social capital: a conceptual history

Download Social Capital: A Conceptual History

Post on 14-Dec-2016




0 download

Embed Size (px)


  • Social Capital: A Conceptual HistoryAuthor(s): James FarrSource: Political Theory, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Feb., 2004), pp. 6-33Published by: Sage Publications, Inc.Stable URL: .Accessed: 13/09/2013 23:06

    Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at .


    JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact


    Sage Publications, Inc. is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Political Theory.

    This content downloaded from on Fri, 13 Sep 2013 23:06:47 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions


    SOCIAL CAPITAL A Conceptual History

    JAMES FARR University of Minnesota

    Taking its departure from current debates over social capital, this article presents new textual findings in a backward-revealing conceptual history. In particular, it analyzes the texts and con- texts ofLyda J. Hanifan who was rediscovered by Robert Putnam as having (allegedlyfirst) used the term; it offers discoveries of earlier uses of the term and concept-most notably by John Dewey-thereby introducing critical pragmatism as another tradition of social capital; and it recoversfeatures of the critique ofpolitical economy in the nineteenth century-from Bellamy to Marshall to Sidgwick to Marx-that assessed "capitalfrom the social point of view," especially cooperative associations. While it ends with Marx's use of "social capital," Dewey is its central figure. The article concludes by returning to the present and offering work, sympathy, civic edu- cation, and a critical stance as emergent themes from this conceptual history that might enrich current debates.

    Keywords: social capital; conceptual history; pragmatism; Dewey; Hanifan

    L3Social capital" is one of our trendiest terms, heard with increasing fre- quency by professors, pundits, and politicians worldwide. This is having a predictable consequence. The term is proliferating meanings and provoking contests. How could it be otherwise for a term that conjures the disputed con-

    AUTHOR'S NOTE: For many different kinds of assistance, I would like to thank Robert Adcock, Terence Ball, Eugene Borgida, Harry Boyte, Terrell Carver, John Dryzek, Edwin Fogelman, Rus- sell Hanson, Tom Healy, Susan Hunter John Gunnell, Jeffrey Isaac, James Johnson, Jeffrey Lomonaco, Karen McClure, Robert Putnam, Daniel Rodgers, Julie Reuben, William Scheuerman, Harriet Furst Simon, Ben Stone, Benjamin Sullivan, Simon Szreter Michael Thobois, Mark E. Warren, Stephen White, Michael Woolcock, participants in the Political Theory Colloquium at the University of Minnesota, and anonymous reviewers. I owe special acknowl- edgment and thanks to Mary G. Dietz. POLITICAL THEORY, Vol. 32 No. 1, February 2004 6-33 DOI: 10.1177/0090591703254978 ? 2004 Sage Publications


    This content downloaded from on Fri, 13 Sep 2013 23:06:47 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions


    notations of capitalism or renders sociable the reigning category of the dis- mal science? Scarcely an article on social capital begins without complaining about the semantic fallout from this situation. Woolcock fears the "indiscrim- inate applications" that attend such "a wide variety of meanings," while Mondak worries "that the meaning of social capital will become muddled" amidst the "staggering flood of discourse."' This concerns empirical theo- rists who seek stable referents and clear definitions. But it also concerns con- ceptual historians who take the proliferation and contestation of meanings as given and intractable.

    Future conceptual historians of social capital will have to trace and reflect upon the trend that began in the 1980s and accelerated in the 1990s. The booming economies of Western countries during those years will surely not go unnoticed. Nor will the inexorable march of economic theorizing in the social sciences. But any finer-grained account will have to result from textual perusal and contextual reconstruction of the academic scholarship and public discourse that began with and followed upon the work of Glenn C. Loury, Pierre Bourdieu, and James S. Coleman.2 Conceptual historians will also have to account for the spillover of social science into popular culture, the credit for which goes to Robert Putnam. His famous diagnosis of "bowling alone" has made its way from such academic venues as the Journal of Democracy, PS, and Simon & Schuster, to such mass outlets as People Maga- zine, Cooking Light, and the World Wide Web.3 It will take some time before the semantic morphing of social capital slows its pace or steadies its forms such that conceptual historians can do their future work.4

    Today's conceptual historians face a different task: to trace and reflect upon the discursive pathways that led into the preceding two decades, ideally beginning with the earliest uses of social capital. Some of this work has already begun (by Woolcock, Putnam, and others), as has the varied project of tracing particular conceptual histories.5 The previous uses of the term "social capital" turn out to be few and far between, and their users unknown to one another. Putnam credits Loury, Bourdieu, and Coleman, as well as the sociologist of urban decline, Jane Jacobs (in 1961), and the social psycholo- gists of suburban life, John R. Seeley et al. (in 1956). He also identifies Lyda J. Hanifan, an obscure rural educator from West Virginia, as having invoked (in 1916) "the first known use of the concept."6 Moreover, Woolcock identifies four traditions of social capital, each associated with a grand theo- rist of economic sociology: Marx, Weber, Simmel, and Durkheim. To this list, he adds Benthamite utilitarianism as a fifth tradition.7 This historical work is intriguing and whets the appetite of conceptual historians for whom many questions remain. Have we missed important uses of term or concept? Do other traditions flow into the headwaters of social capital? What was

    This content downloaded from on Fri, 13 Sep 2013 23:06:47 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

  • 8 POLITICAL THEORY / February 2004

    Hanifan up to when he wrote as he did in 1916? Why "capital"? What might inform our present debates by exploring these conceptual innovations a cen- tury and more ago?

    Questions like these prompt this article. In trying to answer them, I have set myself two general objectives. The first and primary objective is to pres- ent new textual findings in the form of a conceptual history of social capital. The second and more critical objective extracts some themes that emerge from this conceptual history as potential insights for enriching or advancing current debates. In particular, the article pursues these objectives by describ- ing more thickly Hanifan's texts and contexts, by offering discoveries of ear- lier uses of the term and concept-most notably by John Dewey-thereby introducing critical pragmatism as another tradition of social capital, and by recovering features of the critique of classical political economy in the nine- teenth century-from Edward Bellamy to John Bates Clark to Karl Marx- that assessed, in Henry Sidgwick's and Alfred Marshall's phrase, "capital from the social point of view," especially cooperative associations. Presented in this order and contrary to other styles of conceptual history, the article pro- ceeds backward in time, as if peeling layers or excavating sediments. While it ends (and the history temporally begins) with Marx's use of "social capital" in 1867, Dewey is its central figure. In recognition of Dewey's claim that "the true starting point of history is always some present situation with its prob- lems" (1916 in MW 9:222),8 the article concludes by returning to the present and offering work, sympathy, civic education, and a critical stance as emer- gent themes from this conceptual history that might enrich or advance cur- rent debate. Preparatory to pursuing its two general objectives, the article begins by way of a brief discussion of terms, concepts, and current under- standings of "social capital"-as well as some overlooked examples-in order to answer a basic question: What are we looking for in a conceptual his- tory of this kind? Overall, I hope to have contributed to the historical, concep- tual, and critical dimensions of the debate over social capital, without deny- ing and indeed relishing the prospect that other conceptual histories might appear to offer other critical insights.9


    Putnam has figured so centrally in contemporary debate, that we may begin with his conceptualization in order to frame what follows. In a way both compact and capacious, the concept of social capital boils down to net- works, norms, and trust. Upon inspection, networks prove dense and valu- able, norms pervade individual actions and social relations, and trust appears

    This content downloaded from on Fri, 13 Sep 2013 23:06:47 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions


    psychologically complex. "Like any other form of capital"-namely, physi- cal or human-social capital aids future productivity of individuals and groups in civil society, though not mainly economically. And it has as its "conceptual cousin, 'community.' "o0 Putting these elements together, social capital i