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Go to: spiked-central spiked-politicsColumnJennie Bristow

Column
6 February 2003Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Down with social capitalism
Social capital is a philosophy for those who have given up on changing the world. No wonder policymakers like it so much.


Are you single? A man? Living in London? Are you under-educated, unemployed or on a low income? Are you under 30, do you live in rented accommodation, have you lived there for less than four years?

Oh dear. You'd be suffering from low social capital, then.

Social capital has become a political catchphrase of recent years: particularly since the publication of US academic Robert D Putnam's Bowling Alone: the collapse and revival of American community in 2000 (1). It is a much-mystified concept, which boils down to one key prejudice: that the problems facing society today lie in people's relationships with one another, and the solution lies in increasing state involvement in people's everyday lives.

But it is a prejudice masquerading as fact, which has had clear implications for public policy. And that's presumably how it has ended up as the lead essay in the UK's social statistics bible, Social Trends.

Social Trends is a wonderful publication. Produced annually by the UK Office for National Statistics (2), it collects together all manner of data on aspects of British life, and presents it in a solid, insightful, easy-to-interpret way. Everything from marriage rates to income levels, from crime figures to road accident statistics, is there as an empirical source to whatever social trend you might happen to be investigating.

This year's edition, however, begins with a discussion of 'Investing in each other and in the community: the role of social capital', by Paul Haezewindt (3). Complete with tables purporting to show 'Community spirit in neighbourhoods' and 'Trust in neighbours, by age', the essay usefully condenses Putnam's 500-page thesis into eight sides of A4, attempting to use British statistics to back up the argument - and in doing so, straying from hard fact into conjecture.

Haezewindt summarises the definition of social capital given by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development: 'networks together with shared norms, values and understandings that facilitate cooperation within or among groups.' In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam talks about 'social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them' (4).

It is our everyday interactions with each other, then, that form the basis of the term 'social capital'. And these everyday interactions are certainly interesting. But social capital goes beyond mere observation. This grandiose term transforms what was previously the stuff of literature and commentary into the backbone of politics and social policy. This is where Jane Austen leaves the building, and the therapeutic state creeps in. Rebuilding our relationships with one another has become the big political project of our times.

But are our relationships with one another such a problem? And how, in any case, do you measure them? Paul Haezewindt, at the start of his essay, lists a number of problems with measuring social capital, the most important of which - in my view - is that 'many of the indicators of social capital such as trust in people, and people's values or norms of behaviour, are subjective and intangible, and cannot easily be measured'.

Fundamental social issues are translated into issues of individual self-help
It is one thing to measure people's membership of voluntary organisations, their voting behaviour at general elections, or the amount of time they have lived in their house. It is quite another to gauge accurately how much people like each other or trust each other, or precisely how they relate to one another. The way Haezewindt gets around this problem is to do what other social capital theorists tend to do - by collapsing the empirical with the instinctive, and extrapolating moral-political conclusions.

So, says Haezewindt, 'In general, average membership levels amongst most kinds of voluntary organisations have risen at least enough to keep pace with population growth since the Second World War', and '[s]ome types of voluntary organisations, such as environmental organisations, have experienced very high levels of growth in membership'.

So far, so easily measured - although it is worth noting that the 'environmental organisations' to which he refers are those like the tweedy National Trust, which in any case has grown less rapidly than it did in the 1970s and 80s, and not to Greenpeace, whose 2002 membership was up from 1999, but way down from its peak in 1991.

'Research indicates', continues Haezewindt, 'that organisational membership and social trust, or trust in other people, are closely linked', and that 'it is the act of belonging to a group, rather than the type of organisation or activity, which makes people more trusting in others'.

He then cites the results of attitudinal surveys that asked 'Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you can't be too careful in your dealings with people?'. These studies found a decline in social trust in Great Britain from the late 1950s to the early 1980s, from 56 percent in 1959 to 44 percent in 1981. However, this was followed by 'a period of stability' - and in 2000, 45 percent of adults agreed that most people can be trusted.

It is unclear what, exactly, apparently reasonably membership levels among 'most types' of voluntary organisations from 1971 to 2002 has to do with declining levels in trust in others from 1959 to 1981. It is even unclear, from the data presented here, why a 12 percent drop in 'social trust' over 20 years over 20 years ago should be presumed to be a problem.

But even if we were to accept that there is a correlation between somebody joining the National Trust and trusting his fellow man, what is interesting is the balance placed on the relative merits of volunteering. Volunteering is seen as important, not because of the role that groups can play in society, but because of the kind of relationships volunteering encourages individuals to form with other individuals.

This, again, is the Putnam thesis: 'Whereas physical capital refers to physical objects and human capital refers to properties of individuals, social capital refers to connections among individuals.' Spotting and shaping the connections among individuals has become such an obsession that fundamental social issues are translated into issues of individual self-help.

Haezewindt draws attention to the decline in political participation in the UK - specifically, to the all-time low reached in the turnout figures in the last general election. Optimistically, he adds: 'However, some other forms of political participation have increased in recent years.' By this, he means things like petition signing, which hasn't actually increased that much and peaked in 1991.

'High social capital' means having people to moan to
No matter that there is no comparison between signing a petition and voting in a general election, one being a relatively passive form of complaint, the other signifying (to a point) an active engagement in the political process of running the country. From the standpoint of social capital, it's the taking part that counts.

In this sense, an institutional crisis with a deep social cause is collapsed together with an individual activity and the attitude presumed to be behind it. The end of the politics of left and right, and the allegiances that went with that, represented the end of a belief in social change. It represented the acceptance of the market as a way of running society, and a reduction of politics to choices based on issues of personality and management.

The 'Third Way', in this sense, was about transforming politics into best-practice ways of getting society to cope with its problems, on the grounds that those problems could never be solved.

Theories of social capital embody the same sentiment - only applied not to politics, but to individuals. Social capital is a philosophy for people who have given up on changing the world. Its emphasis on individuals and their networks is about getting people to cope with the circumstances in which they find themselves; and political participation, far from being a way of changing these circumstances, is presented as a coping strategy for everyday life.

The attendance of 400,000 people at the Liberty and Livelihood March in September 2002, says Haezewindt, 'highlighted active political participation'. 'The main focus of the protest concerned opposition to a proposed ban on hunting with dogs in England and Wales, but the march also incorporated other grievances from rural communities', he states. And, as becomes clear from the rest of the essay, it is the 'incorporation of grievances' that is the key point.

Women, explains Haezewindt, 'are most often characterised as having higher levels of social capital than men', as they are 'more likely to be able to call upon a greater number of people for help in a crisis'. Married couples 'exhibited the highest levels of social capital', because '84 percent of married people had three or more people to turn to in a crisis'. Young adults are 'the least neighbourly…and least likely to be civically engaged', but they do spend a lot of time talking to their friends (or active social networks, if you like).

In other words, 'high social capital' means having people to moan to. Although it does help if you happen to be middle-class, as '86 percent of people with an A-level qualification or above had three or more people to turn to in a crisis, compared with 77 percent of people without any qualifications'; 'the unemployed were least likely to enjoy living in their local area'; and 'homeowners had higher levels of social capital than people who were either social or private renters'.

It used to be called poverty, and the solution used to be social change. Now it is called social capital, and the solution is social inclusion. Because all this statistical wizardry purporting to show people's ability to cope with their lives is not merely observation; and all this concern about people's relationships with each other is not really about their relationships with each other. It's about their relationship with the state, and the state's role in getting people to cope with their circumstances, but nicely.

We know that we live in a society that is more fragmented than the past, and that the solidarities and allegiances that once held people together can no longer be relied upon to do so. And it is true to say that this broader sense of fragmentation impacts upon people in their everyday lives, and their informal relationships with other people. When solidarities based on a shared commitment to a political party, or to any other collective institution, lose their basis in reality and are not replaced with anything else, people will feel more detached from the wider community and more insecure in their dealings with each other.

The discussion of social capital is a prescription for social control
But nothing in Haezewindt's essay has even convinced me that, on an everyday level, we are facing a major crisis in terms of the 'networks together with shared norms, values and understandings that facilitate cooperation within or among groups'. Regardless of whether social theorists deem them to have 'satisfactory friendship networks' or not, most people continue to cope with life pretty well, in their own way. The problem, as I see it, is with going beyond everyday cooperation and coping, and finding ways to move society forward.

Those problems that do exist at the level of informal networks and solidarities are the symptom of deeper social changes - not, as the social capitalists would have it, the cause. And attempting to remedy the decline of informal networks between people by including people in networks determined by the state only exacerbates this problem. Once informal relationships are manufactured from on high, they become formalised - not a shared set of norms, values and understandings, so much as a state-sponsored crib-sheet of acceptable etiquette.

Ultimately, the discussion of social capital is a prescription for social control (or social cohesion, if you like). Beneath all the talk about the importance of informal networks and friendships and voluntary activities to an individual's sense of well-being and ability to cope is a deep distrust of the allegiances and choices that people make when left to their own devices.

So you have the concern about the 'negative outcomes' of social capital. As Haezewindt puts it, 'Negative effects occur when social capital is used as a private rather than a public good, or when people or groups are isolated from certain networks'. He uses the examples of criminal gangs, which are 'often characterised by strong internal social capital, which facilitates their illegal activities to the detriment of society', and 'strongly sectarian societies', where 'high levels of social capital may be found within groups, but very little social capital may be found between them'.

Theories of social capital, and strategies about how to boost it, invariably involve discussions of the role to be played by the state in constructing people's allegiances and choices in the acceptable way. 'Recent government schemes have been designed to encourage greater involvement in and commitment to society', points out Haezewindt, listing citizenship classes for school children and various national volunteering schemes. Because you wouldn't want people going off and investing in their own social capital - who knows what negative outcomes that might have?

Capitalism is bad enough. Social capitalism really sucks. At least under capitalism, you could make your own friends.

(1) Robert D Putnam, Bowling Alone, Simon & Schuster 2000, p19. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(2) Office for National Statistics

(3) Download a copy of Social Trends 33 (.pdf)

(4) Robert D Putnam, Bowling Alone, Simon & Schuster 2000, p19. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

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