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Social Capital and Political Sociology: Re-imagining Politics?


William Walters
Sociology 2002; 36; 377
DOI: 10.1177/0038038502036002008
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Sociology
Copyright 2002
BSA Publications Ltd
Volume 36(2): 377397
[0038-0385(200205)36:2;377397;022769]
SAGE Publications
London,Thousand Oaks,
New Delhi

Social Capital and Political Sociology:


Re-imagining Politics?

William Walters
Carleton University, Canada

AB ST RAC T

This article is concerned with social capital as the concept has been used to further the analysis of political life. Its substantive focus is the work of Robert Putnam
and his part in the revival of a civic conception of democracy.The article suggests
two strategies for analysing the relationship between social capital theory and conceptions of liberal-democratic government. In the first section the concept of
social capital is interrogated in terms of its political imagination.This is pursued by
way of a comparison of the assumptions and norms of social capital and political
culture theory the latter being a perspective that shaped post-war political analysis. The second part of the article situates social capital in relation to the
Foucauldian literature on government. It asks how we might see social capital in
terms of a new kind of territorialization of socio-political relations.
K E Y WORDS

community / democracy / political culture / social capital

he recent widespread public embrace of the language of civil society


and social capital, write Foley and Edwards (1997: 550), is part of a
search for new paradigms with which to confront the problems of contemporary societies. The theme of social capital has been most prominent in
American debates, but seems to be congruous with public discourse in Britain
where the ethicalized language of community, values, and stakeholding is
prominent (Rose, 1999). Social capital addresses the state of civic engagement
and social trust in liberal democracies. Its thrust is that successful and healthy
democracies and economies are those possessing dense webs of community participation.

377
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This article is concerned with social capital as the concept has been used to
further the analysis of political life. This restriction is necessary given that social
capital is now discussed within such diverse areas as economics, development,
education and criminology. With regard to its development within political
sociology, by far and away the most influential voice has been that of Robert
Putnam. Given the emphasis Putnam places on civic responsibility, participation, and associational life for the health of democracies, his rendition of social
capital is commonly regarded as being part of a wider Tocquevillian turn
within public discourse. Putnams concept of social capital is therefore regarded
as contributing to a revival of intellectual interest in the theme of civil society.
While such arguments are valid at a number of levels, I nevertheless take issue
with them in at least two ways.
In the first section of the article I argue that the tendency to situate Putnam
and social capital theory as neo-Tocquevillian fails to appreciate the novelty
and the historical specificity of this concept in terms of the way it imagines politics. To this end I argue for a concept of political imagination as a means of
capturing the historical presuppositions and assumptions that are embedded in
different concepts and approaches. In order to express more fully the political
imagination of social capital, I compare it with a strand of political analysis that
was highly influential within mainstream political analysis in the 1960s and
early 1970s, namely political culture theory. I focus on Almond and Verbas The
Civic Culture (1963), a book that more than any other could be said to define
this approach (Lane, 1997: 29; Ross, 1997: 55). This is a strategic choice on my
part. By selecting Almond and Verba I am able to compare Putnams political
imagination with one that can fairly be said to have been widespread in the
recent past. Given that both these projects are concerned with questions of civic
engagement, commentators (including Putnam) have seen significant continuities between them (Putnam et al., 1993: 11; Rotberg, 1999).1 I take a somewhat different position, arguing that they assume different kinds of political
imagination.
If the first section of the article highlights the historicity of social capital as
a discourse on politics, the second section is more interested in social capital in
terms of a Foucauldian genealogy of the social (Donzelot, 1991; Rose, 1996;
Walters, 2000). I argue that social capital is one of several ways in which the
division between the social and the economic is being disrupted and redefined.
Social capital points to new ways of making society calculable and governable,
for instance, in terms of the way in which it seeks to quantify the associability
and civic orientation of groups and even nations. It points away from a strategy
of government that understands society as an all-encompassing social system.

What is Social Capital?


Like any key concept in the social sciences, social capital is subject to competing definitions. According to Alejandro Portes, social capital first became a

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salient theoretical concept within the field of sociology, thanks largely to the
work of James Coleman and Pierre Bourdieu. Sociologists, he argues, have typically used the term to refer to the ability of actors to secure benefits by virtue
of membership in social networks or other social structures (Coleman, 1988;
Portes, 1998: 6). In this article I am interested in social capital as the term has
been used by political scientists, and in terms of the way it imagines liberal
democracy. Portes argues that many political scientists interpret social capital
differently from sociologists. They treat it as a feature of communities and
nations.
This is certainly the case with Robert Putnam. In Making Democracy Work
(1993), his widely read and positively received book comparing political reform
in Northern and Southern Italy, Putnam uses the term social capital to refer
to features of social organization, such as trust, norms, and networks, that
can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated actions
(Putnam et al., 1993). Although he draws on Colemans insights about the
creation and destruction of social capital (Putnam et al., 1993: 170), he tends
to theorize it as an attribute of collectives. Social capital refers to the resources that these collectives have at hand to overcome the dilemmas of collective action. Rich in social capital are those societies that possess dense networks and cultures of association particularly of voluntary association
manifested in all manner of groups for sport, religion, neighbourhood activity,
and so on. These various memberships sustain trust and an ethos of reciprocity
and cooperation. The social capital thesis is that basically a whole range of
problems and issues drugs, crime, unemployment, development, education
and political performance will all be more readily and happily addressed in
these settings. This is because public policies will be able to tap into supportive
norms and networks of civic engagement embedded in communities. By contrast, in areas like the south of Italy, where these traditions of horizontal association and cultures of social trust are historically weak, public policies are
prone to fail.
It is worth noting at the outset that Putnams valorization of associative
practices and civic traditions does not imply a vision of humans as naturally
associative, as certain strands of communitarianism might. On the contrary, his
rendition of social capital theory is closer to the rational choice tradition.2 He
assumes a self-maximizing individual for whom associative activity can, under
certain circumstances, be an investment hence the metaphor of capital. The
implications of this point are developed later in the article, when we consider
his dilemmas of collective action.
If Putnams work on civic traditions and practices in Italy helped to make
social capital a central topic for political science, his more recent investigations
of Americas social capital have won him a much wider audience. Drawing on
a variety of indices of civic engagement in America, Putnam argues that the
countrys stock of social capital has been shrinking for more than a quarter of
a century (Putnam, 1995a: 666, 1995b). A number of factors might explain
this development, including the growth of the welfare state, changes in family

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and occupational structure, and shifting patterns of residential life, most


notably suburbanization. The factor Putnam stresses, however, is a generational
one. He argues that Americans who came of age in the post-Second World War
era are less civically engaged than those before. While there is disagreement
about the explanations for this Putnam notes the malign influence of television viewing the general finding has resonated with public disquiet. As one
commentator has put it, Putnams argument has touched a nerve. Most
Americans believe that during the past 40 years, important aspects of their society have changed for the worse (Galston, 1996).
But it has not been without controversy either. Portes has expressed
methodological concerns that stem from treating social capital as a property of
towns or countries rather than individuals. He argues that it involves a logical
circularity. Social capital is simultaneously a cause and effect. It leads to positive outcomes, such as economic development and less crime, and its existence
is inferred from the same outcomes (Putnam, 1995a: 19).
Political scientists have also been critical of the uses Putnam and others
have made of social capital. Perhaps the most significant of these is the suggestion that social capital is not so much about political renewal in liberal democracies. Rather, it manifests a desire to avoid politics. Foley and Edwards (1997:
550) have put this succinctly:
Too often the renewal of civil society and the generation of social capital within
it are accepted uncritically as offering a panacea to contemporary social ills and an
easy alternative to the partisan political battles that so many regard as incapable of
resolving these problems.

On this reading, social capital can be compared to other discourses about social
cohesion, social exclusion and community. They have a Durkheimian edge,
inasmuch as they assess social conditions in terms of a particular norm: a cohesive and stable social order (Levitas, 1996).
Others have questioned what they see as the lines of social causality
implied by Putnams social capital theory. Theda Skocpol argues that his
approach assumes that spontaneous social association is primary while
government and politics are derivative (Skocpol, 1996; see also Tarrow,
1996). It makes politics and state structures the consequences and reflections of
a prior civil society. Strong, cohesive societies possessing dense networks of
association are the preconditions for successful government. The corollary is
that societies with weak political activism stem from weak civil societies with
only depleted stocks of social capital. Similarly, Margaret Levi claims that
Putnam is resolutely society-centred; Government institutions are the dependent variables (Levi, 1996: 49, 50). What is entirely missing from this view, she
argues, is a sense that the structure of politics is itself a critical factor in
shaping the nature and quality of governance and political life. In other words,
political participation, activism, engagement do not just stem naturalistically
from the soil of civil society. Rather, they are also shaped by the way that politics is itself conducted. As the recent experience of US politics demonstrates,

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political parties that take as their strategic environment an electorate where


only the wealthier half votes, actively encourage political quietism and civic
disengagement.

Political Imagination
While these criticisms of social capital theory are forceful and highlight its
rather one-dimensional character, my point is that they fail to grasp the novelty
of its description of political life. They operate with a rather fixed view of political space, a view in which state and society are both substantialized as actors
or domains, and serve as timeless categories of analysis. Rather than comparing political theories and arguments in terms of how they utilize a fixed repertoire of concepts and categories state, society, economy, etc. we might
interrogate them in terms of their respective political imaginations.
What is political imagination? As I am using this term, it has at least two
aspects. The first is meta-narrative. Meta-narrative is about the presuppositional. It refers to a set of assumptions or rules that are more often than not
unspoken and tacit. These assumptions lie behind day-to-day discussions or
narratives concerning a given topic such as a particular policy. Yet these
assumptions must exist and be shared for our day-to-day narratives to make
sense. Meta-narratives do important work in legitimating statements and arguments. Calling attention to meta-narrative has a deconstructive and critical
function. As Somers and Gibson (1994: 44) have argued, Taking a look at the
historicity of apparently presuppositional categories of social thought
involves asking how the historical construction and transformations of a concept shaped and continues to shape its logical dimensions and its social meanings.
The second aspect of political imagination is spatial and intensely symbolic.
In recent years, social theory has directed greater attention to the scale and the
space of social thought. How do we imagine the space of economic life? What
are the metaphors that naturalize it? How do we picture the space of politics
as a system with inputs and outputs, a forum, a public sphere in which citizens
debate? How has our thinking about politics, economics, culture, society
assumed the nation-state for its coordinates (Agnew, 1994; Hindess, 1998;
Taylor, 1996)? In this article I seek to draw attention to the particular ways in
which social capital theory imagines political space. Typically, dominant images
move across disciplinary boundaries; in the 19th century, the image of the
organism became a powerful organizing device for the social sciences. In the
post-Second World War period, the concept of the self-regulating system
migrated from cybernetics to the social sciences. Social capital theory is interesting in that it combines the very contemporary language of networks, with the
much older register of community.
Comparison is a powerful tool for highlighting political and other types of
social imagination, for exposing tacit assumptions that are otherwise not

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questioned. In what follows I examine the political imagination of social capital theory by comparing it with an older discourse: political culture theory as
exemplified by Almond and Verbas classic work, The Civic Culture. This will
not just reveal some of the historical and cultural assumptions embedded in
social capital theorys approach to politics. Given that both books have
acquired the status of landmarks in the history of empirical political analysis,
comparison will tell us something about shifts within the field of political sociology as well.

The Political Imagination of Political Culture


How can The Civic Culture help us grasp the historicity and peculiarity of
social capitals view of politics? Almond and Verba sought to identify the social
attributes that were conducive to stable liberal-democratic government. Like
social capital theorists, they looked beyond the formal institutions of politics to
the realm of civil society and association. Hence, reflecting the political preoccupations of the Cold War period in which it was written, the introduction to
The Civic Culture argues that for developing countries to import or emulate the
formal apparatus of Western political systems alone would not be enough. As
the USSR indicated, you can have parties, elections, constitutions, a bureaucratic civil service, but not be a genuine democracy. The conditions for stable
and successful democracies, it transpires, were altogether less tangible and more
diffuse. What must be learned about democracy is a matter of attitude and feeling, and this is harder to learn (Almond and Verba, 1963: 498). Almond and
Verba (1963: 498) go on to explain that:
the development of a stable and effective government depends upon more than
the structures of government and politics: it depends upon the orientations that
people have to the political process upon the political culture. Unless the political
culture is able to support a democratic system, the chances for the success of that
system are slim.

It was argued that the kind of political culture that was most supportive for liberal democracy was a civic culture. This was a mixed political culture since
it was one in which societies combined modern social values stressing participation, rationalism and citizenship, with older values of obedience, duty and
respect for authority.
The Civic Culture presents a systemic conception of politics, whereas social
capital accepts certain rational choice postulates. If by macroeconomics we
mean a form of economic knowledge concerned with the functioning of
economies as sui generis totalities, then The Civic Culture is, by analogy,
macropolitical. Political culture theory studies the political behaviour of individuals and groups. But it assumes the national political system as its overall
framework. It examines a nations political culture in order to understand the
conditions for its legitimacy and reproduction. It offers a systematic, centred

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image of politics in which the behaviour of associations and actors is assessed


in terms of their relationship with a formal structure of political authority. We
will see that social capital lacks this strong orientation towards a governing centre. Instead, it concentrates on the meso-politics of communities and groups,
and how they shape institutional performance.
Political culture research is nation centred inasmuch as it equates political
culture with the attitudes, beliefs, values, assumptions, etc., which the population hold in regard to the political system. It takes this national definition as
self-evident and natural. Political culture is defined as the specifically political
orientations attitudes toward the political system and its various parts, and
attitudes toward the role of the self in the system (Almond and Verba, 1963:
13). Political culture is centred and organized by the idea of a political system
and a society understood as a national community.
Another way of thinking about this is to consider the image, which the
political culture presents of a dysfunctional or failing polity. The modern
political system has within it the seeds of great fragmentation. But in Britain
and the United States this fragmentation is impeded by the force of shared
social values and attitudes, which permeate all aspects of society (Almond and
Verba, 1963: 299). Clearly, it is shared attitudes and expectations towards the
political system that hold the national community together. Values and attitudes
are measured in terms of the extent to which they bind the national community.
Instability and disorder are predicted where there is a polarization of attitudes
and a lack of cross-cutting cleavages. There has to be trust within society, but
this also has to penetrate into political relationships. Where trust is lacking,
people are unable to cooperate politically or to aggregate interests. The balance
between consensus and cleavage shifts towards the latter and society fragments
into closed and relatively hostile camps (Almond and Verba, 1963: 494). The
failing polity is the one which ceases to be properly national, integrated, held
together by shared values.
The role of secondary associations of trade unions, churches, community
organizations and the like provides another indicator of the national orientations and assumptions that underpin political culture approaches. These are
ascribed the function of binding individuals into the national polity.
Larger institutions, close enough to the individual to allow him some participation
and yet close enough to the state to provide access to power, are also a necessary
part of the democratic infrastructure. Voluntary associations are the prime means
by which the function of mediating between the individual and the state is performed. Through them the individual is able to relate himself effectively and meaningfully to the political system. (Almond and Verba, 1963: 3001)

In other words, secondary associations form a vital part of the informal network that integrates the citizen into the political system. Their function is
defined in relation to the prior existence of a national system. It is worth highlighting the way that political culture theory describes the mechanism and the
process by which individuals are connected to the system, and by which the

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political/civic culture is reproduced. It is of course in terms of the notion of


political socialization.
The civic culture is transmitted by a complex process that includes training in many
social institutions family, peer group, school, work place, as well as in the political
system itself. So broad a pattern of political socialization provides an excellent
way to inculcate the subtleties that comprise the civic culture. (Almond and Verba,
1963: 4989)

We can summarize the image of politics propounded in The Civic Culture


by saying that it is a problematic of stability. Almond and Verba are concerned
to establish the conditions under which democratic polities are stable and
their authority legitimate. They emphasize that it takes a particular mix of attitudes, values and opinions about politics within the public to ensure this outcome. The tricky combination is between (implicitly) modern values of
participation and citizenship, and older values of subjecthood, duty and respect
for political authority. Why must there be this combination? Why do Almond
and Verba espouse a mixed political culture over a fully modern one? To give
an answer to this question leads us to another aspect of the political imagination of political culture theory. As Almond and Verba (1963: 476; emphasis
added) see it, democratic governance involves the tense combination of two
functions:
On the one hand, a democratic government must govern; it must have power and
leadership and make decisions. On the other hand, it must be responsible to its citizens. For if democracy means anything, it means that in some way governmental
elites must respond to the desires and demands of citizens.

There is a tension between power and responsiveness, between the need to govern authoritatively, to meet internal and external challenges, and the need to
be responsive to the citizenry. Political science, Almond and Verba argue, has
emphasized how the system of electoral competition has been a key mechanism
in balancing these demands. But as they see it, what is equally if not more significant is the structure of the political culture and public opinion. The more
stable polities will be those that are mixed, in which patterns of deference and
respect for ruling elites are found side by side with patterns of rational-activism
and participation.
The inactivity of the ordinary man and his inability to influence decisions help provide
the power that governmental elites need if they are to make decisions. But this maximizes only one of the contradictory goals of a democratic system. The power of the
elites must be kept in check. The citizens opposite role, as an
active and influential enforcer of the responsiveness of elites, is maintained by his
strong commitment to the norm of active citizenship. (Almond and Verba, 1963: 481)

To conclude this section, there are at least two prominent features of the
political imagination of political culture. The first is that politics is imagined
in terms of a macropolitical system. The second concerns the hierarchical nature of the space of politics. This is a system in which elites do the

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governing, and the population is governed. The activity of political government


is the monopoly of the elites. Political culture plays the vital though not the
sole task of mediating the contradictions and tensions inherent to such
arrangement.

The Political Imagination of Social Capital


The conceptual territory of social capital is quite different. It is not centred
upon the idea of a system. It lacks this rather symmetrical architecture.
Although it speaks of norms of civility and social responsibility, it is not concerned about the social unity or integrity of the polity, understood as a people
sharing a common set of symbols, beliefs, values, expectations and goals. How
then is politics imagined? To answer this question we need to recognize that
social capital is framed by a different problematic, a different political rationality from political culture research. Political rationality is a concept that has
been developed by Rose and Miller from Foucault. It is a useful concept since
it draws our attention to the fact that political discourses have, among other
things, a characteristically moral form. They consider the ideals or principles to which government should be directed freedom, justice, equality,
mutual responsibility, citizenship, common sense, economic efficiency, prosperity, growth, fairness, rationality and the like (Rose and Miller, 1992: 1789). A
perspective of political rationality captures the relative and historically variable
nature of seemingly self-evident and universally valid political aims and objectives. It reminds us that the goals and values that political discourse espouses
are internal to, and defined by discourse, and that they are not eternal.
I want to argue here that, whereas political culture research was preoccupied with the ideological legitimacy and stability of liberal democratic regimes,
with the factors that governed a populations support for its political system,
social capital theory at least in Putnams influential rendering is framed by
a more recent problematic. Putnam is interested in understanding the performance of democratic institutions (Putnam et al., 1993: 3; emphasis added).3
Putnam argues that for some time political science has been animated by such
questions as Who Gets What, When, and How?. In contrast to such issues of
distribution and redistribution, rigorous appraisals of institutional performance are rare, even though good government was once at the top of our
agenda (Putnam et al., 1993: 63). Of course, performance is not selfexplanatory. Hence Putnam explains that Institutions are devices for achieving
purposes, not just for achieving agreement. We want government to do things,
not just decide things to educate children, pay pensioners, stop crime, create
jobs, hold down prices, encourage family values, and so on (Putnam et al.,
1993: 89). In Making Democracy Work, he develops a set of performance indicators as a basis for comparing the different regional governments of Italy.
If this will to research political life in terms of performance has a certain
self-evidence to it, this is not because performance is somehow an ever-present

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and universal attribute of all institutions. Rather, like competitiveness or


enterprise it is quite recent. It needs to be seen as embedded in a discursive
matrix, structured by the techniques and norms of auditing and accounting,
which today aspires to subject everything from government departments to
football clubs to the seemingly objective criteria of performance. Inasmuch as
social capital theory is a theory of politics, it might be understood as the
extension of the normative discourse of performance into this hitherto sheltered
realm. In performance, social capital theory finds a socially sanctioned value
that will legitimate its intellectual enterprise. At the same time, it confers on this
value a higher level of intellectual respectability. Social capital theory can be
said to communicate with wider social norms and values, and at the same time,
translate them.
A slightly different way of making this argument about performance
understood as a political rationality is in terms of Somers and Gibsons (1994:
44) notion of historical epistemology:
The [latter] term defines a way of carrying out social research based on the principle that all our knowledge, our logics, our presuppositions, indeed our very reasoning practices, are indelibly (even if obscurely) marked with the signature of time.
They are history-laden ... The goal of an historical epistemology is thus to explore
the process by which those problems which have such a formative place in theory
construction get identified as such in time and over time.

While social capital research has extremely broad assumptions about its applicability researchers are busily assessing the social capital of extremely diverse
societies and periods, from Renaissance Italy to modern America4 it is indelibly marked by very contemporary political concerns and concepts.
But if we have established that social capital assesses politics in terms of
social norms of performance rather than ideological legitimacy, we have said
nothing about how it views the mechanisms that underlie institutional performance. How does social capital theorize performance? What governs the institutional performance of institutions, regions or even nations? In answering this
question we get at the crux of the social capital argument.

The Dilemmas of Collective Action


We have already noted that underpinning political culture theory is the presupposition of the polity understood as a system. Political culture research investigates the attitudes, opinions and values that individuals and groups hold about
the system. It projects a socio-psychological model of politics: the reproduction
of this system depends upon the processes of political socialization that shape
the populations attitudes and values.
A key presupposition of social capital theory is of the actor as a self-interested maximizing individual. It is certainly true, as Portes has pointed out, that
Putnam, unlike sociologists of social capital, sees social capital as a kind of
property of communities and nations. That is, he sees it as a public good or a

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common resource and not, as Bourdieu or Coleman would have it, an attribute
of individuals. However, this does not mean Putnam adopts a social perspective
on action or the construction of order. Quite the contrary, he is much closer to
the methodological individualism of rational choice theory. His ontological
starting position, or default setting, is summarized by the narrative of the prisoners dilemma or tragedy of the commons. It is the story of individuals who
fail to reap the mutual benefits of cooperation because they cannot trust one
another. This is where the networks of association, connectedness and norms of
trust that together constitute social capital come in. Where there is social capital, cooperation for mutual benefit is facilitated. Performance links with social
capital. When economic and political dealing is embedded in dense networks
of social interaction, incentives for opportunism and malfeasance are reduced
(Putnam, 1993: 3).
The point to be emphasized here is that individuals are no longer
inescapably or almost naturalistically embedded in social structures as they
were for classical sociology, or for The Civic Culture and other strands of political behaviouralism. Social capital is not, therefore, simply the most recent,
fashionable term for a much older concept, namely social solidarity. But neither are individuals as completely atomized as they are with rational choice
theory, although social capital does retain rational choice theorys basic postulate of the actor posited as an inherently selfish and competitive individual.
More accurately, social capital theory corrects for, or supplements overly parsimonious rational choice theories. Cooperation is, on this reckoning, a phenomenon that cannot be assumed, but must be explained. It is an activity that
is not natural, but fraught with dilemmas. Social capital accounts for the possibility and the pattern of cooperation. It implies a learning mechanism that is
more economic than socio-psychological in its basis. Actors are not socialized,
per se, but instead they learn from previous experiences that cooperative activity has tangible material and economic benefits.
It is when we investigate how it is that social capital enhances the performance of democratic government that we begin to grasp the political imagination of social capital, and how it embodies a different set of assumptions from
political culture. There are two mechanisms at work. The first concerns the citizens relationship to formal political authority. Basically, through participation
in associations and communities, people acquire a certain public mindedness.
They become interested in, and confident about participating in public affairs.
Through myriad associations and networks a civic community is built up in
which people trust one another, regard one another as citizens, and sustain a
whole set of expectations about the responsibilities of political leaders. In turn,
leaders are civic-minded and responsive to their communities. This mechanism
resembles that of The Civic Culture in that culture mediates between citizens
and political authorities, albeit with an important difference. The emphasis
with social capital is not on the attitudes and values of the citizenry, narrowly
conceived. Rather, it is on their skills, and their actions. Participation in civic
organizations inculcates skills of cooperation as well as a sense of shared

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responsibility for collective endeavours (Putnam et al., 1993: 90). I have


already noted that social capital has an economic view of the subject. I can add
that, compared to political culture, the subject is an actor rather than the rather
passive recipient of processes of political socialization.
But there is a second mechanism by which social capital enhances the performance of democratic governance. It is not just by training citizens in the
habits and skills of being participatory and keeping leaders on their toes. This
second mechanism is one of self-governance, and it is almost entirely absent
from political culture. With the latter we encountered an image of politics as a
system defined by the poles of elites and the governed. With social capital this
stark polarization gives way to an image of the polity as a much more horizontal space of multiple communities. Government is no longer the monopoly
of the elites. It is something practised in and through these various communities and networks of association. A virtuous circle is envisaged. Associations
build trust between otherwise suspicious and self-interested actors. The more
trust is accumulated and embedded in these social institutions, the greater the
potential for future cooperation. Hence, in political culture theory, secondary
associations are conceptualized mainly as instruments and relays of socialization. They connect the public to the political system. In social capital theory
they are themselves the sites of self-governing activity.
Social capital is not a problematic of stability or legitimacy. Gone is the
macropolitical outlook, the fear that too much political engagement will somehow overload the system. Action is affirmed. Social capital lubricates and facilitates collective action. Gone also is the image of a political-governmental
machine which governs, and which is best served by a population which is in
equal parts docile and watchful towards it. Governance is much less centred,
less hierarchical with social capital. But this rather benign image shouldnt blind
us to its power effects, as the following section argues.5

Social Capital and Government


In the previous section I suggested a way of situating political concepts in their
proper historical field. By revealing how political culture draws upon images of
the system and social capital refers back to performance I have tried to show
that despite their common interest in civic engagement, they are framed by differing political rationalities. But I have also tried to de-familiarize both discourses, and to open critical space around them. In the remaining part of the
article I want to ask how we might situate social capital in terms of a genealogy of the social. This entails thinking not just about social capital as a way of
representing social and political space, but in terms of its possible constitutive
effects. It is about how social capital discourse seeks to make the social field
calculable and amenable to practices of government (Rose and Miller, 1992).
To interrogate the discourse of social capital as a practice with the potential to be constitutive of the social is to take a different approach from that of

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much political sociology. One of the key tropes emerging from the criticisms of
Putnams influential theorization of social capital is that it is society-centric.
Political sociologists have alleged that he treats government institutions and
state structures as secondary, derivative features of social capital. His is a model
that conceive[s] of civic capacity as a native soil in which state structures grow
rather than one shaped by patterns of state building and state strategy. A fuller
account of social capital would pay more attention to state agency (Tarrow,
1996: 395).
These criticisms are certainly valid in that they identify a certain tendency
in which social capital is made endogenous to society. Yet they are limited in
their engagement with the discourse of social capital by the fact that they fail to
problematize some fairly shop-worn categories, not the least of which is a
dichotomy of state/society. States and societies are substantialized to the point
where they can be compared as causal agents. State/society is treated as a universally valid framework for understanding politics. Here I want to argue that
in place of state/society, a conceptual dualism shared by liberals, institutionalists and their radical critics, we shift the terms of reference to governmentality,
as Foucault has proposed this term. For Foucault, the state/society distinction
is not timeless but itself internal to, and connected with a certain exercise of
power. Instead of making the distinction between state and civil society into a
historical universal that allows us to examine all the concrete systems, we can
try to see it as a form of schematization characteristic of a particular technology of government (Foucault, 1997: 75).
Rather than situate social capital within a state/society framework, then,
we can ask: as an organized knowledge, what role does it play, or aspire to play,
in the constitution of society as a governable domain? How does it render society and its problems in new ways? How does social capital point towards mutations in existing modes of government? The social capital literature naturalizes
its object: it assumes that association, trust, networks and civility are things
already there, waiting to be quantified. Instead of this, how can we see social
capital in terms of a governmental project, one that makes these phenomena
into both targets and instruments for governing social and political problems in
new, or modified ways?

From Biopolitics to Ethopolitics?


As a way of better understanding the political logics of our present, Nikolas Rose
has recently suggested a distinction between biopolitics and ethopolitics
(Rose, 1999: 477). These terms are useful in helping us to situate the type of
mutation in political power of which social capital is a symptom and trajectory.
Foucault coined the term biopolitics to capture the historical transformation,
occurring sometime in the 18th century, in ways of exercising power. Biopolitics
refers to a shift in power regimes in which power becomes tied up less singularly
with the defence of territory, and begins to fix on population. The power of the
state comes to be staked on the optimization of the health, wealth and well-being

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of the population. As a population, humans are governed not as a mere aggregate


of individuals, but as a group of living beings which presents to political authority all the problems of sanitation, birth-rate, longevity, race, heredity, etc.
(Foucault, 1997: 73). As a development within forms of government, biopolitics
has, as one of its correlates, the emergence of the modern social and human sciences. For it is these that enable populations to become calculable objects.
What is ethopolitics? How is it different from biopolitics? What does it
explain about social capital as a new knowledge and problematization of
human affairs? Rose (1999: 477) uses the term ethopolitics to characterize
ways in which [particular] features of human individual and collective existence
sentiments, values, beliefs have come to provide the medium within which
the self-government of the autonomous individual can be connected up with the
imperatives of good government. What is crucial to note about ethopolitics is
that it is not the birth-rate, the distribution of income, or patterns of employment per se which are being targeted. For biopolitics these were some of the
privileged objects whose manipulation was taken to improve the well-being,
social justice, and political stability of the population. With ethopolitics, it is a
host of previously less tangible things the civility, the level of trust in society,
the intensity of community feeling, the extent of voluntary endeavour that
become important. It is now from their adjustment and encouragement that a
whole host of other developments are to follow.6 Improving our communities is
the path to reducing crime, improving job opportunities, or making representative government more effective. But it is important to note in the case of
biopolitics and ethopolitics, what is measured appears to be a natural property
of populations. Trust itself is an emergent property of the social system, as
much as a personal attribute (Putnam et al., 1993: 177).
A feature of our present, then, is the proliferation of discourses and programmes like communiatrianism, social cohesion, stakeholding, the Third Way,
which have an explicitly ethical appeal, and which simultaneously construct
ethopolitical variables and accord them a novel priority. Clearly social capital has
marked affinities with these programmes and logics. But it is not simply reducible
to them. Social capital is interesting because it seems to involve the conjunction
or interplay of two seemingly heterogeneous and contrary registers the language of community and trust, with the quantitative thrust of modern economic
analysis. The appeal of social capital to policymakers and public debate resides
perhaps in the fact that it marries the ethical appeal of other discourses of community, civility and civil society, with the prestige of social scientific rigour and
operationalizability. Social capital brings the ambition of positivity and calculability to ethopolitical discourses. Unlike these other discourses, it offers a quantitative rendering of the ethical field, all the better to enhance its governability. It
purports to make trust and civility measurable. This is far from something that
has thus far been satisfactorily accomplished. Think of the methodological difficulties involved in comparing social capital between nations. As Putnams work
on the USA or Halls (1999) on the UK would indicate, at present it is trends over
time within, but not between, nations that have been subjected to quantification.7

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Yet, more than these other discourses of community, social capital seems to have
broached divisions within the social sciences. Most notable is its assimilation into
the spheres of economics and development. For certain policymakers and analysts within the World Bank, for instance, social capital is a godsend a way, at
last, of engaging economists in a serious dialogue about the social world, backed
up by empirically-verifiable hypotheses (Edwards n.d.).
But social capital is continuous with biopolitics in one important sense.
Governmentality has stressed that the forms of liberal power that most define
liberal-democratic regimes, are characteristically indirect (see for example,
Barry et al., 1996). Unlike the power of the despot, liberal rule does not seek a
totalizing, absolute ordering of its territory. Instead, it operates in relation to
spaces and objects that are imagined as having their own determinacy and irreducibility. Liberal government is conducted in the name of the economy, in the
name of society, with respect to public opinion or public health. For several centuries the social and human sciences have helped to give the social this durability. Social capital embodies a new way of imagining a space of processes and
dynamics that are irreducible to the scope of political power, but simultaneously
there to be tapped and harnessed to governmental projects.
Stocks of social capital, such as trust, norms, and networks, tend to be self-reinforcing and cumulative. Successful collaboration in one endeavour builds connections and trust social assets that facilitate future collaboration in other, unrelated
tasks. As with conventional capital, those who have social capital tend to accumulate more them as has, gets. (Putnam, 1993: 3)

It is not the organic imagery of the 19th century, nor the techno-space of the
system favoured by mid-20th-century social theories that is at work here.
Rather, it is of course the metaphor of capital. It is by casting processes of cooperation and network building as capital accumulation that this discourse
seeks to convince us rhetorically that society is a largely self-governing space,
possessing its own dynamics. It is by presenting these processes as those of
investment and profit that we are persuaded to sanction only a limited role for
public policy interventions.

Investing in Community?
While many political sociologists continue to treat the divisions between the
state, the social, economic, political and cultural as stable points of departure
for political analysis, some are beginning to show how they are constructed,
historically variable, and in need of explanation (see for example, Mitchell,
1991). The discourse of social capital offers an interesting case study in this
respect since it aspires to redefine the relationship between the social and the
economic. For the post-war welfare states, social and economic policies were
quite distinct enterprises institutionally, academically and morally. As
Donzelot (1988) has argued, a certain complimentary was assumed. A managed
national economy was to promote the social at the same time that social policy

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was seen to have positive effects for the economy, not the least being the stabilization of the macroeconomic regime. Yet social and economic policy constituted qualitatively different spheres of existence.
Social capital is one of the ways in which this border is becoming blurred.
For it involves a capitalization of the social.8 Civility, association, cooperation
and other social values and practices are reaffirmed. But it is not through some
sense of their intrinsic merit, or on the basis of a political anthropology of the
human subject. Rather, it is because Social capital enhances the benefits of
investment in physical and human capital (Putnam, 1993: 1). If classical social
policy concerned itself with questions of wealth distribution, social need and
social justice, social capital installs the issue of economic performance at the
heart of todays social project. It enjoins us to perceive cooperation, trust, and
community as instruments for improving the performance and competitiveness
of societies.
Yet I dont want to suggest that social capital theory is singularly responsible for blurring the social/economic division. Instead we should see social capital theory as an academic systematization and a rationalization of a way of
viewing society that has taken shape in a more molecular and diffuse way. How
often do we encounter institutions from schools to supermarkets that claim
to be investing in our communities? How frequently do we hear politicians
speak the language of public or social investment, where once they were not
afraid to speak of public spending? Social capital translates this popular vernacular into social theory. But why do we invest in communities? The presumption is surely that the commitment financial, temporal, ethical we make
to them is rewarded, paid back with interest in that we obviate many of the
things that attend the breakdown of communities drug addiction, crime,
violence, political alienation. In this way communities are inflected with an
economic rationality.

Dividing Practices
Finally, any consideration of the role social capital discourse might play in rendering the social into a calculable and governable space needs also to highlight
its disciplinary effects. One of the features of social capital as organized ethopolitical knowledge is that it continues, albeit in a new form, a characteristic
manoeuvre of the modern forms of biopolitical knowledge and investigation
that Foucault and others have emphasized. That is, it divides and classifies populations according to its own internal norms. Yet because these norms are
linked to the truths of the human and other sciences, they appear to be natural
expressions of their subjects. To the history of such divisions as the normal and
the pathological, the sane and the insane, the social and the anti-social, the
employed and the unemployable, and more recently the socially excluded and
the included, social capital discourse adds the civic and the uncivic. It establishes a new problem space in terms of which new conceptions and accounts of

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the poor and the marginal can now be expressed. Hence, Putnam notes that one
could account for the problems of poor Americans in inner city areas in terms
of some of the classic social factors that we have already discussed in relation
to biopolitics. Joblessness, inadequate education, and poor health clearly truncate the opportunities of ghetto [sic] residents. But, he goes on to note, so do
profound deficiencies in social capital.
Part of the problem facing blacks in the inner city is that they lack connections in
the most literal sense. Job-seekers in the ghetto have little access, for example, to
conventional job referral networks. Racial and class inequalities in access to
social capital, if properly measured, may be as great as inequalities in financial and
human capital, and no less portentous. (Putnam, 1993: 56)

There is clearly a set of norms associated with social class at work. The
social norms of the emerging bourgeois classes of Europe and North America
transmitted by middle-class professionals and philanthropists underpinned
the biopolitical norms of the welfare state. Similarly, middle-class images of
trust and civility suffuse the social capital debate. The frequent references one
encounters within the communitarian literature to good neighbourly conduct
such as raking the leaves from ones lawn are telltale signs.
It is members of the middle class who are likely to develop wide and diverse networks of friends and to mobilize them for new endeavours; and it is the middle class
who participate most actively in the widest range of formal associations, joining
new ones to advance more recently developed objectives. These modalities conform
more closely than do working-class patterns of sociability to classic conceptions of
how social capital works. Moreover, these differences appear to be widening over
time. (Hall, 1999: 439)

The point that social capital can constitute a dividing practice, and a site of
power relations, should be underscored given that social capital has in many
ways a benign face. We noted in the first section that political culture theory presented political life as hierarchical, and set within an overarching framework in
which the ruling elite and the governed constitute two poles. Social capital, on
the other hand, with its imagery of communities, networks, and associations,
embodies a very consensual political imagination. Yet, as we have seen, the
norms of civility and association can exercise their own, subtle forms of power.

Conclusion
This article has suggested that political texts are associated with particular
political imaginations. We can uncover their meta-narratives the normative
assumptions, spaces and values that they presuppose. Almond and Verbas The
Civic Culture offers us certain insights about the way that politics was imagined
in the early 1960s. We have seen how it assumed that governance in the West
was an activity that was, for the most part, monopolized by governments.
Governance was a well-centred activity. At the same time, The Civic Culture

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affirmed the way in which political apathy and inaction could be functional
supports for this political system. Speaking very broadly, one could draw a parallel between this political imagination, and the practice of the post-war welfare
state, managerial and bureaucratic in its outlook. Turning to Putnams theory
of social capital, we saw how a different kind of political space is validated
certainly not that of the technocratic state solving social problems. Social capital theory seems to assume a world in which governance is no longer supposed
to be the monopoly of the political structure. Instead, governance is dispersed,
carried out across a multitude of sites in civic associations, partnerships and
communities. Also, social capital presupposes a more active political and social
subject citizens and groups that assume responsibilities for dealing with social
problems. Political institutions are assessed not in terms of the levels of legitimacy they enjoy in the eye of their publics, but in terms of their performance.
They perform better when they are embedded in dense networks of association.
The article argued that we should not see performance as a self-evident attribute
or property of institutions but as a very contemporary governmental norm. If
we find the ethos of performance spreading to ever more aspects of social life,
then Putnams Making Democracy Work shows how it can be introduced into
discussions of democratic governance.
As well as analysing the political imagination of social capital, this article
has explored some of the ways in which social capital might inform contemporary governmentalities. It has obvious affinities with other discourses that are
reshaping the space of government, such as social exclusion, social cohesion,
and various strands of communitarianism. What seems to make it distinctive,
however, is the way it connects very old themes of civic responsibility with modern forms of economic analysis. Social capital seeks to make the social and the
individual calculable in terms of their associativeness, their civility. Further
research on social capital as a discourse and practice of government might consider its relation to policy reforms. One obvious area of study would be the
adoption of social capital within the development programmes of the World
Bank and other international agencies. But also, the relationship of social capital discourse to political governments of the traditional centre-left calls for
investigation. It could be that social capital will offer them another way to
express concern for social injustices, but in such a way that they are not
required to address the thorny matter of economic exploitation.

Acknowledgement
This article has benefited from the comments of Alan Hunt, Mariana Valverde, and
three anonymous referees. Thanks also to participants at the conference The Left
in a Post-It World, Carleton University, Ottawa, 1011 March 2000, and a seminar in the Department of Government, Brunel University, where some of these ideas
were first presented. Financial support for this research came from Canadas Social
Science and Humanities Research Council.

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Notes
1
2

3
4

According to Jackman and Miller (1998) it is Putnams exogenous treatment


of values that places him in the lineage of political culture approaches.
But see Jackman and Ross (1998) who argue that Putnam has shifted social
capital away from the original foundation Coleman and others gave it in rational choice, and towards political culture.
In some places he speaks of the quality of government, a term that seems to
be used interchangeably, for example, Putnam (1993: 2).
For example, see the recent special edition of Journal of Interdisciplinary
History, XXXIX(3) Winter 1999. Here the concept of social capital is applied
to such diverse settings as English village life in the late Middle Ages, port cities
in 19th-century America, and the pre-WWI womens movements in America
and Australia.
One topic I have not touched on is the socio-historical imagination of these discourses of civil society. Political culture is a developmentalist discourse in that
it depicts societies as passing through stages as they evolve towards more modern social systems. Almond and Verba identify a hierarchy of political cultures:
traditional, subject and participatory. It is interesting that with social capital
this stagist, developmental trajectory is not evident. Across space and time, all
societies are analysable in terms of social capital. But social capital is reversible;
that is, it can deteriorate as well as accumulate.
It is important to emphasize that what is being suggested here is not a transition from one mode of power to another. Government remains intensely
biopolitical. However, its various sites are being overlaid with ethopolitical language and techniques. One only has to consider an example like unemployment
policy which, in the form of the New Deal in the UK at least, has become
infused with the ethical techniques of partnership, personal and community
responsibility and so on. See Walters (2000: Ch. 6).
Note, however, that Halls work on social capital in Britain has been taken to
demonstrate divergences between British and American trends. Britain possesses large amounts of social capital and thats remarkable, considering
how strong the pressures are in an individualist, non-joining direction (Walker,
1999).
I have adapted this term from Rose who writes of the capitalization of citizenship (Rose, 1999: 481).

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William Walters
Is Assistant Professor in Political Science at Carleton University in Ottawa. He has
recently published Unemployment and Government: Genealogies of the Social (Cambridge
University Press, 2000). His main research interest is currently a genealogy of international government in Europe.
Address: Department of Political Science, Carleton University, Ottowa, Ontario K15
3B6, Canada. E-mail: wwalters@ccs.carleton.ca

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