Society vs academy? The social capital debate

Karen Healy, The University of Sydney

Ben Fine Social Capital Vs Social Theory: Political Economy and Social Science at the Turn of the Millennium, London, Routledge, 2001 (288 pp). ISBN 0-41524-180-4 (paperback) RRP $60.00.

Social capital is a prominent concept in the discourse of contemporary social science, especially in social policy. Social capital refers to the formal and informal networks that enable people to mobilise resources and achieve common goals. Over the past decade, associations as diverse as the World Bank, government social policy departments, non-government agencies and new social movements have turned their attention to the role of social capital in achieving social goals. Claims made on behalf of this ‘resource’ vary from its contribution to the realisation of crime-free communities and positive education outcomes, to its importance in economic development and the growth of democratic societies.

Despite the widespread use of ‘social capital’, confusion remains about the origin and meaning of the term. Commentators are divided between those who see social capital as an extension of economic concepts across the social sciences, and those who use it to draw attention to indicators of social and individual well-being, such as trust and access to support networks, that are typically ignored in conventional economic calculations. Someone in no doubt about the origin, meaning and implications of social capital is Ben Fine. In his recently published book Social Capital Vs Social Theory, Fine proposes a critical analysis of, and alternative to, social capital. Initially I approached this book with much enthusiasm—so far, the burgeoning literature on social capital has lacked considered critical analysis of the concept. In turning to Fine’s book I sought constructive critical insights into this field; regrettably, things did not turn out quite as I had hoped.

Drawing on the work of a select group of contemporary social theorists, including Coleman, Bourdieu, Putnam and Fukuyama, Fine is scathingly critical of social capital. His argument that social capital is an ambiguous and confused concept is indisputable. He is on far more shaky ground, however, when he presents social capital as a unified concept, irretrievably linked to neo-liberalism.

In the first part of the book, Fine claims that:

Any use of the term social capital is an implicit acceptance of the stance of mainstream economics in which capital is first and foremost a set of asocial endowments possessed by individuals rather than, for example, an exploitative relation between classes and broader social relations that sustain them. (Fine, 2001, p. 38).
The burgeoning literature on social capital has lacked considered critical analysis of the concept.

By positing social capital as an extension of mainstream economic discourse, Fine presents an exceedingly narrow view of the concept. He ignores the rich debate about social capital, and fails to recognise its use in exposing the limitations of conventional economic approaches for understanding social and economic processes (see for example, Cox, 1995).

Although Fine claims to explore the interaction between the social sciences, especially political economy, and social capital concepts, he is focused almost entirely on a Marxist critique of the term. In the first part of the book, this focus is implicit, and Marxist interpretations are used as illustrations (‘for example, an exploitative relation between classes and broader social relations that sustain them’), rather than as the core orientation of his argument. In the second half of the book, Fine explicitly advocates a return to a classical Marxist tradition (p. 138). He advocates Marxism set in aspic, circa 1970, when Marxist theory had yet to fully confront the troublesome claims of feminists, anti-racist theorists, new social movements and those dratted postmodernists (see for example Gibson-Graham, 1995). This was also a time when Marxist theory was not faced with the political problems posed by the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the rise of globalisation. Fine remains unconcerned by these developments, barely acknowledging most of them, let alone considering how his Marxist alternative might be reinvented in the face of such challenges.

Fine’s apparent determination to crush social capital as a concept in contemporary social science limits his capacity to explore the really interesting questions about it. Critical research in this area could be usefully directed, first of all, to asking why social capital or its associated concepts, such as community engagement, have become such prominent ideas in theory and policy. Additionally, because Fine focuses his attention almost entirely on academic debate, we gain no insight into the views of the people and communities at whom social capital ideas, policies and practices are directed.

Fine's apparent determination to crush social capital as a concept limits his capacity to explore the really interesting questions.

The conceptual problems of Fine’s argument are coupled with an arrogant and bullying tone. Early in the book, Fine warns the reader that he is frustrated by the rules of politeness in academic discourse and is prepared to disregard these conventions when he sees fit. His hostile approach to argument is illustrated in frequent use of the term ‘social capitalists’ to unify and dismiss a wide variety of social capital researchers and theorists. In addressing the work of contemporary theorists he shows himself to be a belligerent critic with a penchant for personally directed barbs that would do Paul Keating proud. The List of the Damned he assembles includes:

  1. Bourdieu: “Bourdieu has fallen victim to social capital fetishism” (p. 59).
  2. Coleman: “his understanding of economics is hopelessly ill-informed” (p. 74).
  3. Putnam: is a “Benchkin”, a term Fine devised to refer to someone whose work he sees as self-generating, fundamentally flawed and lacking in originality.
  4. Fukuyama: described as a “pretentious populariser” (p. 114).

Notwithstanding Fine’s acknowledged dislike of politeness, these ad hominem attacks undermine his claim to serious analysis of the subject at hand. Fine also makes much use of rhetorical questions, to which his own (Marxist) answers are presented as ‘disarmingly simple’ and ‘obvious’, sapping the reader’s confidence in his argument. This author seems committed to bullying the reader into his worldview, rather than contributing to a much-needed critical exploration of social capital concepts.

Academic understanding lags behind practical know-how in this area.

This book is, at best, a clever academic piece. But it fails to help us understand why social capital and associated ideas have attracted so much attention and interest. Undoubtedly, there is need for critical approaches to social capital: I have conceded that much of the literature on the topic remains vague about what this concept means, how it is to be achieved, and its strengths and limitations.

I was left pondering what role social science researchers and theorists can play in furthering understanding about social capital. I suspect that like so many other areas of knowledge, academic understanding lags behind practical know-how in this area. The fact that so much social capital building happens in the informal sector, such as in the relations between neighbours and within communities, adds to its invisibility. In addition, both orthodox and critical economic formulations have rarely recognised those aspects of social life with which the social capital literature is concerned; namely, care, support and trust. It may be that social science investigations of social capital are doomed if they remain, like Fine, cocooned in the familiar world of academic discourse, rather than venturing out to where social capital operates. Only through engagement with and exploration of these sites of action that we can begin to address the uses and the limits of social capital as a concept for achieving social change.


Cox, E. 1995, A Truly Civil Society: 1995 Boyer Lectures, Sydney, Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Gibson-Graham, J.K., 1995, ‘Beyond patriarchy and capitalism: Reflections on political subjectivity’, in Transitions: New Australian Feminisms, eds B. Caine and R. Pringle, St. Leonards, Allen and Unwin, pp. 172–183.

Karen Healy is Lecturer in the Department of Social Work, Social Policy and Sociology, The University of Sydney. She is currently working with the Benevolent Society on an ARC-SPIRT funded project on social capital.