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Is social capital everywhere and everything?

Exploring Social Capital Podcast
Exploring Social Capital Podcast
Is social capital everywhere and everything?

Ep 6. Donne wrote that no man (or woman) is an island. We are all connected. Once we acknowledge that we are all connected–that what one person does undoubtedly affects someone else–once we make that adjustment in our thinking, we must recognize that we are all involved in a great social capital experiment. It was once said that fish are the last species to discover water. Similarly, we humans may be among the last to recognize how interdependent we really are and that we are all involved in humankind. It may lead us to reach the conclusion that social capital is everywhere and in all things. It might be helpful to briefly review how dependent we all are on our social capital–our connecting emotions that involve connecting emotions and exchanges of relational goods. Perhaps we could begin by describing exchanges that focus on the production and exchange of relational goods. They include vacations, outings with friends, dating, attending sporting and social events, parties, weddings, and rallies. Then, there are events focused on enabling the exchange of commodities by including these relational goods (much like buying a plane ticket with a combination of money and frequent flyer miles). We believe it can be argued that exchanges between persons known to each other must all involve social capital and the exchange of some relational goods. A third category of exchanges focuses on enabling the future exchange of relational goods and commodities by creating bonds and covenants by embedding these with relational goods.

The episode opens with Tristan introducing the topic and posing the question of whether social capital has become too ubiquitous to be a useful concept. Lindon acknowledges that the concept of social capital is indeed becoming widespread and that there are many definitions, some of which are not even true definitions. This widespread use can make the concept feel nebulous and less useful. However, he also sees progress in efforts to ground social capital in the concepts of capital and social relations.

Tristan shares his experience of hearing the term used in general conversation and finding it necessary to ask for clarification about what people mean by social capital in different contexts. He points out that while the broad use of the term indicates its recognition and relevance, it also creates ambiguity. Lindon agrees and highlights that while the term’s use in everyday language and various professions is a positive sign, the lack of a consistent definition is concerning.

The conversation turns to the usefulness of social capital as a broad concept. Tristan suggests that, like other forms of capital (physical, natural, human), social capital can be a useful term when speaking generally. However, when discussing specifics, more precise terminology should be used. Lindon agrees and notes that often, social capital is used to explain outcomes involving people or groups, and it typically refers to relationships.

They explore the idea that if social capital is about relationships, it indeed permeates nearly every aspect of human life, making it seem omnipresent. Tristan raises a point about the assumption that all social relationships are positive, which can lead to tautological thinking. Lindon emphasizes the importance of connecting social capital to the properties of capital, such as being a stock that can produce flows of benefits, depreciate, and require maintenance.

Tristan and Lindon agree that while social capital is broad, it can be bounded by focusing on its relational nature. Tristan proposes that human capital can be understood as the ability to do things, whereas social capital is the ability to do things together, emphasizing collective actions and social interactions.

The discussion also touches on the dual nature of social capital, which can produce both positive and negative outcomes. Lindon highlights the importance of social structures in understanding these outcomes, noting that relationships exist within larger networks that can have both inclusive and exclusive effects.

Tristan shares his exploration of the limits of social capital, considering whether it can infinitely increase and what factors might limit its growth. They discuss the concept of entropy in relationships, where social capital requires ongoing investment to maintain and strengthen.

In conclusion, they acknowledge the contributions of various disciplines to understanding social capital and the need for a comprehensive framework that integrates these perspectives. They agree that while social capital is broad and pervasive, a nuanced understanding of its relational nature and the forces that shape relationships can provide valuable insights.

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