… the network of relationships is the product of investment strategies, individual or collective, consciously or unconsciously aimed at establishing or reproducing social relationships that are directly usable in the short or long term …
(Bourdieu 1986b: 249)
Social capital is both a very fashionable and very slippery concept. Indeed it is in danger of becoming sociologically useless as a result of over-use and misuse. It is one of those rare crossover concepts which has entered into public and political debate; 'a fad among non-academics ready to clutch at any term that might offer quick fix solutions for problems associated with the process of development and underdevelopment' (Wall, Ferrazzi and Schryer 1998:103). In the UK it became a part of the Third Way lexicon of New Labour's first term in office (see Gamarnikow and Green 2000) and is popular with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. The concept has at least three distinct points of origin and arenas of application but even in its academic usage it is not unusual to find social capital deployed without any acknowledgement that it is 'subject to a variety of interpretations reflecting different trends in dominant thinking' (Wall, Ferrazzi and Schryer 1998:301). As Morrow (1999:745-6) puts it, 'social capital is an elusive concept that is currently poorly specified … the use of the term is inherently problematic'. However, in no small measure the difficulties which beset would-be users arise from the vagaries and slippages built in to the concept by its progenitors.
There are now a number of published papers which helpfully spell out the background and origins of social capital and critique these and their subsequent usage in various specialist fields (e.g. Gamarnikow and Green 2000; Morrow 1999; Wall, Ferrazzi and Schryer 1998). I do not propose to rehearse this background and the criticisms in detail here but it is important as Wall, Ferrazzi and Schryer (1998:318-19) argue that 'those interested in employing the term should acknowledge the perspective from which their use of social capital is derived … A more sensitive and cautious approach to invoking the idea of social capital will ensure that the term maintains some integrity'. I shall try to be both specific and sensitive.