Wednesday, December 24, 2008

no average Joe

It's Christmas Eve, and I am staying with relatives in Waterloo Region. This morning we woke up to over a foot of heavy, wet snow that had accumulated overnight. I was up first, and began the chore of clearing out the driveway, armed with a plastic-bladed shovel. I got about halfway through the job before going inside to get a cup of tea and take a break; I was not looking forward to the end of the driveway, where the city plow had deposited a few extra feet for my shoveling enjoyment.

When I went back out, Joe from across the street had brought over his snowblower and without a word had already begun blowing out my relatives' driveway. Within a few minutes he had the bulk of the remaining work done, and with no further ado he moved on to another neighbours driveway. Nothing was left for me to do but to clean up a few small spots, thank him and wish him a Merry Christmas.

Much is made in international development literature, and in a variety of social sciences, of the importance of social capital. The World Bank was big on the concept a few years back. Social capital is related to economic capital, in that it provides tangible benefits to those who have access to it, but it differs in many ways. Some of the key figures in the development of the concept of social capital include sociologists James Coleman and Pierre Bourdieu, and political scientist Robert Putman, although the term can be found at least as far back as in Karl Marx's Das Kapital (although Marx used the term in a more generic sense to indicate that all capital has basic, inherent social properties). Bourdieu defines social capital as "...the sum of the resources, actual or virtual, that accrue to an individual or a group by virtue of possessing a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance or recognition"* Common maxims like "You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours" or "It's who you know, not just what you know that counts" or "A handshake will do" capture some of the properties ascribed to social capital by scholars.

The fact that Joe would voluntarily bring his snowblower over and clear out my relatives' driveway is a good example of social capital in action (it's also an example of how it is not just nested in more or less institutionalized relationships as suggested in Bourdieu's description (to be fair to Bourdieu, he gave descriptions in other works that downplayed the institutional element)). I quietly investigated how often Joe provides such a service for my relatives (answer: whenever there is a particularly heavy snowfall); what return service they provide him (answer: nothing); and, the degree of their social interactions (answer: they are on friendly terms, wave to one another, but do not typically visit one another inside their houses).

A classical economist might question why does Joe does this, when he does not appear to gain any tangible benefit. He incurs not only the loss of his own personal time, which might be better spent doing something else, but also the cost of gas plus the additional wear and tear on his machine. It ceratinly does not fit with classical economic theory, where "rational actors" do not provide services without the expectation of reciprocal benefit or compensation. The concept of social capital, which ultimately has its origins in economism, provides the explanation that their geographic proximity to one another makes Joe and my relatives de facto members of a network, whether they want to be or not. Joe therefore helps with the snow removal because he enjoys indirect benefits from living and raising his family in a neighbourhood where the residents have positive relationships with one another and thereby collectively make it a "nice place to live".

I would suggest, however, that even the watered-down form of economism that gave rise to the concept of social capital misses the point. If I were to put this posting to Joe for his scutiny, I suspect he would be offended by it in entirety. Instead of asking why he would help out his neighbours, I suspect he would ask the opposite: why wouldn't he help his neighbours when it is within his ability to do so? Posing the question in such a way has less to do with social capital theory than it does the underlying principles that people celebrate during holidays such as Christmas. So Merry Christmas, Joe, and a Merry Christmas to you, too.

*P. Bourdieu & L. Wacquant (1992) An invitation to reflexive sociology, University of Chicago Press, at page 119.

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