Unsolved Mysteries: The Tocqueville Files II

In their search for new ideas, intellectuals and policymakers across the political spectrum have recently become enchanted with the concept of social capital. Liberals and conservatives alike now celebrate social capital as the key to success in a myriad of domestic issues—from public education, aging, and mental health to the battle against inner-city crime and the rejuvenation of America's small towns. In the international arena, strong social capital supposedly explains East Asia's economic success, while inadequate social capital explains the failure of the former Soviet Republics. In his latest volume, Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, Francis Fukuyama argues that the most successful nations in the new free-market world will be those with religious and cultural underpinnings that promote voluntary associations and help prepare people to work cooperatively in large organizations. And in two articles in The American Prospect, Robert Putnam argues that what residents in American ghettos, poor farmers in the Third World, and parents everywhere need is a healthy dose of social capital ["The Prosperous Community," TAP, Spring 1993], and that social capital in America is dangerously on the decline ["The Strange Disappearance of Civic America," TAP, Winter 1996]. >

In these discussions, social capital has come to mean the ability to create and sustain voluntary associations, or the idea that a healthy community is essential to prosperity. The popular view now portrays social capital as wholly beneficial with no significant downside. The implicit consensus is that social capital is important because it allows people to work together by resolving the dilemmas of collective action. Why this is actually so, however, is obscure. Indeed, the more social capital is celebrated for a growing list of wonderful effects, the less it has any distinct meaning. Social capital now appears poised to repeat the experience suffered by other promising social science concepts in the past: from intellectual insight appropriated by policy pundits, to journalistic cliché, to eventual oblivion. It deserves better. Any rescue effort requires examining what has gone wrong with the idea and its use in recent public debate.

Although its origins lie in the nineteenth-century classics of sociology, the concept of social capital owes its currency chiefly to the more recent work of two sociologists, Pierre Bourdieu and the late James Coleman. Bourdieu first used the term in the 1970s to refer to the advantages and opportunities accruing to people through membership in certain communities. Coleman, while defining social capital without precision, also used it to describe a resource of individuals that emerges from their social ties. Coleman cites the example of Jewish diamond merchants in New York, who save a great deal in lawyers' fees by conducting their transactions informally. Sacks of jewels worth thousands of dollars are lent for examination overnight without any paper signed. What makes these expeditious exchanges possible is the trust that associates will not shirk their obligations because they belong to the same tight social circles. Anyone found guilty of malfeasance can kiss good-bye his future chances for taking part in this lucrative market. Similarly, pupils in Catholic schools fare better than those in public schools because a teaching staff imbued with a religious ideology sees the school as a closely integrated community rather than a set of bureaucratic structures.

As an individual resource, social capital is roughly analogous to other individual assets. For Coleman, it differs from the financial capital found in bank accounts and the human capital inside people's heads; instead, social capital inheres in interpersonal relations. This analogy should not be carried too far, however, because social capital has certain characteristics, such as the expectation of reciprocity, that distinguish it from the capital that appears on balance sheets.

When a sociological concept catches on, it is commonly applied in contexts quite different from those in which it emerged. Unfortunately, Coleman's concept has been stretched in at least three questionable ways. First, in Putnam's hands, social capital has become a property of groups and even nations, rather than of individuals. Collective social capital, however, cannot simply be the sum of individual social capital. If social capital is a resource available through social networks, the resources that some individuals claim come at the expense of others.

The second conceptual stretch consists in confusing the sources of social capital with the benefits derived from them. This leads to circular reasoning because the presence of social capital is often inferred from the assets that an individual or group acquires. Thus, a student who obtains the money necessary to pay for college tuition from her parents or relatives is thought to have social capital; no tuition, no social capital. Such an inference does not take into account the possibility that the unsuccessful student also may have highly supportive social networks that simply lack the economic means to meet such an expense. For social capital to mean something, the ability to command resources through social networks must be separate from the level or the quality of such resources. When social capital and the benefits derived from it are confused, the term merely says that the successful succeed.

The third stretch is to focus exclusively on the positive effects of community participation without considering its possible negative implications. Coleman is partly responsible for this one-sided view because his two essays on the topic treated social capital as an unmixed blessing. The bias has since become stronger as Putnam and others have recommended social capital and its twin, social trust, as a solution for current problems, as if social capital had no downside. Yet there are several distinctly negative aspects of social capital that these analyses miss.

Conspiracies against the public. The same strong ties that help members of a group often enable it to exclude outsiders. Consider how ethnic groups dominate certain occupations or industries. The sociologist Roger Waldinger describes, for example, the tight control exercised by white ethnics—descendants of Italian, Irish, and Polish immigrants—over the construction trades and the fire and police unions in New York. Similar cases include the growing control of the produce business by Koreans in East Coast cities and the dominance of Cubans over numerous sectors of the Miami economy. The groups' success seems to have depended more on the social capital available to job seekers and entrepreneurs than on initial financial resources or technical skills. But, as Waldinger notes, "the same social relations that . . . enhance the ease and efficiency of economic exchanges among community members implicitly restrict outsiders."

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Ethnic groups are, of course, not the only ones that use social capital for economic advantage. Adam Smith complained that assemblages of merchants inevitably end up as "conspiracies against the public." The "public" are all those excluded from the networks and mutual support linking insiders. In place of "merchants" in Smith's phrase, substitute white building contractors, ethnic union bosses, or immigrant entrepreneurs and you get the picture.

In industries with strong social ties, newcomers often find themselves unable to compete, no matter how good their skills and qualifications. A particularly poignant example is that of African American contractors attempting to carve a niche in the white- and immigrant-dominated construction industry. As one such entrepreneur in New York City put it: "I think that the reason I haven't taken the next step—to having steady big contracts . . . is because I'm not in the social circles where those kinds of deals are made. . . . I can't play golf or go on boats with people." Lacking the requisite social connections, African American contractors depend mostly on the public sector.

Restrictions on individual freedom and business initiative. Membership in a community also brings demands for conformity. In small towns, all your neighbors may know you, and you can get supplies on credit at the corner store. The claustrophobia, however, may be asphyxiating to the individual spirit, which is why the more independent-minded have always sought to escape from these conditions and so much modern thought has celebrated the freedom of urban life. Now the pendulum has swung back and Putnam, Fukuyama, and many others argue for the urgent need of reinventing community.

American society may have moved too much in the direction of individualism and freedom, but a return to tightly integrated communities would bring its own problems. San Francisco's Chinatown provides a good example. On the positive side, the community is a closely knit enclave that protects the Chinese from outside discrimination and helps them launch successful enterprises and careers. In a study of Chinatown, however, sociologists Victor Nee and Brett Nee describe how Chinatown's inhabitants were closely controlled, until a few years ago, by family clans and the Chinese Six Companies or tongs. What put teeth in the clans' demand for conformity was their control of business opportunities and their ready willingness to ostracize anyone who violated the norms. One of the Nees' informants put the matter bluntly: "And not only the Moon Family Association, all the family associations . . . any young person who wants to make some changes, they call him a communist right away. He's redcapped right away. They use all kinds of tricks to run him out."

Tight social networks can also undermine business initiatives. Often, family and friends beseech initially successful entrepreneurs for support. The social capital of the petitioners consists precisely in their right to demand and receive assistance from fellow group members. But in the process, as anthropologist Clifford Geertz has shown in his studies of Bali, promising economic initiatives fail to accumulate capital and turn into welfare hotels. Similar stories have been commonly reported among impoverished urban and rural communities in the United States, where the press of obligations to family and friends routinely undermines business success.

Downward leveling pressures. While Putnam echoes the common view that the inner city is short on sociability, careful studies show the opposite. In poor areas, many people rely on their social and family ties for economic survival. From Carol Stack's classic analysis of kinship and fictive kinship in the inner city to Patricia Fernández-Kelly's study of adolescent pregnancy in Baltimore's ghetto, social anthropologists have exhaustively documented these realities. There is considerable social capital in ghetto areas, but the assets obtainable through it seldom allow participants to rise above their poverty.

For all their negative connotations, inner-city youth gangs are also social networks that provide access to resources and enforce conformity. The same kinds of ties that sometimes yield public goods also produce "public bads": mafia families, prostitution rings, and youth gangs, to cite a few. For a ghetto teenager, membership in a gang may be the only way to obtain self-respect and material goods. In the long run, however, the pressures from these groups may hold him down rather than raise him up.

Those who want to make it on the outside on the basis of orthodox means may need to break their ties with their community. "Wannabes"—the latest lexical contribution of inner-city youth to mainstream culture—are those who imitate the ways and lifestyles of the majority in search of success. Often, these efforts meet only scorn from fellow members of their community, who see them as a threat to solidarity and their own sense of self-respect. Here, social capital creates downward-leveling pressures in opposition to attempted entry into the mainstream. The product of a long history of discrimination, these pressures ironically perpetuate the very conditions that the groups decry. In these instances, social capital does not increase human capital but prevents acquiring it.

The one-sided picture of social capital produces a series of tautologies, truisms, and stereotypes. A tautology is saying the same thing twice. At the collective level, a tautology occurs when the success or failure of a particular community is identified a posteriori with the presence or absence of social trust or social capital. In the celebratory view of social capital, if an agricultural cooperative advances economically or a city effectively carries out a reform program, it is because they had high levels of social capital to begin with; if they fail, they did not. This circularity of reasoning is facilitated by the identification of the same traits as determinants and consequences. In his analysis of the well-governed cities of northern Italy versus the poorly governed cities of the Italian South, Putnam provides a good example. In his words, "'Civic' communities value solidarity, civic participation, and integrity, and here democracy works. At the other pole are 'uncivic' regions like Calabria and Sicily, aptly characterized by the French term incivisme. The very concept of citizenship is stunted here." If your town is "civic," it does civic things; if it is "uncivic," it does not.

A weaker version of the tautology is the truism that dresses up commonplace facts as an original idea. Saying, for example, that high levels of interest in civic affairs and voting facilitate the governance of cities is not saying the same twice, but the conceptual "space" between antecedent and consequent is so small as to make the assertion commonplace. Several years ago, Edward D. Banfield picked yet again on the unfortunate Italian South, labeling these provinces examples of "amoral familism" (the tendency for solidarity to extend only as far as the family and exclude the broader community). Opposed to it was the moral civism found in northern Italy and presumably New England. Labels vary, but the point remains the same: Communities that are poorly integrated (low in "social capital," low in "trust," high in "amoral familism") are more problem ridden and less well governed than those where the opposite conditions prevail.

The intellectual exercise of dressing up common knowledge in fancy language tends to end up as a sermon. The policy prescriptions that follow consist of exhortations to the authorities or the communities in question to bring about the requisite public good. Consistent with his conservative bent, Fukuyama is more of a do-it-yourselfer, focusing on the communities themselves. Putnam, on the other hand, wants to bend the ear of the authorities to enact policies that increase the "stock" of social capital. No one, however, has come up with a reliable formula to produce social solidarity and trust in communities lacking them, although exhortations are heard from pulpits every Sunday.

In the Andean highlands of Ecuador, many successful businessmen are Protestant (or "Evangelical," as they are known locally) rather than Catholic. The reason is not that the Protestant ethic spurred them to greater achievement or that they found Evangelical doctrine to be more compatible with their own beliefs. Rather, by shifting religions, these entrepreneurs removed themselves from the host of obligations for male family heads associated with the Catholic Church. The Evangelical convert becomes, in a sense, a "stranger" in his own community, which insulates him from demands for support from others on the strength of Catholic norms. For these men, social capital comes at too high a cost.

Originally, the concept of social capital was nothing more than an elegant term to call attention to the possible individual and family benefits of sociability. That usage is entirely compatible with a nuanced understanding of the pros and cons of groups and communities. Unfortunately, that understanding is absent from the spate of recent articles that seek to popularize the idea and make it a basis of policy. Stretching the concept does not only lead to circular or banal statements, harmless in their own way, but to policy recommendations that can be dangerous.

For instance, the call for higher social capital as a solution to the problems of the inner city misdiagnoses the problem and can lead to both a waste of resources and new frustrations. It is not the lack of social capital, but the lack of objective economic resources—beginning with decent jobs—that underlies the plight of impoverished urban groups. Even if strengthened social networks and community participation could help overcome the traumas of poverty, no one knows how to bring about these results. Undoubtedly, individuals and communities can benefit greatly from social participation and mutual trust, but the outcomes will vary depending on what resources are obtained, who is excluded from them, and what is demanded in exchange. As the examples of African American construction contractors in New York show, solidarity among some groups can create impassable barriers for others that only deliberate government intervention can overcome. As the example of Evangelical converts in the Andes suggest, the benefits of community may come at too high a cost in terms of human freedom or the suppression of the individual entrepreneurial spirit. Sociability, in every sense, cuts both ways.

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