What’s Wrong With Social Capital?

Over the last 10 years or so the use of the term ‘social capital’ has become common-place among sociologists, politicians and, increasingly, within public and urban theology. So what are they talking about and why have I got a problem with it?

In essence ‘social capital’ is a buzz-phrase used to refer to the power of our relationships. The groups we are part of are made up of countless individual and social relationships, which, embrace within a network of shared interest, experience and concern. Think of churches, mosques, trades unions, neighbourhood groups, and social movements…..The political scientist Robert Putnam puts it in two words – ‘Relationships matter.’

In the early years of the twentieth century Lyda Judson Hanifan drew upon this perspective in his work on rural school community centers in West Virginia is possibly the first person to describe associational life and networks of trust as social capital. However it wasn’t until the work of Pierre Bourdieu  in the 1980s and Robert Putnam in his ‘Bowling Alone’ in 2000 that the term was embraced and began to gain ‘currency’ (if you pardon the financial pun!) Putnam speaks of ‘bonding’ capital (relationships within a single group that enable a stronger sense of solidarity and belonging but excluded ‘outsiders’), ‘bridging’ capital (the networking of different groups with similar values) and ‘linking’ capital (the potential development of networks of quite different groups who face similar challenges in a locality).

It’s a term that’s been appropriated within public and urban theology in the last few years. The ecumenical church report in the UK ‘Faithful Cities’ uses the phrase widely to speak of the grass-roots influence of faith groups in local communities. Based in Manchester Chris Baker and Hannah Skinner speak of the ‘religious’ and ‘spiritual’ capital of churches in socially excluded communities. Perhaps as some have suggested ‘social capital’ has given the church a language with which to articulate its social theology in culturally resonant terms.

And yet I feel a little uneasy with the seeming dominance of ‘social capital’ thinking amongst urban and public theologians – especially those whose work arises from the traditions of liberation theology. Let me throw out just one or two gripes for others to chew on…

  1.  Social capital is largely the language of the socially included. Yes we might be fragile but we are part of mainstream society.
  2. The language of social capital implies that we have something to throw into the pot. What about those who have nothing to ‘stake’? Those who are isolated from common life and not part of any broader networks of support?
  3. Social capital thinking seems to work when we are talking about identifiable and settled groups or networks – faith groups, trades unions, tenants groups and so on. But in a fluid and super-diverse society where life is liquid rather than solid how ‘social capital’ thinking just can’t grasp such dynamism.
  4. Social capital revolves around relationships but are all relationships considered to be equally valuable? In other words do the often hidden relationships of socially excluded groups ‘matter’ as much as those who are on the inside?

I don’t really have a clever answer to any of these conundrums or a neat buzz-phrase to compete with ‘social capital’. I just have questions and an itch that needs scratching. Can anybody help me out?