social capital (n.)

Taidekäsityön ystävien kukkaisjuhla Seurahuoneella, 1945 [photo: Edessä Arttu Brummer; image via Wikimedia Commons]

  1. The idea of social capital assumes that the relational connections between people are capable of creating value. It has no inherent normativity, but can be employed both critically and acritically. Market fundamentalists and rational choice theorists advocate for this form of capital as a strategy to bolster economies through relationships. (Cultivate relationships, and you, too, can become a successful capitalist!) Meanwhile, critical sociologists employ the term to decry the profanity of domains of production once considered “sacred”—that is, immune to the pitfalls of market capitalism and the whims of the bourgeois elite, governed only by creative intelligence—such as the visual arts. (Artists today are nothing more than utilitarian, networking capitalists!) A concept that can do almost everything is, of course, one that does almost nothing. In what has come to be known as the art world, we might define social capital with relation to a transition from a society of colleagues and acquaintances, to one of “being kind of friendly with.” Attending openings in Chelsea and the Lower East Side over the course of a few days, an artist who is a friend of a friend interrupts our gallery itinerary on multiple occasions with the same proposition: “Can we pop in here really quick? I’m kind of friendly with the gallerist.” In this context let us define one’s social capital as the available stock of “kind-of-friendliness” that might play an instrumental role in speculative future successes. The commandment of social capital in today’s art world: thou shalt be kind of friendly with.
  2. Social capital is one form of capital among many (cultural, symbolic, economic, etc.). This particular type is founded on the idea that relationships are stockpiles of value—or more accurately, that they allow for access to other future stockpiles of value. For instance, one might have no history or aspiration of publishing in ART PAPERS, yet nonetheless receive an invitation to contribute due to a close friendship with its editor. Worthy or no, the author’s involvement is completely contingent upon social capital. Who is writing, and does he merit the inclusion? Is he trustworthy? This relational form of career enhancement reaches its logical conclusion in patrimonialism or crony capitalism, in which one’s invitation to participate in a business venture leads directly to the accumulation of economic capital. Were editor and contributor to profit economically from this commission, we might decry this injustice. When the exchange is one that spins social capital into cultural capital, however, even the most critical sociologist might exhibit leniency.