on 11 May 2009
And deservedly too. Ben Fine, of the SOAS school of Marxist political economy and one of the major Marxist political economists of this day in general, has written "Social Capital vs. Social Theory" to deal with the intellectual dishonesty and vapidness that is the concept of 'social capital'.
The most obvious point that can be made against social capital is that ALL capital is by definition social, making the phrase meaningless or tautological. Yet that this has been overlooked is not a coincidence: it is, as Fine demonstrates, the direct result of applying the faulty methodology of neoclassical economics to subjects normally placed in the field of the social sciences. Since neoclassical economics cannot correctly perceive capital as a social relation, it is reduced to searching for some sort of 'glue' to explain putatively non-economic, "social", interactions. Fine shows how the concept of social capital is increasingly used by high-profile sociologists and economists to function as this glue.
Taking the phrase entirely out of its context (it is a phrase originating with Marxist sociologist Bourdieu!), people like Gary Becker and James Coleman, followed by a host of epigones, apply social capital to every imaginable variable and problem that does not easily lend itself to the standard utility modelling of neoclassical economics. Ben Fine makes short shrift of both the above named, their epigones, and the neoclassical paradigm, including the way the latter has been uncritically copied even by hostile sociologists who lack proper economic training of their own. Fine also addresses the populist packaging of social capital theory as seen in Robert Putnam's (in)famous work "Bowling Alone", and illustrates the inconsistencies and empirical problems with this work.
The Marxist criticism of social capital theory and its supporters is quite excellent. Nevertheless the book, despite being a mere 200 pages, is very repetitive and at times downright boring in its endless summing-up of different misuses of the phrase by an array of social scientists. As academic polemics go, Fine has made quite a good one, but he lacks the rhetorical power and the constant eye towards the reader that make for example the critiques of an E.P. Thompson so pleasant to read. Yet aside from these matters of style and form, this book is still highly recommended to all social scientists who wish to combat the incursions of orthodox economists into their field.