Academic journal article Capital & Class

Putting Social Capital in Its Place

Academic journal article Capital & Class

Putting Social Capital in Its Place

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

'[If] people cannot trust each other or work together, then improving the material conditions of life is an uphill battle' (Evans, 1997a: 2). Recently, trust, cooperation and other similar processes have been brought together under the concept of social capital. More specifically, social capital refers to norms of trust and reciprocity and to networks, associations and organisations that constitute social resources for individuals, and which facilitate collective action for mutual benefit (Woolcock, 1998). Strictly speaking, these social resources are not capital, and they are referred to as capital here solely in a metaphorical sense, since capital proper is an exploitative relationship between capital and labour, and resources only become 'capital' in this relationship.

The popularity of the social-capital concept partly reflects the growing realisation among non-Marxist social scientists--for Marxists, economic processes are always social processes--that economic processes are linked to social relations, which, in turn, influence these processes (Granovetter, 1985). It also reflects the current worldwide neoliberal agenda. In particular, social-capital research on how non-market processes such as the state, trust and customs grease the wheels of market fits in well with the neoliberal agenda of making (imperfect) markets more efficient. Underneath the ever-growing popularity of social-capital literature there is a major problem, however. This literature, in general, tends to under-stress the class character of social capital. I am not suggesting that the class character of social capital has been totally neglected. Indeed, a few scholars do attempt to incorporate the class dimension (Bourdieu, 1986; Duncan, 2001; Portes & Sensenbrenner, 1993), and this paper seeks to extend and contribute to that work.

The paper has six sections, including the introduction. Sections 2 and 3 discuss 'society-centric' and 'state-society relation' approaches to social capital, respectively. Section 4 presents a class-based critique of these approaches. In section 5, I present a political-economy approach to social capital, examining the different ways in which the class context of working-class social capital enables and constrains its production in particular places and over space. In the final section, I draw out some of the political implications of my approach.

2. The society-centric approach to social capital

In much of the literature on social capital, it is seen as inhering in civil society, but outside the state. Social capital, in this approach, is said to be a non-market means of addressing imperfections or failures of the market. It plays this role by promoting information-sharing through networks and lowering transaction costs, by discouraging opportunistic behaviour, and by helping collective action to (for example) manage common property (Serageldin & Grootaert, 2000:47 49; Mearns, 1996).

There have been several quantitative studies on social capital. These claim to show that social capital (trust, civic norms, etc. in civil society) is associated positively with income and income equality--see Knack and Keefer's (1997) study of a sample of twenty-nine market economies--and with poverty reduction in Indian states, for which see Morris (1998). Social capital is associated negatively with infant mortality and income inequality in thirty-nine US states (Kawachi et al., 1997). World Bank researchers assert that the social capital of rural households--social capital understood as networks and associations--is positively and causally associated with household expenditures and welfare in African and Latin American countries (Grootaert et al., 2002; Grootaert & Narayan, 2004). But note that these studies tend to equate correlation with causation. It is also possible that when social capital is treated as one factor operating along with many others--and especially with class-related factors such as the strength of working-class power--it may have weak association with its purported social outcomes. …

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