Social capital and its use within CSR – Moving away from the target

A segment of a social network

Ever since Pierre Bourdieu cornered the term social capital it has been used and misused to a degree that even the inventor would have a hard time recognising the concept. In order to understand what capital in a Bordiuedian contact one needs to understand that it is centred on class and how people position themselves within society and organisations. He identifies three different sources that capital can come from Economics (e.g. money or what we would call monetary resources), Culture (e.g. art, beauty, etc.) and Social capital. In his understating social capital is centred around an emphasis on conflicts and the power function like the social relations that increase the ability of a subject or actor to advance their interests. Social positions and the division of economic, cultural and social resources (which is legitimized with the help of Symbolic capital which is the combination of capital that is most valuable in the specific field) in general is determined by the capital resources which a person is able to gather within the field were he or she wants to be active. The field is understood as a network or a configuration of objective relations between position that gain their position depending on the capital that is valid in the field. Or “’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’ (Bourdieu, P. 1986. ‘The Forms of Capital.’ Pp. 241-58 in Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education, edited by John G Richardson. New York: Greenwood Press.).

This means (at least in my mind) that one could never look at social capital in isolation from other forms of capital, but it should rather be seen in combination with other forms in order to understand how power was distributed within a given field. So much for theory…

Within the CSR movement there have been a tendency to see social capital as a way to measure and justify sustainability issues (e.g. capital in isolation). This is mainly because it is seen as a relative easy concept to comprehend and within the definition there seem to be real quantitative measurements to be made. For example one would ask; how many personal connection does a person have?, How much do they socialize?, Where do they put their trust? What is their impact on the local community? etc. All of these examples of things that one can go out in the field and investigate and come back with measurement. In theory (at least in this one) it would be possible to find out whom in a given field have the most social capital and thereby identifying who and about what a socially responsible company should communicate around what issues. Or at least this is the idea.

However, this will in my mind be a step in the wrong direction as it dilute both the concept of social capital as it was intended by Bourdieu and will make Corporate Social Responsibility impact a matter of how much or little capital impact one is able to produce. I have come up with five arguments why the two should not be mixed.

First it presents a theoretical challenge. As I have blogged about before is CSR not a concept with one specific definition it is more or less up to the use or organisation to define what it means to them and then take it from there. So if on uses the concept of CSR and proclaims that the operationalized form of is to be called Social Capital which is also an ambiguous concept the whole thing seems to be diluted into something that nobody understands or agree upon. This would not only leave the organisations that adopt the concept not much better of than when they started but might even lead to more bewilderment.

Second is that fields or networks are under constant change especially within the world of NGOs, CSOs, municipalities and governments were companies need to operate with their CSR efforts. CSR is very much a political battleground and requires constant negotiations with stakeholders on what is important and what is not. The capital that is valuable in one instance might have much to say in another and as companies need to operate efficiently in many social contexts it would not make sense to just to stick to one understanding of what social capital is. Just think of BP and how there was a sudden but decisive shift in public opinion despite the fact that they were ( or at least they themselves) considered the “green Oil Company”.

Which leads to the third subject that field analysis is retrospective it will not give you a indication about what will be important next, what is the future issue we need to be aware of. In this sense it is more analysis that will lead to the status quo rather than give organisations an idea what will come next. What is the challenge that management need to deal with in the future what will come that will force this field to change it understating of what capital is valuable.

My fourth objection to the use of social capital comes from the idea that every human action and understanding should somehow be capitalised. Why is it that in order to understand something we will need to measure it in terms of money? In my mind moral and ethics in the centre of CSR that is about doing good and doing well at the same time. If one is only willing or able to talk about something if we can measure it in terms of value there is something fundamentally wrong with us. CSR can be a effective approach to handle social complexity so why not use it as such instead of reverting back to an economic mindset that will just make it an useless activity.

Fifth is what Ben Fine call the issue of BBI or “Bringing Back In”. It seems like that as the concept of Social capital is so undefined and it would that each time the so-called “real” economists does not understand something it must be Social capital. This means that the whole concept have become some form of Freudian garbage bin where we put stuff because it has something to do with the unconscious or the things we can’t measure and therefore not understand. This has meant that we have seen race, gender, crime, security, rules and norms being included into our understanding of Social capital. And even as time have progressed and it has become even less transparent we have started to bring Bourdieu back in as we have wondered so far of the centre that it doe not resemble the original idea.

Does this means that Social capital cant be used for analysis? No it does not. It can be very valuable as a strategic tool and understanding of environments and social contexts which otherwise would be too abstract or complex to comprehend.But it should be done so as it was originally intended not as a concept which have morphed into something which have stretched it much too far. In social science it tell us something about the dynamic of the field we are trying to understand. But as one can see from the list of definitions below there is more than one that wants to stretch the concept further than it can take. CSR is a concept by which organisation takes a critical look upon itself and its actions and evaluate if the consequences of these are to the benefit or harm of its stakeholders. It does so using normative standards that are issued by institutions like the EU, OECD, UN or local governments.

CSR is a reactive concept that gives organisation an idea what is expected of them now and what they might expect of them in the future. The use of social capital will only lead to a degeneration of both concepts and take out the benefits that a open understanding of the role of business in society, which CSR brings with it into a realm where it no longer will be effective.

I can just hear the executive manager talk about how much impact their company have on social capital and proclaim, “that while our internal stakeholders are still underpay and discriminated against they are at least rich on social capital”.

Definitions of Social Capital from Social Capital Research

External versus Internal Authors Definitions of Social Capital
Baker ‘a resource that actors derive from specific social structures and then use to pursue their interests; it is created by changes in the relationship among actors’; (Baker 1990, p. 619).
Belliveau, O’Reilly, Wade ‘an individual’s personal network and elite institutional affiliations’ (Belliveau et al. 1996, p. 1572).
Bourdieu ‘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’ (Bourdieu 1986, p. 248).’made up of social obligations (‘connections’), which is convertible, in certain conditions, into economic capital and may be institutionalized in the form of a title of nobility’ (Bourdieu 1986, p. 243).
Bourdieu Wacquant ‘the sum of the resources, actual or virtual, that accrue to an individual or a group by virtue of possessing a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition’ (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992, p. 119).
Boxman, De Graai. Flap ‘the number of people who can be expected to provide support and the resources those people have at their disposal’ (Boxman et al. 1991, p. 52).
Burt ‘friends, colleagues, and more general contacts through whom you receive opportunities to use your financial and human capital’ (Burt 1992, p. 9).’the brokerage opportunities in a network’ (Burt 1997, p. 355).
Knoke ‘the process by which social actors create and mobilize their network connections within and between organizations to gain access to other social actors’ resources’ (Knoke 1999, p. 18).
Portes ‘the ability of actors to secure benefits by virtue of membership in social networks or other social structures’ (Portes 1998, p. 6).
Internal/ Bonding/ Linking Brehm Rahn ‘the web of cooperative relationships between citizens that facilitate resolution of collective action problems’ (Brehm and Rahn 1997, p. 999).
Coleman ‘Social capital is defined by its function. It is not a single entity, but a variety of different entities having two characteristics in common: They all consist of some aspect of social structure, and they facilitate certain actions of individuals who are within the structure’ (Coleman 1990, p. 302).
Fukuyama ‘the ability of people to work together for common purposes in groups and organizations’ (Fukuyama 1995, p. 10).’Social capital can be defined simply as the existence of a certain set of informal values or norms shared among members of a group that permit cooperation among them’ (Fukuyama 1997).
Inglehart ‘a culture of trust and tolerance, in which extensive networks of voluntary associations emerge’ (Inglehart 1997, p. 188).
Portes Sensenbrenner ‘those expectations for action within a collectivity that affect the economic goals and goal’ seeking behavior of its members, even if these expectations are not oriented toward the economic sphere’ (Portes and Sensenbrenner 1993, p. 1323).
Putnam ‘features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit’ (Putnam 1995, p. 67).
Thomas ‘those voluntary means and processes developed within civil society which promote development for the collective whole’ (Thomas 1996, p. 11).
Both types Loury ‘naturally occurring social relationships among persons which promote or assist the acquisition of skills and traits valued in the marketplace. . . an asset which may be as significant as financial bequests in accounting for the maintenance of inequality in our society’ (Loury 1992, p. 100).
Nahapiet Ghoshal ‘the sum of the actual and potential resources embedded within, available through, and derived from the network of relationships possessed by an individual or social unit. Social capital thus comprises both the network and the assets that may be mobilized through that network’ (Nahapiet and Ghoshal 1998, p. 243).
Pennar ‘the web of social relationships that influences individual behavior and thereby affects economic growth’ (Pennar 1997, p. 154).
Schiff ‘the set of elements of the social structure that affects relations among people and are inputs or arguments of the production and/or utility function’ (Schiff 1992, p. 160)
Woolcock ‘the information, trust, and norms of reciprocity inhering in one’s social networks’ (Woolcock 1998, p. 153).
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One thought on “Social capital and its use within CSR – Moving away from the target

  1. Pingback: Shared value in the EU « SRI Portfolio Management

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