Chapter 7

THE ‘WHAT’ OF SOCIAL CAPITAL

Social capital, despite its popularity in sociology and policy circles, is not a new concept. In various forms, and with various labels, commentators and researchers have looked on with curiosity for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The University of Toronto’s Barry Wellman describes our long (but not always smooth) love affair with the topic:

‘It is likely pundits have worried about the impact of social change on communities ever since human beings ventured beyond their caves. In the last two centuries many leading social commentators have been gainfully employed suggesting various ways in which large scale social changes associated with the Industrial Revolution may have affected the structure and operation of communities …’85

One of the most famous advocates of the study of social capital was Alexis de Toqueville, the young French sociologist who studied societal make-up in various countries at the start of the nineteenth century. Having toured southern Italy, he recorded such high levels of duplicity and ‘moral degradation’ that ‘… murder was considered a right’.86 Whilst this may have been construed as a failure of social capital to banish these destructive practices (and there really is nothing more destructive than murder, we suppose), we could easily argue that these practices flourished as a result of too much of one type of social capital. To use the analogy we introduced earlier, where social capital can act as the ‘engine ...

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