‘What does “social capital” mean?’

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Abstract
The paper begins with an investigation of two metaphors central to the ‘social capital’ framework - ‘glue’ and ‘capital’. Both are found to be inappropriate descriptions of the kinds of human relationships supposedly being alluded to by the term ‘social capital’. While the inappropriateness of the term ‘glue’ is not a major threat to the discourse, the case of ‘capital’ is more serious. The rest of the paper is devoted to unravelling the connotations of ‘capital’ and the implications of applying it to relationships where the kind of calculation necessary for sound economic performance have no place. The competitiveness inherent in the functioning of capital belies the cooperation assumed to exist in ‘social capital’, while the requirement for ‘productiveness’ has disquieting implications for those who, for whatever reason, cannot be productive in the economic sense. The final section of the paper argues that those who are supposedly the main, if not the only, beneficiaries of ‘social capital’ - the ‘disadvantaged’ or the ‘socially excluded’ - do not in fact benefit from whatever is being alluded to by the term ‘social capital’. The paper concludes by asking, but not answering, the question: Why, if ‘social capital’ cannot diminish poverty, is it being posited as a substitute for the welfare state, the only institution that does address poverty (if minimally)?
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Thompson, Denise
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Publication Year
2009
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Journal Article
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