Literature Review: Chapter 3

CHAPTER THREE: Social Capital


In media coverage of the past year, Vancouver has been termed as an unfriendly, cold, and lonely city whose inhabitants are not much more than a network of strangers. However, the issue of social isolation is not unique to Vancouver, nor is it unique to the contemporary scene, as a review of the academic literature clearly indicates.

“Unfriendliness” is a popular term for the feeling associated with a sense of social alienation. The Vancouver Foundation results helped substantiate the public discourse on social alienation by listing “loneliness” as one of the key findings of its survey. The public conversation in Vancouver that currently focused on the city’s apparent state of social isolation is also part of a wider sociological issue. What the media stories and studies are addressing in actuality is the presence and absence of what is termed Social capital.


Social capital is part of a long-standing discourse around social alienation that began in the late 19th century. The term focuses on the core idea that social networks possess value. [38]  Many sociologists have emphasized different aspects of social capital in recent history but the key concept is the network of social connections that exist between people and their shared values and norms of behaviour. These networks enable and encourage mutually advantageous social and economic benefits, derived from the preferential treatment and cooperation between individuals and groups. [39]


Two comprehensive sources on social capital have emerged in recent years, with prominent Cuban-American sociologist, Alejandro Portes and, Harvard Political Scientist, Robert Putnam as the authors. Portes’ 1998 article in the annual review of sociology, Social Capital: Its Origins and Applications in Modern Sociology,[40] incorporated the ideas of many previous authors. This included contemporary thinkers Pierre Bourdieu and James Coleman.  Putnam’s expansive essay turned into a book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, is seen as the modern-day source on the concept of social capital.


To explain social capital’s effects, Putnam gave the example of a screwdriver as a form of physical capital and a college education as a form of human capital. Both forms of capital can increase productivity, which can occur on both an individual and collective basis. Social capital also includes the formation of social contacts, which can affect the productivity of individuals and groups. [41]


When people talk about Vancouver as “unfriendly,” what they are referring to is the low level of those kinds of network exchanges that are understood as social capital. The descriptions of Vancouver as unfriendly, as lonely, and as divided into enclaves are manifestations of what, in academic circles, would be termed a depletion of social capital.  The normal social networks that prevail in more tightly bound communities appear to be missing here. Young people cannot connect, people feel they cannot call on their neighbours for help, nor do they feel they have anything to offer the community, and a surprisingly high number of residents are experiencing feelings of loneliness. Those absences reveal themselves through the Vancouver Foundation’s survey results, the three Vancouver Sun series released in 2012 which relate to the perceived eroding of community, and a public discourse that circulates stories of Vancouver’s reputation as an unfriendly city.


3.1 Social Capital Origins


When the Industrial Revolution was causing dramatic social upheaval in the 19th century – with young people moving to cities, the family becoming a weaker force, and the smaller world of village ties becoming eroded – the idea of social alienation began to garner attention.


Alejandro Portes dates social capital’s beginnings to the days of Emile Durkheim and Karl Marx, who theorized that involvement in groups could have positive effects for the individual and the community. They began to focus on alienation and social isolation as the erosion of community and group involvement made people become aware of this intangible force that had held people in place until then.


Durkheim saw group life as an antidote to self-destruction.[42] He described how social order was maintained in societies based on two very different forms of solidarity. A mechanical form based on uniformity, command and control, and an organic form that protected individual rights and interpersonal diversity, developing collective commitment through the institution of civil society.” Durkheim’s theory makes the distinction between harsh, retributive types of justice in early societies and the more liberal forms of social control through civil law in later ones. Formal institutions, laws and associations became part of the mechanisms for maintaining social control in the organic order. According to Portes, the term “social capital,” which did not come into use until decades after Durkheim’s work, simply recaptures an insight present since the beginnings of the discipline.[43]


Portes and Putnam, in their historical research of the term social capital, have documented the evolution of the term from the early 20th century. One of the first credited with using the actual term social capital is L.J. Hanifan, state supervisor of a rural school in West Virginia in 1916, who wrote to urge community involvement in order to create successful schools.


“The individual is helpless socially, if left to himself. If he comes into contact with his neighbour, and they with other neighbours, there will be an accumulation of Social Capital which may immediately satisfy his social needs and which may bear a social potentiality sufficient to the substantial improvement of living conditions in the whole community. The community as a whole will benefit by the cooperation of all its parts, while the individual will find his associations the advantages of the help, the sympathy, and the fellowship of his neighbours.” [44]


The term social capital resurfaced in the 1950’s, when Canadian sociologists used it to characterize the club memberships of arriviste suburbanites; in the 1960’s, by urbanist Jane Jacobs to laud neighbourliness in the modern metropolis; in the 1970’s, by Harvard economist Glenn Loury to analyze the legacy of social exclusion and group inequality; and in the 1980’s by French social theorist Pierre Bourdieu to underline the social and economic resources embodied in social networks. Bourdieu was a pioneer in the field of analysis of social capital.[45] He defined it as “the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance or recognition, or in other words, to membership in a group which provides each of its members with the backing of the collectivity-owned capital, a credential which entitles them to credit, in the various senses of the word.”[46]


James Coleman, a sociologist and empirical researcher, put the term firmly on the intellectual agenda in the late 1980’s, using it to highlight the social context of education.  He identified social capital as being defined by its function.


It is not a single entity, but a variety of entities with two elements in common. (Social Capital) consists of some element of defined social structures. And they facilitate certain action of actors – whether persons or corporate actors within the structure, like other forms of capital, social capital is productive, making possible the achievement of certain ends that would not be attainable in its absence.[47]


Coleman more closely examined some of the dynamics of social capital, such as reciprocity expectations, group enforcement of norms and the consequence of privileged access to information. His studies also examined the motivations of recipients and of donors in exchanges mediated by social capital. Recipients’ desire to gain access to valuable assets is understandable. More complex are the motivations of the donors, who are requested to make these assets available without any immediate return. In his analysis on the systematic treatment of the core process of social capital, he distinguishes among a) The possessors of social capital, who are those making claims, b) the sources of social capital, consisting of those agreeing to these demands and c) the resources themselves. [48]


Coleman’s essays have undeniable merit of introducing and giving visibility to the concept of social capital in American sociology, highlighting its importance for the acquisition of human capital (the skills and knowledge possessed by an individual) and identifying some of the mechanisms by which it is generated. He also observes the base level ties between a certain number of people in a given community that is necessary to guarantee the observance of norms.


Both Coleman and Bourdieu emphasized the intangible character of social capital relative to other forms. Whereas economic capital is in people’s bank accounts and human capital is inside their heads, social capital inheres in the structure of relationships.[49] To possess social capital, a person somehow be must be related to others, and it is those others who are the actual source of his or her advantage.


3.2 Portes and Putnam


Both Alejandro Portes and Robert Putnam are highly regarded as theorists on social capital although their views are not in perfect alignment.


Alejandro Portes’ research documents the principal ways social capital is enacted and its inter-relationships. He distinguishes three basic manifestations of social capital: as a source of social control, as a source for family support, and as a source of benefits through extra-familial networks.


To achieve social control, the tight community networks created by social capital are used by parents, teachers, employers and police authorities as they seek to maintain discipline and promote compliance among those under their charge. For family support,

intact families of two parents possess more of this form of social capital than do single-parent-families. Less desirable educational and personality outcomes were present in single-parent families who tended to move more often and have fewer adult contacts in the community, thereby weakening the potential for inter-generational support. The primary beneficiaries of intact families are, of course, the children whose education and personality development are enriched accordingly. By far the most common use of social capital is as a source of network-mediated benefits beyond the immediate family, when social capital allows access to certain employment, a level of mobility through occupational ladders, and heightened entrepreneurial success.


Robert Putnam, by contrast, expounds on the idea of generalized reciprocity, defined by philosopher Michael Taylor as “a combination of short-term altruism and long-term self-interest; I help you out now in the (understanding) that you will help me out in the future.”[50] Putnam theorizes that a society that relies on generalized reciprocity is more efficient than a distrustful society. His version of social capital refers to “features of social organizations such as trust, norms and networks that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated actions.”[51] In that sense social capital is closely related to what some have called “civic virtue.” The difference is that “social capital” attests that civic virtue is most powerful when embedded in a sense network of reciprocal social relations. A society of many virtuous but isolated individuals is not necessarily rich in social capital.[52] He also includes references to Tom Wolfe’s “favour bank” in the novel Bonfire of the Vanities and even Yogi Berra’s famous quote, “If you don’t go to somebody’s funeral, they won’t come to yours.” [53]


Putnam’s exploration of regional governance and civic community in Italy led to his article Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. It was this work which inspired his focus on the decline of civic engagement in the United States in Bowling Alone. He attempts to explain why we are less civically engaged now than in our society’s recent past; reasons include pressures of time and money, the movement of women into the labour force, the decline of the traditional nuclear family and residential mobility, in addition to suburbanization and sprawl. He also points to changes in the structure of economy, including the rise of chain stores, the service sector and globalization. Technology and the mass media are also blamed, along with overall generational differences. Putnam’s explanation for civic disengagement pins a good chunk of the blame on the joint impact of the change in generation and increased exposure to T.V. [54]


He illustrates five distinct areas where social capital is vital: child welfare and education; healthy and productive neighbourhoods; economic prosperity; health and happiness; and democratic citizenship and government performance. Putnam confidently presents evidence that social capital makes us smarter, healthier, and better able to govern a just and stable democracy.


But his praise for civic engagement has come under criticism from other theorists, namely Martin Paldam and Gert Svendsen, whose 2000 journal article, An Essay on Social CapitalLooking for the Fire Behind the Smoke [55] viewed the “Putnam Instrument,” as an overly simplified circular approach to civic engagement.


Following the publication of Bowling Alone and An essay on social capitalLooking for fire behind the smoke, Portes penned The Two Meanings of Social Capital in an attempt to reduce the confusion concerning the actual meaning of social capital and the growing controversy about its alleged effects.


But it was the celebration of community that caught the eye of scholars in other disciplines. For Coleman, community ties were important for the benefits they yielded to individuals. Old people could walk the streets at night without fear and children could be sent to play outside because tight community controls guaranteed their personal safety.  A subtle transition took place as the concept was exported into other disciplines where social capital became an attribute of the community itself. In this new garb, its benefits accrued not so much to individuals as to the collectivity as a whole in the form of reduced crime rates, lower official corruption, and better governance. [56]



Portes examines both social capital as a feature of communities, and after giving empirical evidence for the need of alternative application of the term, he looks at its effectiveness in the educational attainment of immigrant children.



3.3 Bridging and Bonding, Ethnicities and Immigration


To understand social capital in the context of ethnic and immigration studies, Portes defines social capital as the capacity of individuals to command scarce resources by virtue of their membership in networks or broader social structures.[57] Putnam develops the conception of social capital of groups by further breaking it down to two major categories, bridging and bonding. Bonding, which is exclusive of social capital reinforces specific reciprocity by mobilizing internal solidarity within groups. Bridging is an inclusive term of social capital links one social group to external assets and information through social network ties.


Bonding social capital, dubbed “sociological superglue,” is important for mobilizing solidarity and accessing benefits of reciprocity. Bridging social capital, in contrast, dubbed “sociological WD-40,” is better for linkage to external assets and connecting to different networks. [58]


The bonding social capital, which is largely based on familial networks and friendships within one’s own ethnic, social or class community, is a strong tie, but it is less effective and beneficial to job searching in terms of diffusion of information and social contacts.[59] Both Portes and Putnam point out, that bonding social capital may explain the formation of enclaves among minority immigrant communities. An ethnic enclave may provide an economic niche for newcomers and their children.


The role of social networks is important in studies of ethnic business enclaves and ethnic niches, which are dense concentrations of immigrant or ethnic firms that employ a significant proportion of their co-ethnic labour force and develop a distinctive presence in an urban space. Examples are New York’s Chinatown, Miami’s Little Havana and Los Angeles’ Koreatown. These enclaves are able to colonize a particular sector of employment in such a way that members have privileged access to job opportunities, while outsiders do not.[60]


With 40 per cent of the population foreign-born, Vancouver has been referred to as the third most multicultural city in the world[61] (behind Toronto and Miami). By most accounts in the Vancouver Foundation survey, the ethnic enclaves provide a significant amount of bonding social capital for its inhabitants. This is seen in some areas of Richmond where up to 80 per cent of residents are of Chinese origin[62] and featuring a multitude of businesses with Chinese-only language signs that exclusively employ a Chinese clientele. Surrey is another visible enclave with scores of Sikh, Hindu and Muslim temples, located amidst East Indian restaurants and offices of immigration lawyers.


At the same time, Vancouver Foundation survey results indicate a lack of bridging social capital. Thirty-two per cent of respondents to a neighborhood question responded with “little interest in knowing them”[63] as an obstacle to both knowing their neighbors, and  having a more connected, trusting and ultimately “friendly” neighbourhood. As Putnam states, “Diversity seems to trigger not in-group/out-group division but anomie or social isolation. In colloquial language, people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down’ – that is, pull in like a turtle.” [64] As to the survey’s question of people’s preference to staying within one’s own ethnic group? The response was 65 per cent of respondents agreeing, with 10 per cent strongly agreeing and only 12 per cent disagreeing.  [65]



3.4 Negative Social Capital


Portes’ research on social capital strongly emphasizes positive consequences but adds that studies have also been conducted on negative social capital, identifying four examples of negative consequences. One, the exclusion of outsiders, as previously mentioned, in ethnic niches. A second is the obverse of the first: excess claims on group members. A third example of social capital’s negative consequences is the restrictions on individual freedoms, which can breed conformity. Lastly, the downward-levelling norms that operate when members of a formerly oppressed group seek acceptance in middle-class, mainstream society, and then are singled out or attacked for their perceived leap from their roots.  [66]


Notice that social capital, in the form of social control, is still present in these situations, but its effects are exactly the opposite of those commonly celebrated in the literature. Whereas bounded solidarity and trust provide the sources for socioeconomic ascent and entrepreneurial development among some groups, among others they have exactly the opposite effect. Sociability can carry a two-pronged effect. While it can be the source of public goods, such as those celebrated by Coleman, Loury, and others, it can also lead to public “bads.” Mafia families, prostitution and gambling rings, and youth gangs offer so many examples of how embedded-ness in social structures can be turned to less than socially desirable ends. The point is particularly important as we turn to the more recent and more celebratory versions of social capital.[67]


Examples of all types of the negative social capital that Portes wrote about are common in modern-day Vancouver. British Columbia has seen a rise in gang violence in recent years, with gangs such as the Red Scorpions and the United Nations gang making headlines for all the wrong reasons including drugs, murders and other violent crimes in the Lower Mainland. Less violent examples of negative social capital consist of stories of everyday citizens who experience social isolation due to some pull of social capital from within their ethnic group.

In Douglas Todd’s Vancouver Sun series on Ethnic Mapping, he introduces Jeremy Lau, who wishes familial duty didn’t compel him to live in central Richmond. “I’d like a more typical North American city and lifestyle, with not so many Chinese people,” said Lau, who came to Canada from Hong Kong in 1993. “When you immigrate to a new country, you don’t want to experience just what you’re used to. You want a new adventure.”[68] But he remains in the heart of the largest and highly concentrated ethnic Chinese enclave in Canada to support his parents-in-law, who live with Lau and his wife. They cannot speak English nor do they own a car. Typical of many recent and elderly immigrants, Lau’s in-laws feel more comfortable in Chinese surroundings.

Another example from Todd’s Ethnic Mapping series featured Melinda Khiu, the editor for Vietnam’s Thoi Bao newspaper, whose office sits amidst the swath of Filipino outlets in an otherwise culturally rich neighbourhood at Fraser Street and 27th Ave. “This is the most Filipino neighborhood. And I’m stuck right in the middle of it,” said Khiu, who is constantly mistaken for a Filipino. “I don’t interact with the Filipinos too much. They have nothing to do with me. They don’t bring any business.”[69] A few blocks away, Khiu’s Vietnamese community is celebrating the renaming of the Kingsway strip east of Fraser Street as “Little Saigon,” but when members of the Vietnamese community submitted their petition for the name change, they made the mistake of not consulting with the entire neighbourhood community, which angered many locals. Now Vancouver Filipinos are asking the City of Vancouver to officially designate Fraser Street between Kingsway and 33rd “Pinoy Town.”[70]  Debate is currently surrounding whether the benefit of the re-naming will go to the whole neighborhood or just a certain segment. Thus continues the perception of outsider exclusion in Vancouver. Negative social capital, as identified by Portes and supported by Putnam’s discovery that ethnic enclaves tend to create distrust among neighbors.



3.5 Cyclical Effect of Social Alienation and Technology


In Bowling Alone, Putnam is careful to observe that there have been other periods in history when changes in the social fabric of society caused citizens to retreat from the wider notion of community. One was the decades at the end of the nineteenth century, which American historians have dubbed The Gilded Age and the Progressive Era[71] “In this era, there was a dramatic, technological, economic and social change… that rendered obsolete a significant stock of social capital.” [72]


Race, ethnicity and class divided Americans at the end of the 19th century much as they do today. Although Putnam’s example of today’s dividing lines differ in detail from a century ago (where Asians and Hispanics, for example, have replaced Jews and Italians as targets of discrimination) he also notes the sometimes nostalgic oversimplification of bygone eras, something we are guilty of today as we were 100 years ago. “It was, in short, a time much like our own, brimming with promise of technological advance and unparalleled prosperity, but nostalgic for a more integrated sense of connectedness. Then as now, new modes of communication seemed to promise new forms of community”[73]


This same nostalgia for more community and less isolation is evident today in an era where the Internet, and more recently, social media, is determining how we connect. This new space is setting up new possibilities but also new limits on human connection. A recent study was produced at the University of Utah that inquired into the phenomenon of Facebook and its connection to loneliness. Stephen Marchie in The Atlantic commented on the study with his essay in which he references Putnam’s attribution of dramatic post-war decline of social capital.


Within this world of instant and absolute communication, unbounded by limits of time or space, we suffer from unprecedented alienation. We have never been more detached from one another, or lonelier. In a world consumed by ever more novel modes of socializing, we have less and less actual society. We live in an accelerating contradiction: the more connected we become, the lonelier we are. We were promised a global village; instead we inhabit the drab cul-de-sacs and endless freeways of a vast suburb of information.[74]


The decline of face-to-face interaction has been on the rise for years on a global scale so what is the particular connection of Facebook to Vancouver’s loneliness? Vancouverites, according to a 2010 Angus Reid poll, are the most addicted to social media of any Canadian city, with only 69 per cent of Vancouverites responding that face-to-face is their preferred contact, compared to the Canadian average of 82 per cent [75] One surmises that, Vancouverites, in comparison to the remainder of the country, expect more from technology and less from each other.


Most days in Vancouver, the rain can be blamed for fuelling residents’ social media addiction. On clear days, however, when a given citizen’s motivation to spend time on the city’s edges is not defined by their pursuit of solitary exercise, there still exists that void where – partly due to a lack of access to, and awareness of, the benefits of social capital – Vancouverites will spend more time alone. According the foundation survey, one quarter of the city’s residents see this less, as a state of solitude and more, as a state of loneliness [76]


Portes concludes by giving us his version of a reality-check. He thinks, despite all the current enthusiasm for the topic, that the various facets of social capital should be studied in all of their complexity.


The processes alluded to by the concept cut both ways. Social ties can bring about greater control over wayward behavior and provide privileged access to resources; they can also restrict individual freedoms and bar outsiders from gaining access to the same resources through particularistic preferences… A more dispassionate stance will allow analysts to consider all facets of the event in question and prevent turning the ensuing literature into an unmitigated celebration of community.[77]




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