Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Social Capital Mountain

"Social capital" commonly refers to both the extent and value of social relationships. Specific uses in the literature include trust, civic action, cooperative activity, and ties of many kinds, but the underlying concept is clearly much broader. That larger notion has not been fully articulated, however. Indeed, a fundamental critique is that it is relatively unrefined as a concept or measure, leading to various contradictions and ambiguities.

For example, applications -- both normative and positive -- often sidestep issues of uneven power relationships and resources, the possibly disempowering and oppressive nature of social norms and connections, or their likely lumpy and discontinuous character in some settings. In addition, as a social commodity, we can ask if there will be enough provided when people act on their own, or should social capital generation and accumulation be further promoted somehow? If so, when and by how much?

Lois Takahashi (UCLA) and I have outlined a paper to address several of these gaps. The idea is to generalize the notion of a connection that has value to individuals in a way that also aids operationalizing it for empirical work.

Imagine two people, Enis and Jack, who have a relationship that takes certain resources to create and maintain -- paid by one, the other, or both or others -- and which in return generates benefits and costs to one, the other, or both or others. Our intention is to articulate a framework that permits these benefits/qualities to take a range of forms, including alternative mechanisms for contributing to or sharing (or ignoring) costs. We will then show how examples from the literature are special cases of the general form, which should clarify how existing studies inform, agree or disagree with each other. We believe this will give more content to the larger idea and further promote its use in the study of the behaviors of communities, organizations, and other social interactions.

Lois recently gave a talk at MIT on one such special case, titled "Disruptive Social Capital."


mike manville said...

First, congratulations on starting a blog.

Second, I'm sure you've seen this, but if not, this paper also tries to pull apart and more stringently define social capital, using an investment model (i.e., if it's capital, its presence depends on both individual and group decisions to invest in it.)



randall crane said...

Thanks. I read this once before and had forgotten some details. They do model social capital as an individual-specific interpersonal externality (others also benefit when an individual contributes more), rather than merely a feature of the community. The different forms that could take, etc., are not really discussed so it is almost too general in the respects we hope to highlight.

Ray Mikell said...

Modeling social capital as an individual characteristic is common in sociology, where the influence comes from James Coleman. It's Putnam who sees it as being something held by a community. So I imagine you're trying to bridge the gap between these two visions of social capital?

I'll write more about this on my blog later, but I think Clarence Stone's work in the area of education policy ("civic capacity") is helpful here in pointing to the importance of cross-sectoral cooperation and more or less agreed upon (if necessarily loose) set of goals among community leaders and organizations.

My doctoral dissertation, an exploratory case study of community development in an inner city area, was a similar attempt to bridge the gap between these two competing visions of social capital.


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