital” is being used to “naturalise” a neo-liberal conception of poverty. However, I think we need to go further.

The debate around the concept of “social capital” is an arena of struggle in which the Left can learn something — about the world, about ourselves and about others involved in trying to resolve the problems of poverty and exclusion — and in which we can find others with whom we can make common cause. We need to be present in this debate, even while we refuse to accept the validity of the concept of “social capital.” The central contradiction in this discourse lies in the quantification of important, but essentially qualitative, information. This contradiction continually rears its head even in the work of the most fervent advocates of “social capital.”

If we are to participate in the debate while at the same time refusing to join the confusion, then we need to recognise the value of the qualitative data gathered together under the heading of “social capital.” However, we must have an alternative response to the data — a viable suggestion for how these observations should be conceptualised and for further research as well as viable proposals about how poverty and exclusion can be alleviated, which in some way responds to the notion that they are socially constructed conditions. The point is that people are poor because they have been made poor by the existing social arrangements; this is an opportunity to critique these arrangements through an examination of exactly how it is that people are excluded or marginalised and made poor.

Christopher Scanlon refers on a number of occasions in his article to “social capital” as relationships which have been “lifted out” of their context. Such a “lifting out” can be legitimate if and only if the relationships concerned can objectively be “lifted out,” or exchanged (embryonic quantification). That is after all exactly what it means to designate relationships as a form of money, or for that matter, to determine relationships in any quantitative way. Relationships are “lifted out,” that is to say, quantified or exchanged, every day in capitalist society — that is exactly what it means to live in a capitalist society. So while it appears at first sight to be an illegitimate act of theoretical abstraction to “lift” a relationship out of its context, it is a practical question, resolved time and again in capitalist society.

The question is: does the specific quantification process carried out in the measurement of “social capital” correspond to some objective process of quantification or exchange? The answer to this question is quite complex and is obfuscated by the lack of clarity about the concept by those who use it, most of whom believe that quantification (or abstraction) is a legitimate theoretical exercise whether or not it corresponds to any objective process of abstraction.

To resolve the problem of quantification, it is necessary to dwell for a moment on the quite different concepts of social capital developed by the originators of the literature. Everyone knows that there are many, conflicting definitions of social capital, but most believe that one day a consensus will be arrived at in terms of some operational definition for the use of statisticians.

However, the social capitalists are generally unaware of how different are the concepts of social capital of the two main originators, Robert Putnam and James Coleman. In general all the useful work being done are refinements of Robert Putnam’s concept; the work which is derivative from Coleman is generally of little value. However, Coleman has played an important historical role in giving scientific legitimacy to the quantification of “social capital,” and it is worthwhile taking account of the difference between his conception and the general idea derived from Putnam’s work which drives almost all current work on “social capital.”

Coleman’s definition of social capital was intended as an extension of the concepts and methods of economics into broader social theory and it passes many (though not all) of the tests as a legitimate extension of the concept of capital.

For Coleman, social capital is control over an event in which another subject has an interest; its summation depends on the extent that the other has direct or indirect control over events of interest to the subject itself. Thus, in summation it expresses the extent of control one has over events in which one has an interest, mediated by the wider circle of such relations. This concept is thus all about power, as reflected in the title of his first paper on the topic in 1968: “The marginal utility of a voting commitment.”

For Coleman, social capital may be the private property of a subject (an individual, company, government, etc.) and may be traded for a profit. A critique of Coleman’s concept of social capital cannot simply rely on a semantic dispute over the word “capital.”

Coleman’s conception runs into problems however. The hypothetical society in which “social capital is complete” — which is normative for Coleman — is an even more horrific utopian vision than the economic rationalists’ ideal market, what I call “Tammany Hall capitalism.” “Social capital” can be validly conceived as a quantity only to the extent that there exist objective processes for the interconvertibility of different forms of the entity. However, the convertibility of “social capital” (including bribery, corruption and blackmail) is not only limited, but it ought to be limited.

Even if social capital were extensively convertible and therefore conceivable as a quantity, there is no basis for the proposition that the theory of linear action would be applicable to its summation. Thus, the elaborate mathematical apparatus that Coleman erects on his concept of social capital is spurious. But since few understand linear action theory or the conditions of its validity, the exercise serves to prove that social capital is a legitimate scientific concept. This opens the way for empiricists like Putnam to apply statistical techniques to utterly metaphysical entities supposed to be the actually unmeasurable social capital lying “beyond” perception.

With the advent of Putnam’s statistical investigations, Coleman’s rationalistic definition was quietly forgotten, and like with IQ tests, the questionnaires measure what the questionnaires measure and nothing more, and correspond to no objective process of quantification at all.

Broadly speaking, what Putnam’s surveys attempt to measure is a rational disposition towards trusting strangers and forming new social bonds. But it is not quite that or any of the numerous other definitions. The definition of “social capital” has been operationalised, but not for the purposes of the use of the subjects themselves, or activists or social workers, but for statisticians and government planners.

The other historical legacy which is uniformly overlooked by both the social capitalists and their left critics is that of Jane Jacobs. It was Jane Jacobs who coined the term, though only incidentally, by way of a metaphor, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs’ conception least stands the test of validity as a form of capital, but Jacobs was not an academic or social theorist; she was an activist, and she used the word only once and incidentally. The concept that she was describing however, is something which the Left should be extremely interested in. What Jacobs was concerned with was those social conditions which contributed towards an urban neighbourhood getting into a position to get organised and gain control over their lives and repel the attacks of big business and government. Although she uses the word “social capital” only once, she frequently refers to the same entity in terms of becoming a “Thing,” (the capital ‘T’ perhaps an unintended allusion to German philosophy) or “self-government.”

Forget the words “social capital” for a moment, and look at the raw data in terms of the capacity of a group of people thrown together by circumstance to get organised, find a voice and make themselves into an historical subject, and it makes sense. Any activist on the Left is interested in those factors which aid or hinder the capacity of a group of people to get organised and intervene in the affairs of the world in which they live. But this is of course qualitative data, and from this point of view it seems insane to add it all up into an “index.”

Those who conceive of the data in terms of a single quantity are more and more running into the problem that as such it is meaningless. It is meaningless because objectively one cannot exchange, for example, 10% of “bridging social capital” for 10% of “bonding social capital,” or 10 points of “vertical social capital” for 10 points of “horizontal social capital,” or one boss’s worth of vertical social capital for one elected union delegate’s worth of vertical social capital. At just the time that the statisticians are arriving at a consensus about how to calculate the “social capital index,” the people who are actually trying to use the data to mobilise people in poor neighbourhoods, are trying to disaggregate the data. They need qualitative data about the possible barriers to self-organisation and possible levers for steps towards self-determination.

“Social capital” data is amenable to a superior interpretation. Taking the data qualitatively, it provides a rich source of information about the possibilities for a group of people to form themselves into social subjects and begin to take control of their lives.

In this context, though it sometimes difficult to express clearly what we want to say without using the word “community,” it should be recognised that “community” is just about as much of an abstraction as “social capital.” “Community” abstracted from the specific way in which it is constituted, the specific relations through which subjectivity is organised and expressed, is an ideological construct. “Individual” and “community” are, on their own, equally unable to conceptualise the process of consciousness formation. To counterpose “community” to either “individual” or “social capital” can only lead to deeper confusion. If the Left is to intervene in this debate then the notion of “subject” as developed by Hegel and utilised by Marx in both his historical and political-economic critique is essential to escape the horns of this liberal/communitarian dichotomy.

There are different ways of proceeding. Christopher Scanlon correctly points to the fact that the conception of the data as “social capital” naturalises a neo-liberal approach to poverty — the subsumption of daily life under capital. On the other hand, to conceptualise the data in terms of social solidarity (as I propose) as conditions for the development of self-determination still leaves open the form in which solidarity and self-determination can be built. If people choose to collaborate for the purpose of building a company, then that’s their choice; alternatively, people might choose a residents’ committee, or whatever. But practical intervention for the purpose of building solidarity requires qualitative data capable of answering the question “What kind of organisation can we build?” The concepts of social solidarity and self-determination make it abundantly clear how to assess data on networks and norms of cooperation, while social capitalists continue to prevaricate about whether “bridging” and “bonding,” “vertical” and “horizontal social capital” should be added, or indeed subtracted, from one another.

Mark Latham has firmly set his sights on the neo-liberal interpretation with his commitment to “social entrepreneurship” — a policy which is most likely to exacerbate poverty and exclusion. The Left needs to have an alternative strategy which can be practically embraced by activists and social workers dealing with poverty and exclusion and this debate gives us the opportunity to develop such ideas and collaborate with others.

“Social capital” is an arena of struggle. We should be in it even while rejecting the way in which the problem is being theorised.