Field, J. (2008). Social Capital (2nd ed.). Routledge.
John Field is Director of the Division of Academic Innovation and Continuing Education at the University of Stirling. His book, Social Capital, is part of a complimentary collection of essays to the series, Key Sociologists. The author continues to focus on the topic of social capital as it apples to lifelong learning. In this publication, Field adopts a social networking centric view of social capital. The connections people establish through social networks create resources that can be subsequently leveraged (thus the association that this intangible “good” is a type of capital). Field also introduces the role of “agency” and connects the ability to act to social capital. People will use both formal (institutions and entities of various kinds) and informal structures to mobilize and apply social capital in enabling (positive) and constraining (negative) ways. While social capital is a relatively simply concept, Field concludes that conceptualizations to-date are incomplete, too loose, and even possibly flawed. The lack of theoretical maturity concerning social capital suggests that more empirical investigation needs to be done. For instance, how participants mobilize their networks to activate their social capital is one topic Field notes. What can be concluded is that social capital is the property of relationships. Also, social capital delivers no value unless its participants possess the agency to leverage it. A more through examination of social capital also enables researchers to gain a better understanding of the “meso level” of social structures that integrates individuals to broader societal-wide structures.
Membership in networks is key for social capital to form and evolve. Field frames the work of Bourdieu and Coleman in the context of their respective era and context. Bourdieu examined social capital in an era where elites and social hierarchy were dominant. Coleman’s perspective was influenced by the field of economics and the theory of rational choice / rational action. For Coleman, social capital was driven by an individual’s desire to maximize his or her own self-interests. Social capital was a means for rationalizing how people managed to cooperate (investing in a future reciprocity rather than an immediate gain). It seems that social capital becomes more of a public good and rationalizes collective action, even though individuals are pursuing their own agendas, according to Coleman. Social capital then is more of a by-product of a cooperative pursuit by individuals to further his or her own self-interests.
In addition to Bourdieu and Coleman, Field points to the work of Robert Putnam and his influence on raising the visibility of social capital. Putnam’s perspective comes from the political and public policy realm. He is best known for the book, “Bowling Alone”. Putnam focuses on the decline of social capital in the U.S. and attributes its collapse to the decline in civic and social engagement (note: others in the field argue that Putnam ignores new structures and forms of social capital). For Putnam, “social capital” refers to the collection of networks, norms of reciprocity, and the trust that arises within them which enables its participants to act together more effectively to pursue their shared objectives. Putnam also distinguishes between types of social capital: “bridging” (social capital that brings diverse participants together) and “bonding” (social capital that reinforces solidarity within a homogeneous group). Field also notes that Bourdieu, Coleman, and Putman have not dived deeply enough into the negative aspects of social capital.
Field notes the contribution of Pamela Paxton to the thinking around social capital. Specifically, that social capital can have different effects at the individual and community level – that there can be differing sphere’s of social capital that can act with or against each other. Field also highlights the contribution of Nan Lin who examines social capital and how participants cooperate and gain reciprocity in the context of strong and weak ties (leveraging the work of Granovetter). Lin suggests that certain mechanisms help lead to the type of cooperation and reciprocity necessary for social capital to deliver positive benefits (e.g., information, influence through intermediaries, confirmation of trustworthiness, and reinforcement of promises and commitments). However, Field notes that cooperation that benefits its participants does not always result in a positive benefit to society (which gets back to negative aspects of social capital that can sometimes be a derivative result).
Measuring social capital is challenging and Field points to the work of the World Bank and OECD in this area. Indicators of social capital are often proxies that do not directly measure social capital and can mislead as well as inform. There is also the risk that attempts to measure and adjust policies to influence social capital can come across as attempts at social engineering.
Keywords: social_capital, social_structures, social_networks, Field