'Social Capital' in deprived neighborhoods

A critical review of social capital concepts in the context of neighborhood renewal policies in Germany

Term Paper, 2008

15 Pages, Grade: 8.5 (excellent)




Three approaches to social capital

Neighborhood renewal policies in Germany: The “Socially Integrative City”-Initiative
Which policies of the SIC-initiative can be related to ‘social capital’?
Which concepts of social capital are implemented in the SIC-guidelines?

Critiques on social capital theories


List of references


In this paper concepts of social capital in the context of social policies will be discussed which focus on neighborhood renewal. First, theories of social capital will be illuminated by comparing the concepts of Putnam, Bourdieu and Granovetter. Second, by the example of the German program “Socially Integrative City” (SIC), a recent nationwide strategy (aimed at revitalizing deprived neighborhoods) will be analyzed. In this context the main research question will be as to which of the aforementioned concepts of social capital or concept-elements are (intentionally or not) implemented in the SIC-initiative. For answering this question key documents that outline the aforementioned policies will be reviewed. It is aimed to identify policies and objectives of the SIC-initiative which can be related to the three depicted approaches to social capital. In the framework of this analysis there will be particular consideration of the ‘sub-concepts’ of social capital: bonding, bridging and linking. With this it is intended to find out which kinds of social relationships between people and different population-groups are planned to be established. In this context the depicted function of social capital is of particular interest. Finally, after the discussion of recent critiques on social capital theories, these will be evaluated with regard to their usefulness for social policies in deprived urban areas.

Three approaches to social capital

Robert Putnam, an American political scientist, is the most popular figure associated with the concept of ‘social capital’. He defined social capital as “features of social organization, such as trust, norms and networks that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated actions” (Putnam 1993: 167). These three components, networks, norms, and trust, “enable participants to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives (Putnam 1996: 56)”. According to Putnam (2000: 18-19) “the core idea of social capital theory is that social networks have value […] social contacts affect the productivity of individuals and groups.” Consequently, for Putnam social capital is a key aspect of a well functioning economy. Social networks as well as (positively) shared values and trust are derived from relationships between people or as Putnam put it: Social capital refers “to connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them” (Putnam 2000: 19). He stressed that social capital is the basis for the active participation of individuals in a democratic society. He claimed that there is a strong causal relationship between social capital and political engagement of citizens.

Given this theoretical framework, the following ‘Putnamian’ formula can be derived: the more social capital, the more democratic and prosperous a society. Conversely, a decline of social capital negatively affects the economy and disentangles people from political engagement. Thus, a decrease of social capital illustrates both a threat for the well being of people and a danger for a democratic society. In consideration of these deliberations, Putnam has caught a lot of public attention with his empirical studies which pointed to a dominant trend towards a dramatic decline of social capital in the United States since the 1940s. As main ‘predators’ of social capital he identifies particularly television, but also cars, less free time and the post-war generation (Field 2003: 5).

All in all, Putnam depicted a highly stretched concept of social capital. It encompasses three components: social networks (such as voluntary associations), moral obligations as well as shared values (in particular trust). Putnam laid a strong focus on bonding social capital, and on empowering the poor to be able to bridge with wealthier people. Thus, Putnam takes in a ‘bottom-up’-perspective by putting a strong focus on the self-potential of communities, on active participation of citizens and grass-roots organizations, and he pays little attention to the role of politics and the government (Szreter 2002: 579). He portrayed a highly positive image of communities as source of reciprocal exchange and trust. To increase social capital, he proposed especially locally based programs, such as “community service” in schools, entertainment in the community (instead of watching television at home), and a greater role of religious institutions in communities (Putnam 2007: 484). He also suggested family-friendly policies and to build houses closer to each other (Szreter 2002: 590, 591).

To understand the further depicted theories, it is of relevance to mention the definition of different types of social capital. After Putnam had differentiated between bonding and bridging social capital, Michael Woolcock (in Field 2003: 42) introduced a third category which he named linking social capital. Bonding social capital refers to (highly) homogenous ties, such as among family members, neighbors, and close friends. Bridging social capital refers to heterogeneous ties between individuals, and therefore encompasses connections between people across different social groups. Linking social capital refers to ties between communities that cut across status and similarity. With reference to deprived neighborhoods these social links encompass connections of residents with power-holders and service providers as well as to people outside their regular circles (e.g. in another ‘wealthier’ neighborhood).

Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) was a French sociologist whose theoretical and empirical work emphasized the role of power relations with respect to social inequalities in society. His theory of social capital can only be understood in relation to the key concepts ‘habitus’, ‘capitals’ and ‘fields’: According to Bourdieu and Wacquant (1992: 16-18) the social world is differentiated into overlapping fields. Depending on the field, different capitals, such as cultural, economic and social capital determine power relations, whereas the accumulation of different capitals establishes the hierarchy between fields, and individuals embedded in these fields. The embodied form of cultural capital is termed as habitus: Through experience individuals gradually internalize external structures (fields and its rules). This provides individuals with a sense of how to act in everyday life.

Bourdieu’s theory has been applied for the research of e.g. socially ‘deviant’ behavior of youth in Western urban ghettoes (e.g. Paulle 2006): Accordingly, deprived neighborhood can be regarded as ‘fields’ with their own rules. Unstable living conditions (keywords: unemployment, poverty, crime) illustrate a trigger for social problems, as detrimental circumstances in the ghetto are internalized in particular by children and young people. This social inscription of structural aspects manifests inter alia in negative attitudes towards education and work. In reverse, Bourdieu’s conception indicates that the access to life-worlds, which help disadvantaged people to shape a more ‘adequate’ habitus, can constitute them with those dispositions which they need to act ‘civilized’ and finally to improve their educational and job-related situation.

Bourdieu defined social capital as “capital of social relationships which will provide, if necessary, useful ‘supports’ […] which may serve as currency, e.g. in a political career” (Bourdieu in Field 2003: 15). Bourdieu later refined his definition of social capital:

“Social capital is the sum of resources, actual or virtual, that accrue to an individual or a group of virtue of possessing a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition” (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992: 119).

According to Bourdieu, only those who are owners of other forms of power-establishing capitals profit from social capital. In addition to being equipped with the required resources for maintaining their social position, their social capital is rather manifested in bridging social capital (Szreter 2002: 577). Conversely, in social contexts (fields) of the poor, such as in urban ghettoes, people may be rich in terms of social relationships and networks. However, since they are restricted to people who do lack other forms of capital, it is predominately manifested in bonding social capital. Though this maybe helpful in the context of their deprived life-worlds, it is of limited use to ‘move out’ of poverty. In this regard people with little or no economic capital and/or an ‘inadequate’ cultural capital do not benefit from social capital, as it does not provide any access to required information and resources for increasing other capitals, which would be reflected in a higher educational and/or socioeconomic status.

Bourdieu further depicted societal processes which trigger the naturalization of social inequalities: He stressed how meaning and realities are (often not consciously) imposed on individuals by powerful groups in society, which he labeled symbolic violence. Here social capital serves as a useful asset to win related struggles for meaning, and finally to maintain superiority. As a consequence, disadvantaged people in deprived neighborhoods might misrecognize their situation by perceiving segregation and their social exclusion as ‘normal’ (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992: 167-168). In this context, extra residential arrangements, specific leisure activities, and educational institutions provide privileged people tools to preserve the distance to people from lower classes (Szreter 2002: 578).

In contrast to Putnam, who depicts social capital as the ‘superstructure’ of a ‘functioning’ society, Bourdieu stresses the interplay of social capital with other forms of capital as well as the accumulation of capitals. Accordingly, the ownership of a combination of economic, cultural and social capital establishes competitive advantages for struggles about symbolic definitions and it enables the maintenance of a higher social status. Thus, disadvantaged and powerless groups, whose ‘richness’ is solely built on social relationships with people from the same social class, do not profit from social capital in terms of gaining more economic and more ‘required’ cultural capital. This conclusion calls for bridging and linking social capital across groups of people with diverse amounts of economic and cultural capital. Whereas Putnam primarily sees the empowerment of the poor as way to bridge social capital, Bourdieu also points to the rich, who should (much more) bridge with the poor (Szreter 2002: 578). Bourdieu revealed inequality-(re)producing processes and proposed to create more inclusive contexts (e.g. educational institutions) which do not disadvantage and exclude underprivileged groups of people. Thus Bourdieu’s approach attributes politics and the state a greater role with respect to implementing more equality-generating policies, which would also consider a loss of power and resources of the rich.

Mark S. Granovetter is an American sociologist who is most famous for his theory about “The Strength of Weak Ties” (1973). His work emphasized the importance of networks and relationships, as they provide

“the most fruitful micro-macro bridge. In one way or another, it is through these networks that small-scale interaction becomes translated into large-scale patterns, and that these, in turn, feed back into small groups” (Granovetter 1973: 1360).


Excerpt out of 15 pages


'Social Capital' in deprived neighborhoods
A critical review of social capital concepts in the context of neighborhood renewal policies in Germany
University of Amsterdam  (International School of Humanities and Social Sciences)
Social Problems in Urban Areas: Views, Concepts, Theories
8.5 (excellent)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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539 KB
Social, Capital, Social, Problems, Urban, Areas, Views, Concepts, Theories
Quote paper
Christoph Kraschl (Author), 2008, 'Social Capital' in deprived neighborhoods, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/120521


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