The Commodity Fetishism of Social Capital

Reading the introduction to Ben Fine’s Theories of Social Capital, I was struck by how much it resonated with my own emerging suspicion of how original concepts of social capital have been transformed by reductionist (and predominantly neoliberal) interpretations, that seem to disregard the complexities and nuances of formative work on the subject. As Fine suggests, they expand on Bourdieu’s relatively narrow definition with a fraction of his depth of understanding. The ‘peculiar relationship’ with neoliberalism and rational choice in particular, represents a ‘generalised commodity fetishism’ of social capital.

The literature on social capital thrived in the 1990’s, representing a radical increase in the scope, definition and application of social capital across the disciplines. According to Fine, these largely exploitational interpretations have degraded, rather than contributed to, the literature. As such, social capital has become an attractive motif for ‘hacademics’ and policy makers at the expense of rigorous academic arguments. In response, social scientists offer limited critique or choose to ignore social capital altogether.

It is right that ideas, concepts and theories are open to development and reinterpretation in interdisciplinary contexts, and Fine’s arguments may seem elitist. But he believes social capital has become a parasite that has ‘reduced and distorted’ the rich traditions of the social sciences. This has resulted in the adoption of social capital as a leading explanatory factor of social, cultural and economic factors at the expense of other (and more convincing) determinants.

In the new conceptual chaos of social capital, the nature of its relationship with other forms of capital is rarely defined. There is often a presumed transference between components and effects of different forms of capital; “rounding up the symbolic and the cultural into the social” (p.4). In addition, the relationship between social capital and capitalism itself is frequently ‘glossed over’.

Most pertinent to the studying of the social web – and the apparent readiness of researchers to invoke the work of Robert D Putnam in particular – is the necessity to question the idea of social capital as:

“self-help raised to the level of the collective. However good or bad things might be, they could be better if people interacted more, trusted one another, and cooperated. Social capital offers the golden opportunity of improving the status quo without challenging it. Everything from educational outcomes through crime prevention to better psychological health can be improved if neighbours and communities would only pull together and trust and interact with one another.” (p.4)

Such convenient and consensual interpretations of collective empowerment through participation and collaboration often fail to acknowledge the corrupting forces of what Fine describes as the ‘dark side’ of social capital.

It appears that Fine’s book represents an important critical reading of the social capital literature, which I hope to have a chance to explore beyond the Introduction in the near future.


Fine, B. (2010). Theories of Social Capital: Researchers Behaving Badly. London: Pluto Press.


3 Responses to “The Commodity Fetishism of Social Capital”

  1. virginia Yonkers Says:

    The idea that has been bouncing around my head lately is the hole idea of “social capital” being another term for people and relationships. The fact is that “capital” comes out of “capitalism” and the industrialized world, in which “human capital” are people in the cogs of the economy and “social capital” are attributes those people can contribute to the industrial process. The assumption is that these attributes can be culled for use by others (usually the corporation) to economic gain.

    However, isn’t it time we left the 1790’s of Adam Smith and his industrial world and created a new economic theory (as Adam Smith did when Europe moved out of the agrarian economy into the industrial world) ?

  2. SarahH Says:

    Fine discusses this here..
    (about 12 mins. in) 🙂

  3. Andy Coverdale Says:

    Thanks Sarah.

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