Is social capital a tool for colonisation by economics?

In his book Social Capital and Social Theory, the economist Ben Fine argued that the concept of social capital was a neo-liberal Trojan Horse, designed to allow economists to colonise other disciplines. Several other authors in the Marxist tradition have followed and developed this line, and I’ve been considering their work while revising my own short text-book on theories of social capital.

But not all Marxist-influenced theorists dismiss social capital. Pierre Bourdieu, the French sociologist, thought that the economists had narrowed the concept of capital down so that it covered only one very limited type of capital, namely traded capital. The result of this, he argued, was that other types of capital – broadly, what he saw as ‘symbolic capital’ – were presented as somehow non-material, and as detached from the material interests of profit and loss. He saw his task as widening the language of capitals, and thereby broadening our understanding of how the privileged maintain their position.

In Bourdieu’s own words:

it is in fact impossible to account for the structure and functioning of the social world unless one reintroduced capital in all its forms and not solely in the one form recognised by economic theory. Economic theory has allowed to be foisted upon it a definition of the economy of practices which is the historical invention of capitalism; and by reducing the universe of exchanges to mercantile exchange, which is objectively and subjectively oriented towards the maximisation of profit, i.e. (economically) self-interested, it has implicitly defined the other forms of exchange as non-economic, and therefore disinterested.

I’m inclined to side with Bourdieu on this. I have found his ideas of social and cultural capital helpful in understanding the self-interested way in which particular groups position themselves. They use their symbolic capital to align themselves with others who share their own interests; and they use it to disparage and stigmatise those who potentially or actually threaten their interests.

And if economists really are trying to colonise other social sciences through the concept of social capital, I reckon they are making a pretty bad job of it.

Bourdieu’s essay on the ‘forms of capital’ has been made available at: http://econ.tau.ac.il/papers/publicf/Zeltzer1.pdf

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