Portes, A. (1998). Social Capital: Its Origins and Applications in Modern Sociology. Annual Reviews.
Portes is professor of sociology at Princeton University. His primary focus is on economic sociology with an emphasis on immigration and urbanization. In this paper, Portes examines the origins of social capital, concentrating mostly on the works of Bourdieu, Loury, and Coleman. Portes concludes that there is a level of enthusiasm for the concept of social capital that is unlikely to subside. However, while the formation, evolution, and application of social capital is a dynamic with sound research grounding, that grounding is also incomplete. There is a risk that proponents of social capital will over-reach and see it as a remedy for too many of our major social issues. Portes points out that the processes that underpin social capital have been historically examined in other contexts. There is a temptation to “re-label” some of this prior work as “social capital” to modernize presentation of the information. Portes also infers that there is a tendency for us to celebrate its positive value of social capital without critical examination of its negative effects. A more dispassionate assessment of social capital is necessary in the field to better situate its theories and applications. Overall, Portes adopts a positive position on social capital as a phenomenon and consequence of sociability.
Portes credits the first modern-day analysis of social capital to Pierre Bourdieu. Portes’ interpretation of Bourdieu’s work credits him with focusing on the benefits that accrue to individuals through their participation in groups with the intent of that sociability to create the resource (i.e., social capital). According to Bourdieu, social capital enables people to gain access to a variety of benefits (economic and cultural – introduction to experts, status, etc). Social capital is fungible and creates unspecific obligations over an unknown time period with no promise of return (that is, there is no guarantee of reciprocity).
My Note: It seems that Portes and/or Bourdieu seem to agree with Burt (in Neighbor Networks) that benefits of social networks are not a given – that affordances of any relation need to be accompanied by a strategy at group and individual levels to be in a position to claim that resource (social capital) down the road. This connects nicely to work done recently by Ellison (Benefit of Facebook Friends) concerning her research on the cultivation of social resources (CSR) and other work that examines “social grooming” as a means of gaining future reciprocity.
Portes makes note of Loury’s work but seemingly in passing as a gateway to the work of Coleman (who Coleman acknowledges in addition to Nan Lin and Mark Granovetter). Coleman’s definition is somewhat vague, focusing on social structures and how such structures facilitate actions of its actors as the core elements. With such an umbrella framework, a lot of associated processes can be framed under the social capital label. Portes seems to prefer the more explicit distinctions made by Bourdieu that distinguishes social capital from the resources acquired through it.
Portes seems to be advocating that more research is needed to understand the motivations of recipients and donors of social capital. Portes sees a systematic approach as distinguishing between “(a) the possessors of social capital (those making claims); (b) the sources of social capital (those agreeing to these demands); (c) the resources themselves”.
Absence of such analysis has led to much confusion in how the term “social capital” is used and its scope when applied. For instance, social capital is often hidden in other contexts according to Portes. A good example is Granovetter’s “strength of weak ties” findings re: referral for a job by someone with whom you have lost touch with can be viewed as the reciprocity expectation created through social capital processes.
Portes identifies other definitions of social capital as well:
- W. Baker: “a resource that actors derive from specific social structures and then use to pursue their interests; it is created by changes in the relationship among actors”
- M. Schiff: “the set of elements of the social structure that affects relations among people and are inputs or arguments of the production and/or utility function”
- R. Burt: “friends, colleagues, and more general contacts through whom you receive opportunities to use your financial and human capital”
Portes concludes then that the consensus definition for social capital has become as follows: the ability of actors to secure benefits by virtue of membership in social networks or other social structures.
There are negative aspects of social capital such as: its use to exclude outsiders, its abuse by other group members (“free riding”), as a means of control (demands for solidarity with community norms limits personal behaviors). The negative causes and consequences are often overlooked, as we tend to view social capital as only a positive phenomenon.
Keywords: social_capital, social_structures, social_networks, Portes