Wednesday, 07 February 2007

Social capital madam? What kind would you like? Western societies face a crisis of difference, of learning to live with the Other. Do we need one-size-fits-all social capital, or culturally-flexible social capital? If like me you read Putnam's Bowling alone some years ago and were never quite happy about it's patriotic chummy motherhood all-things-wise-and-wonderful tone, but never got round to analysing why - here's what we need to clarify our thinking: Diverse communities: the problem with social capital, by Barbara Arneil, published last year. There are so many important points in this book that I would encourage even those who will find its bone-dry style and slight repetitiveness a bit off-putting, to stick with it. Essentially Arneil challenges the concept of a homogeneous civic culture which suffuses Putnam's thesis, and she does so in a scholarly and systematic manner. As she says at the outset: Putnam uses many different kinds of data to prove, empirically, that social capital is in decline while simultaneously making the normative argument that this pattern of decline is a bad thing. She clarifies what you would expect, which is that from the point of view of certain social groups, over the past several generations, the weakening of the normative centre has been accompanied by a strengthening of rights and an invaluable broad raising of awareness of diversity. Which is a good thing. (I recall a conversation with Steve Downs in Washington DC some years ago when he lamented the fact that the 'European' concept of social exclusion had no currency in the USA: if only, I thought as I read this book). The golden age of social capital in the USA was of course a period of cruel and sometimes devastating exclusion for many: as with the close-knit communities of pre-war England, it arose under dubious social conditions which we should be relieved to have overcome. Social capital within marginalised groups (Arneil tracks the development of minority ethnic groupings and women) has undoubtedly flourished since then and been exploited. If the model of a cohesive society which Putnam calls for is for a moment thought to be desirable, we must recognise that, as Arneil puts it, a robust civic culture ‘can also represent a powerfully constraining, disciplining or exclusionary force for those groups of people who deviate from the given norms, along religious, ethnic, cultural or gendered lines.’ In the end, Arneil's message (albeit transmitted in a somewhat subdued style, which partly explains why it took me so long to blog this) is more positive than Putnam's because she places genuine social value on the recognition and strengthening of minorities; and she refuses to accept that a white masculine christian capitalist definition of the good society is necessarily what we should all be striving for. Her prose won't have you purring with delight but the thoroughness of her approach will stand us all in good stead for a long time, I think.

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