The recently ended “well-sharp” project aims to make academic work useful to activists. Not easy, but by these guys, very well done.
Putnam is perhaps the best known of these academics, through his widely-read (and brilliantly titled) Bowling Alone (2000). According to Smith and Kulynych, Putnam draws largely on Coleman’s ideas of social capital as something that is entirely benevolent in assisting the attainment of social goals. However, they write, Putnam has ignored Bourdieu’s much less favourable slant on social capital which portrays it as crucial to the reproduction of class, status and power relations and the attainment of largely private or exclusive benefits.
Perhaps through Putnam’s success in capturing the alienation experienced in modern western society, and attributing it to a lack of sociability, trust and co-operation, it is the ‘benevolent’ conception of social capital as a civic-minded “power to” which has taken hold in popular consciousness.
Consequently, policy wonks and journalists have largely accepted Putnam’s conclusion that “the performance of our democratic institutions depends in measureable ways on social capital.” In so doing, they (like Putnam) ignore the ways in which the reproduction of social capital is constituted by the ownership of economic capital and thus helps maintain oppressive class, status and power relations – in other words, the point that capital in all its forms constitutes crucial elements of “power over”.
They may be a little unfair to Puttnam – I think (from memory) he does talk about bonding capital and bridging capital, – the former being potentially regressive (cliques, witch-hunts, kill the pig cut his throat etc) and the latter potentially transruptive. But nonetheless, the well-sharp people are very very cool.