Effect of Social Capital on Democracy

Critically assess the concept of ‘social capital’? What advantages, if any, does it offer the study of democracy?

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Since the 2001 general election much academic debate has centred on voter apathy as the lowest turnout, especially among the young, led many to posit a ‘crises in democracy’ (Russell, 2005: 555). Various theories have attempted to explain the problem as either the result of a ‘life-cycle’ argument, whereby ‘the youngest sections of society are always less likely to vote […] but as they age […] own houses and mortgages, and pay taxes they become more concerned with politics and more likely to vote’ (Denver in Russell, 2005: 556) or a ‘generational effect’ whereby there is an overall decline in active citizenship (Park in Russell, 2005: 556). Against this background the work of Robert Putnam appeared to strike a chord. In his influential Bowling Alone: the Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000)[1], and associated articles, Robert Putnam transferred the concept of social capital from sociology into the realm of politics, arguing that increasing individualism had resulted in the decline of community ties and political participation (Russell, 2005: 557), undermining good governance.

In the first section I provide an outline of social capital as it was originally formulated by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, in the second I detail the concepts move from sociology to political science in the work of Putnam. My contention is that in the process of adapting ‘social capital’, Putnam changes the meaning of the term and thus undermines its usefulness to the study of democracy; that whereas for Bourdieu it was a property held by individuals, in Putnam’s account it is held by collectives. Also, that although Bourdieu believed that social capital was exchangeable with economic capital but not reducible to it, Putnam relies on a distinctly economic understanding of the term. Finally, that Putnam’s use of the term is essentially neo-liberal, whereas for Bourdieu social capital is ultimately about power relations. In the conclusion assess the usefulness of the term to political science and the study of democracy in light of this conceptual drift.

Pierre Bourdieu and the Forms of Capital

Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) originally developed his theory of cultural capital as part of an attempt to explain class-based differentials in educational achievement. His theory has five main features, the different forms of capital; cultural, social and economic, and the concepts of the field and habitus. For Bourdieu capital is best defined as accumulated labour and has the potential to reproduce (Bourdieu, 1986: 241): it is this ability of capital to reproduce that leads Bourdieu to conclude that it is part of the structure of society that shapes individual life chances: it is ‘the set of constraints, inscribed in the very reality of that world […] determining the chances of success for practices’ (Bourdieu, 1986: 242). Social Capital, for Bourdieu, refers to the network of ‘connections’ that an individual enjoys which ‘produce and reproduce lasting, useful relationships that can secure material or symbolic profits’ (Bourdieu, 1986: 249): the amount of social capital that an individual can draw upon is thus dependant on the number of people in their social network and the amount of capital – cultural, economic or social – possessed by those so included. Both cultural and social capitals are therefore rooted in, without being determined by, the possession of economic capital: all three interact to hide the way that social hierarchies are reproduced. Finally, the three forms of capital combine to produce a persons habitus, or set of predispositions whilst the field refers to the arena in which a specific habitus is realised. Thus we can see that for Bourdieu not only was the concept of social capital embedded in relations of power (Burkett, 2004: 236), it was also part of a complex theory that sought to explain the social reproduction of inequality.

Bourdieus’ theory has been criticized as being essentialist and deterministic; for John Frow (1995) it is essentialist in that Bourdieu posits ‘a single class “experience” common to the sociologically quite distinct groups [he] includes in the dominant class’ (Frow, 1995: 62): that an individuals’ class position makes them what they are, he ‘reads off’ both working and middle class culture from their class position, resulting in an essentialist reading of the aesthetic (Frow, 1995: 63). Bourdieus’ theory can also be viewed as deterministic, as individuals’ predispositions are posited as being the direct result of their class position, entailing a denial of individual agency. Further, such a class-based analysis can lead one to minimize the effects of other forms of differentiation, such as gender, ethnicity and age. However, Bourdieu’s use of the term ‘capital’ is both metaphoric and materialistic and can be viewed as similar to power: although convertible with economic capital, social capital is not reducible to it (Bourdieu, 1986: 243). Also, Bourdieu argued that the social capital possessed by an individual is a result of their ‘investment strategies’ via ‘a continuing series of exchanges in which recognition is endlessly affirmed and reaffirmed’ (Bourdieu, 1986: 250). Finally, Bourdieu argues that social inequalities become part of the very bodies and predispositions of the individual through his concept of habitus (McNay, 1999: 99), not as a ‘principle of determination’ but as a ‘generative structure’ (McNay, 1999: 100): returning autonomy to the individual his theory is able to transcend determinism; it is an open system which allows for social change (McNay, 1999:101). In summary, for Bourdieu social capital is ultimately about the way that power works through society, and is concerned with the life chances of individuals. Further, the wider theory, especially the concept of the habitus, is useful for theorists who seek to explain patterns of behaviour, including community participation and levels of voting.

Robert Putnam: Social Capital and Democracy

Robert Putnams’ argument may be summarised as being that the decrease in participation in voluntary organisations has undermined the effectiveness of good governance; ‘that successful and healthy democracies and economies are those possessing dense webs of community participation’ (Walters, 2002: 377). In so arguing, Putnam transferred the concept of social capital from sociology into the realm of political science, arguing that increasing individualism, the anonymity of urban living (Russell, 2002: 557), and the negative effects of television (Putnam, 1995: 75; Walters, 2002: 380), have resulted in the decline of community ties and political participation (Russell, 2002: 557) and thus a decline in social capital. Similar debates were found within the British context, as were calls for a revival of participation and stakeholder values (Walters, 2002: 377). Arguing that a range of issues including ‘drugs, crime, unemployment, development, education and political performance’ (Walters, 2002: 379), and the effectiveness of democracy itself (Putnam, 1995: 66) would benefit from a resurgence of voluntary associations, Putnam therefore calls for a reinvigoration of community participation (Walters, 2002: 377) as ‘members of associations are much more likely than non-members to participate in politics, to spend time with neighbours, to express social trust’ (Putnam, 1995: 73). Defining social capital as ‘features of social organisation such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit (Putnam, 1995: 67), Putnam argued that not only has the post-war period witnessed a decline in participation in voluntary associations, but that such membership is now increasingly ‘tertiary’: that ‘the only act of membership consists in writing a check for dues or perhaps occasionally reading a newsletter’ (Ibid. p. 71). Putnam argues that this declining membership, and the increasingly tertiary nature of remaining membership, represents a significant erosion of American social capital (Ibid. p. 73) and, as such, undermines democracy.

However, Putnams’ use of the term is markedly different from that of Bourdieu; whereas in Bourdieus’ conception social capital was held by the individual (Walters, 2002: 387), for Putnam social capital is held by collectives (Ibid. p. 379), further, it is difficult to see how there can be a reduction in social capital, rather than a qualitative change in its composition. William Walters (2002) argues that Putnam’s use of the concept differs from Bourdieu’s in another key respect; whereas for Bourdieu social capital, although transferable with economic capital, is not reducible to it (Bourdieu, 1986: 243), Putnam assumes ‘a self-maximising individual for whom associative activity can, under certain circumstances, be an investment’ (Walters, 2002: 379, my emphasis). Rather that discussing the social capital of individuals embedded within relations of power, for Putnam social capital ‘implies a learning mechanism that is more economic that socio-psychological’ (Ibid. p. 387), and as such represents an extension of the economic metaphor in order to convince us that society is ‘self-governing’ (Ibid. p. 391): by using social capital in this way, individuals are made responsible for good governance – now conceived as a ‘horizontal space of multiple communities’ (Ibid. p. 388) – adding the discourse of the ‘civic and uncivic’ to the list of divisions by which normative judgements are naturalised (Ibid. p. 392). Thus for Putnam ‘social capital is simultaneously cause and effect’ (Ibid. p. 380). Further, rather than situating the individual within a web of power relations, Putnam relies on the atomised individual of neo-liberalism (Burkett, 2004: 236). Finally, whilst this author agrees that society benefits when individuals participate in voluntary organisations, Putnam assumes a link between such involvement and an improved performance for democracy, yet this link remains to be clearly, empirically, demonstrated (Freitag, 2006: 124). Such an argument also undermines the role of government in shaping civil society (Walters, 2002: 380) and in shaping social capital (Freitag, 2006:128), and as such can only provide a skewed picture of the link between community participation and the functioning of democracy.

In Conclusion

In conclusion, we can see that in the process of adapting ‘social capital’ to the realm of political science, Putnam changes the meaning of the term; that whereas for Bourdieu it was a property held by individuals, in Putnam’s account it is held by collectives. Also, that although Bourdieu believed that social capital was exchangeable with economic capital he believed it was not reducible to it, whilst Putnam relies on a distinctly neo-liberal, economic understanding of the term: that whereas for Bourdieu the individual and therefore their social capital resources are ultimately concerned with relations of power, Putnam utilises an atomistic and self-maximising conception of the individual (Walter, 2002: 386) involved in building networks of self-governance (Walters, 2002: 388) and one wonders if such an argument may, in part, justify the ‘rolling back’ of the state. Finally, that the use of the term in political science rests on the assumption of a link between membership of voluntary organisations and political participation, but this link remains to be empirically proven. Indeed, Markus Frietag argues that it is political institutions that ‘matter’, that there are in fact three ‘political prerequisites’ for collective social capital: institutional provision for direct democracy, respect for minorities and outsiders as part of consensus building, and a degree of local autonomy (Frietag, 2006: 145). Ben Fine argues that academia has become subject to a ‘social capital fetish’ (in Burkett, 2004: 234); that it’s now weak conceptualisation ‘means that social capital can be virtually anything’ (Burkett, 2004: 238). He is also concerned that, too often, social capital is in fact ‘primarily participation from below imposed from above’ (in Burkett, 2004: 243): perhaps we should be wary that calls for increased social capital are not simply calls for a withdrawal of state responsibility.


Bourdieu, Pierre (1986) ‘The forms of Capital’ in Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, London: Greenwood Press, pp. 241-258.

Burkett, Paul (2004) ‘Book Review: Social Capital versus Social Theory: Political Economy and Social Science at the Turn of the Millennium’ by Fine, Ben (London: Routledge) in Historical Materialism, Vol. 12, No. 1, pp. 233-246.

Freitag, Markus (2006) ‘Bowling the State Back In: Political Institutions and the Creation of Social Capital’ in European Journal of Political Research, Vol. 45, pp. 123-152.

Frow, John (1995) ‘Accounting for Tastes: Some Problems in Bourdieus’ Sociology of Culture’ in Cultural Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 59-73.

McNay, L (1999) ‘Gender, habitus and the Field: Pierre Bourdieu and the Limits of Reflexivity’ in Theory, Culture & Society, Vol. 16, No. 1, pp. 95-117.

Putnam, Robert (1995) ‘Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital, An Interview with Robert Putnam’ in Journal of Democracy, Vol. 6, No. 1, pp. 65-78.

Russell, Andrew (2005) ‘Political Parties as Vehicles of Political Engagement’, Parliamentary Affairs, Vol. 58, No. 3, pp. 555-569.

Walters, William (2002) ‘Social Capital and Political Sociology: Re-imagining Politics?’ Sociology, Vol. 36, No. 2, pp. 377-397.