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I enjoy a good Bourdieu (see what I did there? no? You’ll probably want to stop reading). So when I saw this, I had to check out the link:


Unfortunately, my discovery was that this “irritant” is due to the fact that no one understands what they’re talking about. This is perhaps forgivable if we were looking at a collection of fifth-grade essays. But this stuff is published. By academics. In respectable, mass-media publications. And that means that a little clarification is necessary.

Excuse me, I’m about to rant.

“SOCIAL CAPITAL” IS A RECOGNIZED TERM. What that means is that you can’t throw it around willy-nilly or randomly redefine it to mean what you want it to mean. “Trust” is NOT social capital. “Civic engagement” is NOT social capital. They in fact do not even make SENSE as social capital, and that is why these two authors are so damn confused!

So what IS social capital? The idea of “capital” was refined in a series of works by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (now you get the joke. I know, bad pun). Bourdieu built on the ideas of Marx and Hegel (“capital” = cash). As a one-sentence primer, money is power. Bourdieu thought there was more to it than that, and came up with the idea of an intangible, non-monetary form of power. Because we know that money’s not everything, right? It’s a means to an end, or the end of means. There are the people who get rich through networks and influence. There are rich people who have political power (see: Bill Gates; the Clintons), and there are rich people who are content to just sit on their cash. The differentiation here lies in the various forms capital can take. In Bourdieu’s terms, Gates has symbolic capital AND financial capital; basically no one has financial capital only, because money buys influence in all spheres.

Because the concept of capital is based on money, it’s mutable. That means that just like how you can go to a bank and exchange dollars for euros, you can use one type of capital to ‘purchase’ another (this is where the two articles linked to above seem to have gotten derailed). Saying “poor Americans have too much social capital” is nonsense. (Sorry, Jim Russell — I don’t think that term means what you think it means.) Similarly, social capital has little to do with daily and individual problem-solving, as the Washington Post reports is argued by Robert Putnam (I know, I know — bad form to criticize a book I haven’t read, but I figure this got vetted by his PR team):

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This explanation is a bit more complicated, because Putnam is using the term correctly (as one would expect from a chaired professor at Harvard). But in Bourdieu’s term, capital is still capital — you need to have money. What does going to church have to do with cash? What do the Boy Scouts?

Actual examples of social capital are actually hard to find (unlike, for example, examples of economic or cultural capital; cultural capital of the source of cultural influence/authority, often used in sponsorship advertising — “Be like Mike”). One example might be a sorority, when a defined social group gain resources (friends, a network) because they belong to the group. This network can make itself felt through economic capital as well, either via preferential hiring or events hosted by the sorority and paid for by group funds. Group members may also contribute to the group’s economic resources through fundraising (alumnae donations, bake sales, dance-a-thons, etc.). Doctors without Borders is another example of this type of capital: a network of medical professionals has more access to doctors or doctors-to-be than I do. One of Bourdieu’s own examples (1986 — it’s in German, sorry) was a simple family unit: let’s say you’re going to college and can get a loan from an institutionalized bank or the bank of mom & dad. Which one is better for you in the long term?

If you’ve read this far, you may be wondering why we even care. If we read the book, read the article, we know what the author means, right?

Well, yes and no. On the one hand, by insisting that we use terminology correctly, I am participating in another Bourdeusian habit — the habitus, in fact. As someone who uses theory frequently, I have a sense for it and I bristle when it’s been used wrongly, the same way a foodie might feel about being forced to eat Domino’s pizza. Habitus is, in a way, snobbery — but it’s snobbery that transcends socioeconomic status. Think about it as ‘the habits of us’, with “us” being your primary social group. If you grow up in the projects, you will still have your own habitus, but it’s not the same as mine.

At the same time, if we truly believe that communication is one of the most important skills, we must be able to agree on definitions. That means not habitually redefining terms, and being clear when you actually do so. By creating new language rather than changing the meaning of older language, we enrich discussions rather than impoverish them. Regardless of your net worth in any capital, that should be something you’ll get behind.