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  • Social Capital and Equality: Tocqueville's Legacy:Rethinking social capital in relation with income inequalities
  • Emanuele Ferragina (bio)

Susanne Langer (1942), in her book Philosophy in a New Key, describes how certain ideas emerge in the intellectual debate; they seem to promise that they will resolve all fundamental problems, clarify all obscure issues. "Everyone snaps them up as the open sesame of some new positive science, the conceptual centre-point around which a comprehensive system of analysis can be built" (Geertz, 1973:3). The strength of these new paradigms crowd out all other theories for a while, but after gaining familiarity with them, we realize that they cannot solve our intellectual problems and excessive popularity progressively ends. Only at this stage is a more settled reflection on a new paradigm possible. Social Capital concept, doubtless, falls into this category of ideas. After two decades of intense debate, we may analyse it without overemphasis, pointing out the importance of its emergence, its historical roots but also the limit of its use.

The modern emergence of this concept renewed academic interest for an old debate in social science: the relationship between trust, social networks and the development of modern industrial societies. Social capital theory has gained importance mainly, through the integration of classical sociological theory with the description of an intangible form of capital. In this way the classical definition of capital has been overcome allowing us to tackle social issues in a new manner. [End Page 73]

The opportunity to adapt the concept to many phenomena relies on the intrinsic multidimensional nature of this form of capital (Putnam; 1993). Social capital has been used widely to enlighten the following topics1: differences in economic development (Woolcock and Narayan, 2000; Putnam, 1993; Dasgupta, 1997), policies of local development (Hanifan, 1916; Trigiglia, 2001), integration of social networks into the definition of the utility function of individuals (Becker, 1996; Coleman, 1988-1990), the importance of traditional community values (Fukuyama, 1995), social class perpetuation and social immobility (Bourdieu, 1980), the decline of 'civicness' and generalized trust in developed countries (Putnam, 1993-1995-2000) and the relationship between generalized trust in society and the development of efficient institutions (Rothstein, 2001).

Therefore, the use of social capital in many contexts has resulted in some confusion and misuse. In order to find a clear definition, to operationalize the concept and create instruments of measurement (Putnam, 1993; Paxton, 1999; Costa and Kahn, 2003; Hall, 1999; Rothstein, 2001; Knack and Keefer, 1997; Van Oorschot and Art, 2005; Beugelsdijk, Van Schaik, 2005) a long and intense debate has been generated, engaging scholars with different backgrounds.

This passionate participation in the debate has heavily impacted on the connotation of the concept and social capital progressively become a device to engage in strong 'ideological debates', leading to the re-elaboration of old theories with intensive data analysis. The most famous and debated conceptualization, that of Robert Putnam (1993, 2000), explains this development well. It had been conceived, in fact, with a 'strong ideological flavour' and presented as an original and objective reflection on the absence of collective actions in certain Italian regions and the decline of trust in American society. His reflection, instead, calls to mind old theories2, replacing some old-fashioned terms3 and shifting the interest of the debate from 'collective and structural problems' to the 'individual decisions of citizens'.

The purpose of this paper, in this regard, is to reflect theoretically upon the development of the social capital concept and its relation with income inequalities, in order to clarify the dangers of an 'overly culturalistic' vision, which does not take into account the structural problems of our society. The dimension of inequalities, in this [End Page 74] context, has been deliberately left out of the debate only for 'ideological reasons'. To clarify this argument, we need to revisit classical sociological theory in relation with social capital debate and Putnam's conceptualization, to point out at the end new paths for further research.

Historical Emergence of the Concept

The social capital concept is linked to an old debate, and attempts to propose a synthesis between the values contained in the communitarian approaches and individualism professed by the 'Rational Choice Theory...


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