Friday, September 18, 2009

Social Capital & Social Fantasy

`Social capital'. This is the talk of the moment. It is the idea being bandied around by panicked councils as a solution to the fact that the state is now in retreat.

But the talk about social capital in relation to the pending crisis is a bit like the talk about `technology' as a solution to global warming. People don't actually know what it is, how to make it happen and how it will actually address the kinds of problems we face.

For now it is just a word people are using as a proxy for a solution that isn't actually in place yet.

But is `social capital' a solution? Let's start with what social capital actually is. Essentially it consists of the sum total of mutual support, positive networks , and community activity in a particular area. Social capital is intimately linked to levels of trust and feelings of safety and satisfaction with ones environment.

It tends to be high where communities are stable, self-confident and cohesive. It appears to positively correlate to affluence though there are some very mutually supportive communities in the poorest areas too - where other factors lock in social capital - such as strong community institutions or a shared history.

So, logically, social capital can be further developed and relied upon more as an alternative to the state more in areas where it is already existent ie. affluent areas like Bury St Edmunds and poorer but for historic reasons, socially cohesive areas like, for example, West Belfast.

And, to continue this line of thought, it will be less plentiful and reliable in areas that are already fragmented, troubled, untrusting. This means, therefore, that social capital will be lowest in precisely those areas where it will be most needed - the poor, fear-filled estates of East Manchester, West London, Liverpool 8.

Where does this leave us? Well, it seems to me that the idea that social capital will somehow bridge the gap left by the state is somewhat fallacious.

Even if we devote some new resources to generating social capital, you're actually assuming that this can be generated as a prior thing to those aspects of society which actually produce or reinforce it: success, confidence, trust, community.

Of course this isn't how it works. Success begets success and vice versa.

Yes, the idea of social capital saving the day is I think nonsense. There isn't enough of it where it is needed and you can't just magic it up from the desperation that defines the most run-down parts of the UK.

There is no magic bullet - it is better we admit this and stop this silly talk about social capital.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Craig, I drop by your blog every so often. I have to disagree with the basic tenet of your argument here. You seem to talk about the development of personal networks and mutual support in the context of the state apparatus. Social capital most often develops in spite of the state. It is not some new tool to be used by government to lever more for less. Indeed, your perception that social capital will bridge the gap left by the state being fallacious is correct, but for the wrong reason as you seem to describe. Our relationship with the state should not be considered a meaningful relationship as we would consider it with another person! It is wrapped up in an entirely different value system, role & responsibility.

By facilitating greater awareness of collaborative ways of supporting and developing communities social capital can and will breed a new shared sense of purpose and possibilities. You yourself exploit your own social capital in abundant fashion through this site, your book, the various social enterprise fora and other networks that you move & massage through. The social bonds that you've forged through your position strengthen your capital. This capital increases your social mobility. And on it goes.

I've seen the power of groups of young people from different parts of the country coming together and developing ideas and learning from each other. A successful pitch for a skate park in Hatfield became the pilot site for an Asian community in West London to do something similar. The former supported the latter and the siblings of each group are now befriending the siblings of the other. This stuff is not complicated - it's bonds, relationships, ideas, visions, aspirations and the state plays it best when it has an invisible role.

Social Capital is certainly not a magic bullet, but supporting communities and people to build bonds and bridges with each other, where before there was despair and distrust, is only a good thing.

If people want to call it social capital, then so be it. Social scientists have been researching it for years, it's got an evidence base, why deny debating its use and purpose?