Social capital, and associated terms such as “whuffie” (Doctorow, 2003) or “guanxi” come up often in the comments and thoughts of social media users. It is often used in the sense of a currency, or stock, held by an individual where “I have a lot of social capital” is an online equivalent of “I have a lot of money” in the physical world.

Social capital also crops up a lot in conversations about social policy, and in this sense it flows from the ideas of James Coleman (1988) and Robert Putnam (2000, 2003). Putnam is most commonly associated with a model for measuring social capital that equates membership of clubs and societies to the stock of social capital within a community. His work is positioned as a treatise to social policy makers calling for a renewal in civic society:

“As the twentieth century ended, Americans gradually began to recognize that the sprawling pattern of metropolitan settlement that we had built for ourselves in the preceding five decades imposes heavy personal and economic costs […] So I challenge America’s urban and regional planners, developers and home buyers: Let us act to ensure that by 2010 Americans will spend less time travelling and more time connecting with our neighbors than we do today, that we will live in more integrated and pedestrian-friendly areas, and that the design of our communities and the availability of public space will encourage more casual socialization with friends and neighbors.” (Putnam, 2000, pp.407-8)

It has been pointed out (Fine, 2001) that Putnam and Coleman loom large over academic literature of social capital, and many academic authors build theoretical frameworks around their ideas. So, as academics start to examine social media they are likely to think about social capital, and they are likely to read Putnam’s (2000) Bowling Alone. But Bowling Alone doesn’t talk about social capital in quite the same way that “the Internet” talks about it.

For some studies, Putnam’s work, and the work which follows it, can be incredibly useful. If your questions want to measure networks, and bonding structures then follow the citation trails from Putnam that lead you forward to Burt (2009) and back to Granovetter (1973). But if you’re looking to write about online culture, this framework is limited. You need Bourdieu.

Bourdieu defined social capital as the:

“aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to the possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition” (Bourdieu, 1986, p.248)

Bourdieu’s model of social capital is quite loose and theoretical, and all the more useful for it when attempting to understand social media culture. There are no equations here, as with Putnam, simply an acknowledgement that social capability can confer power upon individuals and groups. To my mind, that is the key issue at the basis of much that is interesting about social media.

At IAMCR 2010 I presented a paper called Help Me Investigate: the social practices of investigative journalism. The paper explored a crowdsourced investigation, seeking to understand how people worked collectively to affect a positive outcome for the group. A member of the team behind the project told me they were:

“Very happy [with the outcomes of the investigation], but also wondering how easily you can recreate that. It tapped into the right community at the right time… and unearthed a big story.”

For me this is social capital, after Bourdieu, reified: a potential resource existed within a pre-existing community, and it was activated by a set of social media practices, delivering benefit to its collective owners. Without the social capital, the clever social media tools would be useless.

I’m not seeking here to critique those who use other approaches to social capital: they are valid ideas for important questions. What I hope to point out is that “social capital” is a term with different meanings; when we talk about “social capital” we need to be quite clear about what we mean. Also I want to highlight that by going back to Bourdieu, we can reclaim the idea to think through some interesting questions that describe social media as culture, rather than as a network.

This is an expansion of a point made in my paper, presented to the 2010 conference of the International Association of Media & Communication Research – the full paper is on my personal blog. I have also written an extended literature review on the topic of social capital which I would be happy to share.

Bibliography

BOURDIEU, P. 1986. The Forms of Capital. Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. Connecticut: Greenwood Press.

BURT, R. S. 2009. Network Duality of Social Capital. In: BARTKUS, V. O. & DAVIS, J. H. (eds.) Social Capital: Reaching Out, Reaching In. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing Limited.

COLEMAN, J. S. 1988. Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital. American Journal of Sociology, 94, S95 – S120.

DOCTOROW, C. 2003. Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, New York, Tor Books.

FINE, B. 2001. Social Capital versus Social Theory, London, Routledge.

GRANOVETTER, M. S. 1973. The Strength of Weak Ties. American Journal of Sociology, 78, 1360.

PUTNAM, R. D. 2000. Bowling Alone, New York, NY, USA, Simon & Schuster.

PUTNAM, R. D., FELDSTEIN, L. M. & COHEN, D. 2003. Better Together: restoring the American community, New York, NY, USA, Simon & Schuster.

Birmingham Centre For Media And Cultural Research

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