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Metaphorical Slippage of Social Capital

"Charitable giving by individuals is an important social phenomenon that is to date understudied by sociologists." This is the opening assertion of the article that I and co-author Song Yang published recently in the peer-reviewed journal: Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly. Why is charitable giving understudied by sociologists? I answer that question below. In addition to providing background on our new publication, I also offer this blog as context for burgeoning social scientists, aka students, to think through an example of how the methodological concepts of measurement and operationalization shape social inquiry.

In this regard, I think it is helpful to metaphorically compare knowledge constructers to exporters and importers in industry. Some scholars are in the business of exporting ideas, distributing them for wider consumption. Exportation projects are typically written as books and are meant to be read by a wide and non-expert audience. Importation projects are instead typically written as journal articles and are meant to be read by a specific scholarly audience. Exporters often bundle sets of ideas together, aggregating several theoretical constructs to make them widely readable. Alternatively, importers typically disaggregate concepts into smaller idea packages for distribution to a more narrow and market-segmented audience.

Connecting this metaphor to the concept of social capital, I argue that Robert Putnam is one of the greatest exporters to publish social science within the last several decades. He is responsible for bringing widespread attention to core social science concepts, and he is among the few social scientists who is a household name, likely to be discussed around dinner tables. Whenever I speak to non-academic audiences, I can count on most people in the crowd to have heard of Robert Putnam and the concept of social capital. The article that I and co-author Yang published is instead a work of importation. We take a more nuanced approach to the concept of social capital that is meant to offer a careful clarification on which of the many concepts bundled in social capital are most relevant in parsing who gives money to charitable causes.

The Metaphorical Slippage of Social Capital

Part of the gap in sociological understandings of charitable giving may be paradoxically related to the enormous success of the concept of social capital (e.g. Putnam 2000; Lin 1999). As Fischer (2011) articulated, social capital is helpful as a concept precisely for the same reasons it is deeply problematic. Robert Putnam, who is largely attributed with modern coining of the term, defined social capital as the “networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefits” (Putnam 1995, pp. 67). This bundling of a number of inter-related – but not necessarily synonymous – social factors is what has given political scientists and sociologists the analytical power to gain attention for social factors among the likes of economists and philanthropists (Fischer 2011). The attraction of the concept is its metaphorical borrowing from economic capital, in which income, wealth, and other assets can literally be added together through their dollar values. Though each is important to understand individually, these economic values can also be tallied to assess individual, group, and national levels of capital as a whole.

The problem is that in empirical practice social capital has had metaphorical slippage. While it makes some sense metaphorically that people accumulate social capital in similar ways to economic capital, or with similar effects, empirical investigations of social capital have often operationalized the metaphor by treating its various forms as if they can also be literally added together, or at least bundled into combined indexes. The result is an amorphous concept that lumps together everything from a generalized degree of social trust, to number of social connections, to believing others will help in cases of emergency. Thus, the success of the concept of social capital as metaphorically bundling numerous social features is also what makes it a highly nebulous concept once metaphor slipped into reality. Critiques have rightly been leveled at the concept as conflating that which needs to be unbound, and yet it also remains clear that the concept itself taps something important to social life which has analytical traction.

Methodological Limitations of the Social Capital Construct

Recent studies focus on the need to disaggregate the numerous factors involved in the umbrella construct of social capital (e.g. Baldassari & Diani 2007). For example, Brooks (2005) finds that social capital can be operationalized as civic group involvement, social and racial trust, and political engagement, and that each of these predicts specific kinds of charitable behaviors in different ways. This and similar studies find that some forms of social capital relate to charitable behaviors – such as volunteering and involvement in civic groups (e.g. Wilson & Musik 2000) – while others do not – such as political engagement (Brooks 2005). Such findings led scholars to question the volatility of the notion of social capital (Fischer 2011), contesting use of a singular operationalization of social capital that measures many social factors simultaneously versus more precise measurements of one or the other of the many kinds of social capital measures (e.g. Lee et al. 2012). The resulting dilemma is that one of the most well-known constructs of contemporary social science is also one of the most methodologically vacuous.

Though contemporary studies critique the use of social capital as a multifaceted concept, many of them proceed from such a discussion of extant literature to still employ in their methods indexes that also combine measures in various sorts of composites. For example, Brown and Ferris (2007) and Wang and Graddy (2008) measure social networks and social trust in tandem, but the social network measures include various civic engagement activities and other forms of group participation, making it challenging to tease apart the relationships between social capital and giving. Likewise, the well-known relationship between religious participation and social capital has recently been questioned, in part because of the similar combining tendency. In fact, some studies have found that what is described as religious and associational ties is in actuality a measure more generally of group participation, which is essentially spurious to social capital (e.g. Jackson et al. 1995). Such methodological haziness results in general confusion, and worse – the possibility that the dependent and independent measures are simply indicators of the same latent construct, or multiple constructs which have at times been bundled on the explanatory side and at others on the outcome side of social capital models.

Additionally, a number of recent studies identify social trust as the key underlying factor involved in social capital, and it has been shown to be an important predictor to organizational participation behaviors (e.g. Paxton & Glanville 2015; Crepaz et al. 2014; Seymour et. al 2014). At the same time, the burgeoning subfield of social networks has exploded with studies evidencing the important role of social networks in nearly every facet of social life, including the role of social networks in predicting charitable behaviors (e.g. Yen & Zampelli 2014; Campbell 2013; Glanville, Anderson, and Paxton 2013; Lewis, MacGregor, & Putnam 2013; Apicella, Marlow, Fowler, & Christakis 2012; Curry & Dunbar 2011; Thye, Lawler, Yoon 2011; Paik & Navarre-Jackson 2011; Kuwabara 2011; Wang & Graddy 2008; Cox & Sadiraj 2007; Cook 2005). Despite these advances, confusion remain in the broader social capital dialog, due to a single study rarely investigating the role of social trust in tandem with social networks within the same dataset.

What has to date not yet been given the attention it deserves is a more nuanced approach to understanding the role of social networks, as an aspect of social capital, in explaining individual charitable giving behaviors (Curry & Dunbar 2011; Wang & Graddy 2008). The pioneering studies described above lay the groundwork for more questions than answers, raising curiosity as to what it is in particular about social trust and/or social networks that matters for specific forms of prosocial activities. Thus, rather than investigating a number of prosocial activities, our study focuses on a singular outcome of charitable giving and then disaggregates a variety of potential social network mechanisms identified in previous studies to examine which of these relate to charitable giving outcomes, and in what ways. Click on the image below to learn more...


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