“Social capital ‘feels’ as if it ought to be a useful way of conceptualising and explaining certain social and economic phenomena. However, the closer one gets to it, the more slippery it seems to be.” (Johnston & Percy-Smith, 2003, p.322)
How do you explain social capital? Well if we forget about social media for a minute, in its most simple form social capital is doing something for others and expecting something in return. So when people joke “you owe me big time” when they’ve helped them move house, they really mean it.
Move it over to social media and it can mean participating in community groups; sharing friends’ sale posts; or giving advice in hope of receiving some back when you need it. The list is so vast that you can’t use one single definition to cover it all.
“Like other forms of capital, Coleman sees social capital as ‘productive’ of certain ends that could not be achieved in its absence (1988: 98). He identifies three forms of social capital […] The first of these refers to situations in which an individual does something for someone else with the expectation that that person will reciprocate at some time in the future. This then results in a norm and expectation of generalised trust and reciprocity.” (Johnston & Percy-Smith, 2003, p.323)
But how do you measure it? Going back to day-to-day life, you buy Christmas presents for family and friends who you assume will do the same. If they forget, or are tight of money one year are they crossed off the list, or do they get a second chance?
If I don’t share a friend’s photo, a few weeks later when I ask them to fill in a survey, is it best if they just say no? Or should they say yes and save up their ‘brownie points’ until next time they need something?
“The most famous empirical investigation of social capital is that of Putnam who sought to measure the level of social capital in terms of community involvement and participation using a composite indicator containing measures of such things as newspaper reading, membership of voluntary organisations and expressions of trust in political authorities. Using these indicators in relation to contemporary American society (1995), he attributes a wide range of social and political ills to the decline in participatory and associational behaviour.” (Johnston & Percy-Smith, 2003, p.327)
The way I see social capital is that it shouldn’t be forced. I see a lot of this on social media groups, mainly Facebook and Instagram. The old ‘like for like’ that teenagers used to use to gain attention has started to benefit small businesses and groups. But as you try to reach out in larger groups you can get lost in the masses.
Earlier in the year I joined a small group of people on Instagram for a competition. We now chat and ask each other questions on pricing, pictures and general life. I think this is social capital working at its best because, although we originally came together for one reason, we’ve found we can help each other out. But there is still mistrust of others outside the group if their intentions aren’t known.
One of the ladies from the group, Emily (owner of LittlePickleBoutique) said, “I think it’s good manners to help people. But sometimes it depends because I personally wouldn’t help someone knowing they are going to copy every single little thing I do […] I think this group has all helped each other with different things and it’s nice because sometimes you need advice or help.”
So it seems that once we master social capital we can all live in harmony, paying each other with kindness and gifts. But in reality some are just out for what they can get, and others are too generous. If we get the balance right, we can benefit while also helping others. If we get it wrong, we’re just giving away all of our value for nothing.
Johnston and Percy-Smith end on an important note, “Social capital is the contemporary equivalent of the philosopher’s stone. Just as alchemists pursued the secrets of turning base metal into gold, academics, policy makers and politicians have allegedly unpacked the mysteries of effective communities and collectivities.” (Johnston & Percy-Smith, 2003, p.332)
Johnston, Gordon & Percy-Smith, Janie (2002) In Search of Social Capital, Policy & Politics, vol. 31: pp. 321-34.