The government is worried about something called social capital. Nobody is quite sure what it is. But everyone is sure that it matters. The issue is out there; all that’s needed is a theory to capture it. And for the time being, social capital is the explanation of choice. Back in the days of Adam Smith and David Ricardo the idea of social capital would have seemed absurd. Capital was about value, as created by human labour. What required an explanation was the productive process, not the society trailing in its wake.
It was left to conservative thinkers such as Edmund Burke to draw attention to the social realm, where ‘custom reconciles us to everything’. But now we are reconciled to a different state of affairs, and the social realm is centre stage. As the font of the knowledge economy and the cradle of well-being, the things we all do to constitute society have come to assume ever greater significance. The ticks and quirks and crazy inconsistencies of everyday life can no longer be left to work themselves out.
A better day will not necessarily come, and we should therefore concentrate on this one. Hence, social capital. The concept of social capital has a certain intuitive appeal. It draws attention to the inter-personal dimension of life, to the multiple exchanges we are all of us involved in on a daily basis. At this level, it is reckoned, we are constantly re-recreating the social order, but not on an equal footing with each other. Whereas some people have a rich array of social contacts and relationships, others have little or nothing or the wrong sort of friends.
Whilst some of us get to network up and down the social ladder and across cultural divides, others make do with talking to the dog. And whilst the dog might appreciate the company, the rest of society won’t thank you for your lack of input. Indeed, the government may very well send someone round to assess your apparent lack of social capital and empower you to get hold of some. Addressing the issue of social capital is currently regarded as the height of responsible policy making. A number of themes are apparent. Community-lite A notable feature of the social capital debate is its lack of ambition.
Where communitarianism used to advocate the merits of community, social capital merely suggests we all be more neighbourly. ‘The term “social capital” is increasingly used by policy makers as another way of describing “community”‘ notes a recent Discussion Paper from Tony Blair’s in-house think-tank, the Performance and Innovation Unit, ‘but it is important to recognise that a traditional community is just one of many forms of social capital. ‘1 In other words, the notion of social capital does not presuppose any particular form of community.
Indeed, the appendage of ‘traditional’ to ‘community’ here suggests that the latter is understood in terms of the former, and if there is one quality that New Labour is uncomfortable with it is the idea of ‘tradition’. No, the vision offered by social capital is not of any particular type of community. Such a model reeks of the very past to which this government has established itself in opposition. Today we have multiple communities, all of whom should be esteemed equally. The idea that the majority might be won over to one over-riding sense of community – such as the nation-state, for example – is regarded as faintly authoritarian.
Cohering the many communities is a matter of ensuring we all play our part and not get too carried away with whatever it is we might believe in. Thus the Home Office Draft Guidance on Community Cohesion, urges all statutory agencies to embrace ‘an explicit set of common values’ whilst simultaneously reminding them of the centrality of ‘difference’. 2 Such contradictory pressures can only be reconciled at the level of wishful thinking, or by retreating to a more relativistic model of policy making. It is at this – less prescriptive – level that the notion of social capital begins to make sense.
The concept of social capital is not new. Like the ‘Third Way’, social capital has been dusted down and given a fresh lick of paint3. In terms of the current gloss it is sociologist Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone4, who is the best known figure. His work informs a substantial literature. Within this some acknowledge a sense of ‘confusion … as to what social capital is, and whether it can be measured, maintained, mobilized, or created. ‘5 A few are more critical still, charging ‘logical circularity’ for a concept which is ‘simultaneously a cause and effect’6.
The opaqueness of social capital is, however, a key part of its attraction, lending it an endlessly flexible quality, a point picked up in the Analysis of Social Capital Workshop Sessions run by the Office for National Statistics, for whom the ‘most immediate and striking finding … was the diverse application of the concept in different government departments, and the limited conceptualisation which had taken place …. There was a sense that the conceptualisation was wholly dependent on the dimensions to be measured. ‘7
Conceptualising social capital is, of course, no easy matter, because it doesn’t exist. It is shorthand for the utterly subjective quality we know as trust8, which must itself be determined by other factors. Trust, like faith, hope and charity, can only ever be a contingent aspect of human agency, or subjectivity, which is precisely what is missing from the whole social capital debate. Therapy-heavy The absence of agency within the discourse of social capital is due to its social constructionist perspective, which takes interactions between individuals to be synonymous with society itself.
It is our need for esteem, ‘a continuous series of exchanges in which recognition is endlessly affirmed and reaffirmed’ as Pierre Bourdieu9 puts it, which underpins the dynamics of social capital formation. ‘Community’ is therefore plural and contingent upon the symbolic constructions of inter-subjectivity: thus the idea that ‘social capital largely inheres in practices’10. It is the most local and personal modes of connectedness with which the concept is concerned. The more intimate, the more authentic.
Such a perspective easily and spontaneously promotes the sort of therapeutic schedule so prevalent in contemporary policy making. Getting closer to the people is a priority for government. Elite concerns over volunteering11, with People’s perceptions of their neighbourhood and community involvement 12, with hearing the ‘voices’ of patients13, and ‘increasing the number and diversity of people who participate in their communities’ by developing ‘targeted programmes to encourage people … to join in more fully’14 are all indicative of a less than confident agenda from the top.
The age of conviction politics has indeed passed. Instead of leading from the front, the government likes to be there at the back, the further back the better, consulting and empowering and giving voice to the disenfranchised. And like any truly therapeutic relationship, this is a two-way street, a matter of ‘systematic co-construction. ’15, where the focus is on ‘what people (therapists and clients) do together rather than on any ‘essential’ aspects of problems of people. ’16 Thus the common cry that ‘we are all in this together’.
In the real world the fact remains that some have a lot more power than others, thereby laying the basis for coercion and corruption. But within the reified world of social capital the assumption that we are all complicit in each other’s suffering is never far from the surface. The idea, for example, that ‘the development and use of social capital is constrained by masculinity’17 is entirely plausible as social construction. And the solution to such a conundrum can only be developed at the same inter-subjective level, by challenging men’s ‘masculinised image of themselves as private, independent, courageous and confident. 18 Such trends are perhaps most advanced in the sphere of medicine, where the concept of social capital has been keenly seized upon within the new public health19.
‘Of all the domains . . . in none is the importance of social connectedness so well established as in the case of health and well-being’, says Putnam20, echoing a substantial programme of research devoted to this very assumption. 21 The problem that ‘social support and social capital are weaker determinants of health and stress than socioeconomic factors’22 matters not a jot when poverty is so widely perceived as a matter of psycho-social deprivation.
The evidence suggests that what matters within societies is not so much the direct health effects of absolute material living standards so much as the effects of social relativities’23 argues Professor Richard Wilkinson, the leading figure in this field. Accordingly, questions of ‘subordinate social status and poor social networks’ get talked-up as ‘extremely important risk factors’, and ‘friendship’ becomes the legitimate concern of public health. 24 The logical solution to such problems is a therapeutic one, engaging with the disengaged, feeling their pain, and helping them out of the darkness of low self-esteem.
Mindful of the authoritarian trajectory of the debate over social capital and health some authors remember the merits of structural solutions, invoking the ‘need to channel real, material resources into these populations and areas. ’25 Such rhetorical flourishes may salve the conscience, but cannot dent the real, material reality that is the government’s public health policy, where the burning issue concerns ‘building capacity in the community’, a euphemism for winning the trust of the locals. Health Action Zones
A clear example of capacity building can be found in the work of the 26 Health Action Zones (HAZ) across England, established in 1998-9 to ‘harness the dynamism of local people and organisations by creating alliances to achieve change. ’26 HAZ activity is diverse, radical, and a pristine example of the new public health, with its emphasis upon social/contextual determinants and a ‘bottom-up’ approach. HAZs are also short-term examples of the sort of area-based initiatives that have been judged a ‘distraction’27, the provisional solution to which are ‘Local Strategic Partnerships’28, so their shelf life is limited.
Nonetheless, HAZs were given the green light to experiment with more intimate modes of engagement. At the heart of HAZ activity is ‘community involvement’. Quite whether the community wants to be involved remains moot. A study of Social capital, health and economy in South Yorkshire coalfield communities by the local HAZ was mindful of the need ‘not to alienate an already over-surveyed population. ’29 One HAZ project manager admitted that ‘communities get consulted to death and we don’t actually use what they say to act on it, and they get very fed up with that.
The view from the top is that this is an area of ‘uneven development’ as ‘early experiences of HAZ in relation to community involvement do not appear to have been universally positive’. 31 A year later and things did not look a great deal better, with the official evaluation team pointing to the dangers of ‘consultation fatigue’ as the beleaguered inhabitants of HAZ’s expressed their anger at being ‘exploited’ by health professionals, leading to ‘some community representatives behaving inappropriately at public meetings. ’32
Clearly we have the wrong sort of ‘community’ here, a problem to which the concept of social capital is the provisional solution due to its closer focus. One might almost say that social capital is anti-community, even though the term is promiscuously deployed, due to the privileging of inter-subjectivity. This relativist approach explodes all meta-narratives: ‘family’, for example, gets boiled down to ‘kinship relations of all sort’33 It is the ‘points of difference’ that matter, as ‘simple notions of ‘community’ and ‘the user’ can hide important complexity and diversity’, argues one study. 4 Because there is ‘no agreement about what the community is and how you engage it, and who represents it’35 the opportunity arises for new public health workers to be the ones to define it. A clear example of this can be seen in a recent discussion of Children’s experiences of ‘community’: implications of social capital discourses, that weighs the interests of children against those of adults, and finds the latter wanting.
What is needed, argues the author, is ‘community profiling’, which ‘should not simply be a mapping exercise carried out by professionals, but should be the product of community members, along with professionals. … This could include children and young people. ’36 This is exactly the sort of activity being carried out in less affluent areas up and down the country, though usually without invoking the blunt instrument of juridical authority in the form of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Getting ordinary people to do things – anything – along with the professionals, is the sub-text of the social capital debate. This is the meaning of ’empowerment’, as an invitation to partake of an ‘institutional-civil society dialogue’, as ‘mediated through key players within the community’ who need ‘support in maintaining and fostering the original social ties’. 37 The paradox of professionals supporting ‘key players’ in retaining their ‘original social ties’ indicates the balance of the relationship being developed under the guise of social capital.
As one commentator has bluntly expressed it, ‘public support for self help groups is a quid pro quo for their role in participatory decision making. ‘ 38 This is the substance of today’s therapeutic politics; the state paying people to ‘participate’. The elite was not always so needy. When John Maynard Keynes wrote of the ‘ideas of economists and political philosophers’ being ‘more powerful than is commonly understood’39, he was arguing for greater and more powerful ideas, specifically his own, not focus groups, cognitive mapping40 or community profiling.
Then, uncertainty meant weakness. Today it is a virtue. Now, apparently, we are all especially fragile and vulnerable to effects of change. Thus the ‘fragmentation of previously dominant forms of social order’ signals for David Blunkett not the need for fresh thinking, but for us all to ‘develop new forms of supportive infrastructure and social norms to underpin commitment and avoid the damage caused by such fragmentation. ’41 Social capital is one policy vehicle, among others, for furthering a ‘supportive infrastructure’.
Support, though, cuts both ways in a therapeutic relationship. As Andrew Samuels, a founder of the psycho-therapy based think-tank Antidote, argues, ‘just as client and therapist are in it together, so, too, do citizen and political problem inhabit – quite literally – the same space. ’42 Logically, then, we all need to talk, to open up to each other and share in our common fate; its no good expecting our leaders to know any more than we do.
Accordingly Samuels urges us to think of politicians in terms of ‘good-enoughness’ as a means ‘of coping with political disappointment. ’43 Reconciling the public to disappointment is, of course, not a new departure for government. And social capital, as a tool for prising open the interstices of everyday life of ordinary people, will surely be a distant memory in a few years, after the debate has moved along. But for now the concept of social capital has acquired a quiet credibility that merits closer attention.
To criticise it as a case, for example, of ‘tautologies, truisms, and stereotypes’44, or as a euphemism for ‘all that is “good” in a community’45 is to miss the central appeal of the concept. The fact that it only describes is quite sufficient in a period when the demand for an explanation, of the values by which society should be ordered, is so very low. A relativistic model of what is true and good, such as social capital offers, gathers support in proportion to the perceived appeal of a more therapeutic mode of politics, in which we are all urged to hold hands and hope for the best.