Building social capacity – not social capital

Whether it’s the need for social economy, the importance of civil society, the potential benefits of deliberative democracy, the means to address climate change, or the idea of ecological citizenship, we consistently find a common theme at the root of what we are talking about.

That common theme is the need to build social capacity.

You might be familiar with another very widely used term that I could have chosen to use ­– ‘social capital’. Indeed, Barry and I have used this phrase a couple of times, but not extensively. We have largely (if instinctively) avoided the phrase ‘social capital,’ I think, because there are serious problems with it, both in the vocabulary and in the way the concept is understood.

Steven S Smith and Jessica Kulynych (2002) have explored these problems, beginning with the ways in which the term ‘social capital’ is used in the works of Robert Putnam, James Coleman and Pierre Bourdieu.

Putnam is perhaps the best known of these academics, through his widely-read (and brilliantly titled) Bowling Alone (2000). According to Smith and Kulynych, Putnam draws largely on Coleman’s ideas of social capital as something that is entirely benevolent in assisting the attainment of social goals. However, they write, Putnam has ignored Bourdieu’s much less favourable slant on social capital which portrays it as crucial to the reproduction of class, status and power relations and the attainment of largely private or exclusive benefits.

Perhaps through Putnam’s success in capturing the alienation experienced in modern western society, and attributing it to a lack of sociability, trust and co-operation, it is the ‘benevolent’ conception of social capital as a civic-minded “power to” which has taken hold in popular consciousness.

Consequently, policy wonks and journalists have largely accepted Putnam’s conclusion that “the performance of our democratic institutions depends in measureable ways on social capital.” In so doing, they (like Putnam) ignore the ways in which the reproduction of social capital is constituted by the ownership of economic capital and thus helps maintain oppressive class, status and power relations – in other words, the point that capital in all its forms constitutes crucial elements of “power over”.

Smith and Kulynych are also concerned about the word ‘capital’ as representative of the “growing influence of economic models in all of the social sciences” (p.159). When efficiency replaces justice as the primary political value, instrumental rationality “colonises” both private lives and the public sphere, and public decision making becomes primarily a technical problem (p.163). Thus our personal and collective characteristics are reformulated as ‘capitals’ (human/cultural/social) which can be quantified and regarded as ‘valuable’ to the extent that they generate ‘income.’ Even the natural world is reconceived in this way, in order for the sustainable use of ‘our assets’ to be calculated and adjusted for maximum efficiency.

The language we use is a reflection of the way we mentally construct the world around us. As Smith and Kulynych note, “Talking about political life as if the accumulation of capital determines our performance in the public marketplace is understandable if we really have become consumer-citizens” (p.164). So, if we oppose that way of thinking about ourselves, and if we want to reframe the debate around a different way of thinking about ourselves, we need to change the language: we need to drop the loaded vocabulary of ‘capital’. As you might have guessed from the terminology I began with, Smith and Kulynych settle on the words ‘social capacity’.

After all this debate, it would be appropriate to end by attempting to define social capacity. There are numerous descriptions of social capital to draw upon (local examples I have used can be found here and here), though it is important to be clear that social capacity is rather different from social capital because the potential for “power over” is consciously excluded. So I suggest that the following captures something of what we have been looking for:

Social capacity is the aggregate of voluntary relationships between individuals, groups and/or organisations that create an ability to act positively for mutual benefit and a larger common purpose. It features trust, co-operative behaviour, inclusiveness and openness, and is driven by a sense of equity and justice.

Source

Stephen Samuel Smith & Jessica Kulynych (2002) It may be social but why is it capital? The social construction of social capital and the politics of language. Politics & Society, 30(1), 149-186 (pdf here).

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