For some reason it’s weird to say out loud, or to type, but I was in a bowling league in high school. And, for me, I think I can comfortably say that it didn’t impact my likelihood to participate in the political system, integrate me with individuals that I could count on for support, pay off in the form of material benefits later in life, or increase my capacity to weather difficult times. In fact, I can say with complete confidence that I haven’t spoken a word to anyone remotely associated with said bowling league in ten years. Surprisingly, this didn’t discourage me from relentlessly citing Putnam as an undergraduate, because it’s kind of a wonderful ideology to make sense of both macro issues like our failed government, and micro issues, such as “why didn’t that jerk try to hold the door for me?”, and, since I don’t have a point of comparison to a time when even the cool kids were in bowling leagues, I can’t really dismiss the theory. Times have changed a lot since I was in high school though, and when I look around today I see people as politically engaged as they’ve ever been, and, through technology, people communicating more than, in all likelihood, any generation ever has. As Portes (2002) indicates, perhaps Putnam’s error is in treating an egocentric measure such as social capital in such a way that it could be measured like GDP, which certainly seems like some sort-of methodological fallacy, or maybe it’s just a good old case of rose tinted hindsight glasses, and while I’m certainly not going to disagree with the premise that high measurements of social capital are a positive indicator for any given individual, I don’t think Putnam’s writing has a lot of explanatory power relative to the political world. That said, I have always been sympathetic to his corollary point, which is that collective social capital is declining because people are watching absurd amounts of television – I doubt that collective social capital is declining significantly, but people are definitely watching an absurd amount of television, which always seemed like something that would be interesting to investigate. Also, to be fair, nobody goes bowling alone, they’re just not in silly competitive leagues anymore.
My critique of social capital is twofold: 1) it’s association with the term “capital,” which, for me, must refer to a mechanism for maintaining relative class privilege, and 2) the concept from which it’s derived, capital, is already a social innovation. That’s not to say that I’ve reversed course, and will now use my blogs as a space to trivialize the importance of social networks – there is power in social organization, boons and consequences are inherent in every web of relationships, and our degree of social integration demonstrably shields us from diminished life outcomes – but, as Kadushin (2012) argues, comparing these concepts to financial capital produces something of a tortured simile. Labor exploitation, extraction, and colonial projects yielded financial capital. Europe did not set the world on fire to make friends; instead, they proposed a radically exploitative mode of financially deterministic relations to govern the world. If Warren Buffet runs out of sugar tomorrow morning, he might try to borrow some from his neighbor and establish a lender’s relationship of reciprocity, but until the economy of that friendship becomes commensurable with the extraordinary social upheaval that he might cause by, perhaps, taking a massive short position on a major employer simply because he has a hunch, I don’t really think it’s fair to suggest that these concepts are significantly comparable.