~Prepublication Draft for Silverman, Robert Mark. (ed.) Community-Based Organizations: The Intersection of Social Capital and Local Context in Contemporary Urban Society. 2004.  Wayne State University Press.~



The Mystery of the Missing Social Capital and the Ghost of Social Structure: Why Community Development Can't Win1

Randy Stoecker



Those of you familiar with the original Scooby-Doo cartoon series know how this troupe of teens and their nearly talking dog fall into mystery after mystery, all seemingly involving the supernatural. But in each episode we also find out that behind each apparent supernatural apparition lurks a flesh and blood villain.

So it is with "social capital." If Scooby-Doo and friends happened upon one of the country's downtrodden neighborhoods today, the mystery they would confront is why the parks are not filled with laughing children, why the commercial strips are vacant, why the housing is falling, down, why only the drug dealers are hanging out on the sidewalks and porches.

Now, if they listened to the adults, rather than following their instincts, they would be told to start investigating the missing social capital. They would be told the problem is the lack of social networks, the lack of neighborliness, the lack of "community."

Fortunately, our young friends and their nosy dog are smarter than the average adult, and far smarter than the average academic, at sniffing out the mystery behind the mystery. And eventually they would notice the apparent apparitions lurking in the shadows--the ghost we call social structure. If it is a typical happy-ending Scooby-Doo episode, eventually the teens will unmask the real villain behind the ghost of social structure. And it ain't the people in the neighborhood.

This paper explores the problematic concept of "social capital," particularly as it is used in relation to community-based development, to expose the ghost of social structure and the villains behind it.

Social Capital

The concept of social capital is one of those academic ideas that has been de-theorized and morphed to the point where conservatives use it as much as liberals. So popular has the concept become that even the World Bank decided to sponsor a social capital initiative (Munro, n.d.). The hair-splitting over its definition has been intense (Requier-Desjardins, 1999). As it is used in the U.S. today, in contrast to the more theoretical European formulation (DeFilippis, 2001), the term describes social networks that build trust among people, thus supposedly enhancing the productivity and quality of life of the people involved in those social networks (Siriani and Friedland, 2001.). In addition, the concept is often defined as the social norms and rules that make cooperation possible (Requier-Desjardins, 1999.)

But why come up with yet another fancy new academic term, when it seems "social networks" would do? Well, the argument is that the social networks are "capital" in the sense that they enhance productivity. But attempts to actually make the metaphor hold are weak at best and misinformed at worst. The first problem is defining what "capital" means in this context. Siriani and Friedland (2001) say, for example, "two farmers exchanging tools can get more work done with less physical capital." Yes, but if neither of them had any tools their relationship would be pretty useless from a productivity standpoint (Portes and Landolt, 1996). So social capital in and of itself may have no relationship whatsoever to physical capital.

Trying to finesse a distinction between social capital and other forms of capital, the Michigan State University Social Capital Interest Group (n.d.) says:

"An important feature of social capital, compared with other forms of capital, is that it is social in origin. Financial capital originates in financial markets. Human capital originates in educational training settings in which human skills and talents are taught and learned. Physical capital originates in the employment of physical goods crafted to produce services. Social capital originates from social relations."


The problem here is that all forms of capital are social. All forms of capital are established in exchange relationships which, by their very nature, are social relationships. Now, those other forms of capital may not be based in trust relationships. Indeed, the fact that we need to build massive government bureaucracies to address the disputes that arise from those relationships attests to the lack of trust.

This issue of trust seems to be the main thing distinguishing social capital and the other forms of capital. Robert Putnam (1993), one of the favored proponents of the concept of social capital, remains caught in the metaphor: "A society that relies on generalized reciprocity is more efficient than a distrustful society, for the same reason that money is more efficient than barter. Trust lubricates social life." Essentially, Putnam is arguing at first that non-monetary relationships are more efficient, while then arguing the opposite. It ends up sounding like monetary relationships are just like non-monetary relationships.

The difficulties these authors exhibit trying to deal with this convoluted concept can be understood by going back to the roots of the idea. Looking at Bourdieu's (1985) work on the concept of cultural capital, we can begin to understand what is going on. Interpreting Bourdieu is risky at best. But we can safely say that he was attempting to move beyond a strict structural Marxism, and thus was trying to go beyond the notion that all relationships are rooted in structural, physical, capital. And perhaps that's where the difficulty started.

To really make something useful of the convoluted mess of this concept requires going back to Marx himself. For Marx, capital was created as part of an exchange relationship and, for all practical purposes, an antagonistic relationship. Capital, then, has "exchange" value. By its very nature as exchange value, it undermines rather than supports the development of community. In this context, then, the popularized used of "social capital" is an inherent contradiction. In fact, perhaps the clearest examples we can imagine of social capital are those traditional or indigenous communities forced to sell their community on the tourism market, or those small communities forced to market their "community feeling" in hopes of bringing in new taxpaying residents and industry. And, of course when the tourists flock in, or the middle-class migrants flock in, they disrupt the social capital that had value to begin with.

This undermining of community by selling it is the quintessential example of the contradiction between use value and exchange value that Marx described. Use values, in contrast to exchange values, are created for one's own use. It is the garden you plant yourself, the clothes you sew yourself, the art you create for your own enjoyment. At the community level (though Marx did not develop this), it is the community garden, the community park, the community concert, and the other community amenities residents create for their own use, rather than for exchange in a market context. But as soon as these things begin to be "commodified"--sold as exchange in the capitalist market--they become subject to the controls of the market rather than the controls of the community. And the community relationships that maintained them as use value are no longer as important as the external relationships that can keep them profitable as exchange values.

Social capital, then, is an internally contradictory concept that conflates the distinction between use value and exchange value. As an explanatory model, it is worthless. However, it is fascinating to consider its influence as a cultural idea that has had considerable policy impact.

The Mystery of the Missing Social Capital

Now back to our mystery. The mystery most of you by now know--Robert Putnam's (2000) famous "bowling alone" thesis has asserted that much of the social capital we used to have is now missing. This should have left us all wondering where the social capital has gone. But what is it that Putnam and others think is missing--is it the social part (the use value), or the capital part (the exchange value)?

It is pretty clear that the mystery of the missing social capital focuses on the social part. Putnam's (2000) evidence emphasizes the decline of involvement in voluntary associations, which he uses as indicators of a decline in "community."

As Putnam came out with this decline of community thesis, the community development corporation model of urban redevelopment was also gaining ascendancy. Particularly influential has been Kretzman and McKnight's (1993) asset-based community development (ABCD) model. The ABCD model is particularly important because it illustrates the conflation of exchange values and use values in the social capital concept. Community development is ultimately about enhancing exchange values--raising housing values, bringing businesses back, creating employable residents, etc. But in the ABCD model, the strategy for enhancing exchange values is by developing a community's assets, which requires building use value social relationships that can deploy those assets.

In this model of CDCs, ABCD, and social capital, the Scooby-Doo mystery is defined as the lack of strong relationships that can develop local capital and help the community to compete in the marketplace. The problem is that the promoters of this mystery do not propose to solve it, only to repair its aftermath. Unlike the average capitalist who would have the police out looking for any physical capital that went missing, few seem to be very interested in finding out where the missing social capital went. Instead, the focus seems to be on how to replace the missing social capital, rather than find out how it wound up missing in the first place.

Now Scooby-Doo and his friends wouldn't be content leaving a good mystery unsolved, and we shouldn't either. But lacking their luck of stumbling onto the mystery even when they're not looking for it, us imagination-impaired academics need to be more deliberate in our investigation. We can take a lesson from Scooby by first investigating the ghost that everyone seems so scared of. The apparition seems to lurk outside the walls of every home on the streets, the sidewalks, the social clubs, and especially the bowling alleys. It is the ghost that killed Kitty Genovese in 1964. It is the ghost that killed Jeffrey Dommer's victims in 1991. It is the ghost that caused the annual spring bloodbaths in U.S. high schools.

The ghost, the cause, has to be inferred from analysts today, who only focus on what we should do about the problem rather than on what caused it. But their solutions lend powerful clues to the nature of the ghost they fear. These analysts, whether they propose the CDC model of development, the ABCD model, the community building model, or the consensus "organizing" model, all focus on the community and its individuals (see Stoecker, 2001). The community must develop its assets, build its relationships, develop its own economy and housing, and train its individuals to function successfully within the system. The cause of the problem that we must infer from these proposed solutions is that there is something wrong with the community (or its individuals) that is their own fault. If they must create, resource, and deploy their own solution, then they also must be held responsible for their continuing impoverishment if they don't.

This is the perfect ghost. It absolves the rest of us from any responsibility. If poor people stay poor--if poor communities stay poor--it's because they haven't mobilized their assets, built an effectively managed CDC, or trained themselves to get a job. This ghost is just a more sophisticated version of the old victim-blaming argument (Ryan, 1976) so popular in U.S. capitalism. This ghost is feared by all. Holding up poor communities as responsible for their own fate keeps the rest of us in fear of being like them--so we work hard, build networks, and don't rock the boat to protect our privileged positions. This ghost keeps wages down by dividing the unemployed from the underemployed. It maintains segregation by defining the poor as "not-white" and personally deficient. Ultimately, this ghost keeps us--those of us who are white, middle-class, with homes in safe neighborhoods--under control.

Once we begin to understand the victim-blaming aspects of the social capital concept, we begin to understand why the analysts are not digging deeper. Digging deeper requires confronting the ghost and we are all scared of ghosts. Those of you know Scooby-Doo and his almost-talking pal Shaggy know that the last thing they ever want to do is confront the ghost. But the curiosity of their companions always wins out and sooner or later they come face to face with the phantom.

So let's drag the social capital concept into confronting the ghost. And, since we are moving deeper into the mystery, let's name the ghost for what it really is--social structure.

The Ghost of Social Structure

One of the things that we seem to have lost track of in the rush to post-modern cultural analysis and concepts such as social capital is the fact of social structure. Social structure is like natural gas. It's odorless and colorless, so you have to add something to it to make it stink in order to know it's there. And if you don't, it could kill you.

How does social structure matter here? It actually matters in contrast to social capital, whose convoluted conflation of use value and exchange value has confused rather than clarified. DeFillippis (2001) brings together the many critiques around the concept of social capital, showing the lack of connection between social capital and economic development. He shows how social capital is not connected to wealth, both because many poor communities have social capital but are still poor, and because many wealthy communities lack social capital but are still rich. So what is going on here, if so many rich communities don't have a sense of community and so many poor communities do?

There are actually two simultaneous processes at play. The first, and most important, is a fundamental contradiction between community and capital (Feagin and Parker, 1990; Logan and Molotch, 1987; Mollenkopf, 1981; Capek and Gilderbloom, 1992; Swanstrom, 1993; Bluestone and Harrison, 1982; Stoecker, 1994; 1997; 1998). Here we return to our earlier discussion about use values and exchange values.

Consider, for a moment, that there may in fact be two kinds of "social networks," which I will use in place of the term social capital. First, there are use value networks. Those are the places we call "communities." The social networks of those groups are developed and maintained for the purpose of the group. They help the group maintain its identity. They help the group care for its members. These are the groups that those who lament the "decline" of community long for. Whether or not there has been a historical change in the proportion of groups who exhibit these use-value community characteristics is debatable, but we do know that there are groups who do have these characteristics. The most important case, in fact, of use-value communities are communities of resistance, which we will discuss a bit later. Other cases include urban ethnic enclaves--the Chinatowns, little Italys, and other urban ethnic neighborhoods that are often impoverished but rich with social networks that link new and old immigrants (Abrahamson, 1996).

The second kind of social networks are exchange value networks. These are the kinds of networks found among elites, who connect socially for the purpose of exchange relations to improve or maintain their elite status. These are networks not based on giving but on getting. These are the networks of every daytime or nighttime soap opera you have ever watched. These are the networks of "Survivor" and and all its copiers. They are the "bad" form of social capital mentioned but un-theorized by the critics, since they are based on cheating, stealing, lying, exploiting, and doing all the other things capitalists do.

Use-value social networks tend to be more place-based. That is both because elites are more mobile and can maintain social networks over expensive distances, and because use-value networks require "free spaces" (Evans and Boyte, 1986) that maintain a buffer between the community and its powerful elite enemies and depend on community member support to survive.

These kinds of networks play out in social structure in important ways. The tendency of capitalism is to "commodify" everything in its path--that is, to transform use values into exchange values. That's why middle class people don't grow gardens, sew clothes, clean their own homes, mow their own lawns, or talk to their neighbors over the back fence. Elites, embedded in exchange value networks, then see community space in terms of its exchange value, setting up an inherent antagonism. Where use-value communities see a park, exchange value network members see a parking lot. Where use-value communities see affordable housing, exchange value network members see unregulated apartment buildings. Where use-value communities see a community center, or a church, or a historical site, exchange value network members see a high-rise, high-rent office tower.

Exchange value networks are thus inherently antagonistic to use-value networks, since use-value communities see space and relationships in ways that prevent making a profit. Thus, in order to make a profit, exchange value networks must destroy use-value networks by removing their institutions, and even removing their members. No more famous example of this tendency exists than when the community of Poletown was removed to make way for a General Motors Cadillac plant in 1981 (Wylie, 1989), but it occurred even more recently in Toledo Ohio when another community was removed for a Chrysler plant.

Now, of course, exchange networks have a structural advantage, as their members control the decision-making machinery and ultimately control bigger guns if it comes down to that. And they play the structure to their advantage, attempting to disrupt use-value social networks as much as possible. They strategize to divide the working class by pitting white workers against Black workers, the unemployed against the barely-employed. They move manufacturing facilities willy-nilly whenever too many local use-value networks develop among their workers. For use-value communities stand as the most powerful point of resistance against them, both structurally and culturally.

So here's the rub: if social capital is supposed to help develop economic capital, it can only be as exchange-value social capital, which wipes out use-value social capital, and undermines the purpose in the first place. And here is the problem of community development.

Our Scooby-Doo friends have discovered the ghost. And now they must capture it. But what to do?

Community Development

You cartoon junkies out there know what happens next. The villain tries to misdirect the Scooby gang. But our persistent heroes keep their noses to the trail, especially Scooby, and eventually come up with an elaborate strategy to lure, distract, overpower, and eventually capture the ghost. But still afraid of the ghost because they think it is a ghost, Scooby and Shaggy mess up the plan.

Such is the strategy of community development and its associated strategies of consensus organizing and community-building.

Please do not misunderstand. My analysis here is not of the community development workers, who are every bit as committed as the Scooby gang to solving the mystery, and every bit as good at it. My analysis is of the model they are forced to work with.

What is this model? From the beginning CDCs were to accomplish bottom-up, comprehensive redevelopment, following the principles of supply-side economic models and "free"-market philosophy (Stoecker, 1997).

This CDC model is very popular with elites, especially government and foundations. The U.S. federal government has set aside special funds for CDCs in Empowerment Zones and other federal housing programs. The Ford Foundation created a monster program to promote CDC-based comprehensive community initiatives (Smock, 1997). Foundations, United Ways, and other elite-connected organizations have been particularly entranced with the "asset-based community development" promoted by Kretzmann and McKnight (1993), which they've interpreted as a "pull-yourself-by-your-bootstraps" poverty reduction strategy.

The reality is, however, much as CDC advocates would prefer to have it otherwise, that much of the emphasis on comprehensive development has been reduced to housing development. This is understandable, since part of the "comprehensive" characteristic emphasizes rebuilding use-value social networks that are incompatible with the overall exchange-value production mission of CDCs.

Undeterred by, or unknowledgeable of, the fundamental contradiction between use values and exchange values, the community development advocates continued on to develop new models to try and push the use-value network-building part of the mission. So "community building" and "consensus organizing" came to the fore. Doug Hess (1999) defines community building as "projects which seek to build new relationships among members in a community and develop change out of the connections these relationships provide for solving member-defined problems." Linked to Kretzmann and McKnight's (1993) asset-based community development model, and to communitarianism (Smock, 1997), the emphasis in community building is creating and restoring relationships between community residents. The focus is internal, finding and building the community's own "assets" or "social capital" rather than confronting or negotiating with external power and resource holders. Ultimately, the goal of community building is community self-sufficiency (Smock, 1997).

Consensus organizing includes the relationship-building focus of community building, but is broader in also focusing on moving people from welfare to work, improving school achievement, promoting inner-city reinvestment, and developing housing and businesses, among other things. Michael Eichler (1998), the founder of consensus organizing, specifically opposes the "us vs. them" model of community organizing: "today's landlord may be on the board of the community development corporation. Today's mayor may be a major advocate in improving the public schools; and today's corporate leader may be hiring and training welfare recipients while damaging the environment and paying solicited kickbacks to the mayor." The purpose of consensus organizing is to build cooperative relationships between community leaders and business and government to improve poor communities (Consensus Organizing Institute, 2000).

The problem is, of course, that none of these models seem to be able to show much. Sure, CDCs build housing, but it's not clear they build housing any cheaper or better than for-profits. And yes, the other models do a lot of social programming, but so far no one has shown significant improvements in crime, infant mortality, marital stability, neighboring, or any of the other measures of "social capital" that would have occurred anyway with the improvement in the economy over the last decade.

There is even evidence that the development done by CDCs actually disrupts use-value relationships--pitting neighbor against neighbor for control over what happens in the neighborhood, and improving conditions just enough that long time residents are able to leave and new individuals want to come in (Stoecker, 1997; 1994). This is understandable, given the incompatibility of use values and exchange values.

The worst part of this model is, just like the villain in the Scooby-Doo mystery that tries to misdirect the Scooby kids, how blatantly hegemonic it is. Now we have privileged high-status academics (see Gittell and Vidal, 1998) promoting non-conflict "community organizing" models and contributing to the mystification of structural inequalities. For all of these models can only work for building use value social networks if there was no pressure to transform them into exchange value relationships, which would require ending capitalism itself. And this is where Putnam (1993) and the others are confused when they argue that "investments in physical capital, financial capital, human capital, and social capital are complementary, not competing alternatives." Just like for consensus organizing, DeFillippis (2001) notes that "Putnam's [social capital] view is only possible if you erase the very real material interests that divide us (and even then, it is still highly questionable), and therefore create a vision of civil society as being solely constituted by people and groups with mutual interests."

The main problem is, just like the U.S. version of the social capital concept, how un-theorized the community development model is. The model is at best a superficial attempt to Band-Aid a deep, broad, and infected wound. But it never tries to discover how the wound got there to begin with and whether the wound will recur because no one thought to remove the rusty nails sticking up from the ground. The model, and its definition of the mystery of the missing social capital, completely ignores the missing external physical capital, the theft of which caused the problem in the first place. As such, it is in danger of reproducing the same consequences that caused the problem to begin with. The best solution the community development advocates can come up with, then, is to create use value relationships inside the community and transform them into exchange value relationships outside the community. And just like we've created a society where people don't know how to grow their own food, sew their own clothes, or repair their own homes, as soon as we transform social bonds into exchange relationships and market them, we lose control over them.

The villain who stole the previous social capital, knowing we aren't even investigating the disappearance, will find any replacement social capital just as easy pickings. This is why community development can't win.

So what's a Scooby dog to do?

Communities of Resistance

We've reached the conclusion, the only place left to go, just like our Scooby-Doo heroes. For every time the toon-time teens lay their trap to catch the ghost, something goes wrong. All the technical planning, the sophisticated problem-solving, and the good intentions fall apart at the climax. But they catch the villain anyway. And the reason is that they are a team based in use-value relationships. Yes, they mobilize their assets, and they develop a solution. But when it all falls apart, they win because they take care of and protect and defend each other. They organize.

And this is what poor communities do. The most illustrative example comes from the Civil Rights movement. They understood what they were up against, and they understood the villain. They tried the nice and polite "consensus" route, and recognized it as a way to demobilize and disempower them. The Civil Rights Movement, along with Saul Alinsky (1969; 1971) is the crucial source of community organizing. It's influence on community organizing practice has been as profound as Alinsky's but has been historically neglected. The accepted founding event of the movement, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, was coordinated through local African American networks and organizations and created a model that would be used in locality-based actions throughout the south. The efforts of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in organizing African American communities in the south for voting rights and integration are perhaps the most unrecognized influence on community organizing. Out of the efforts of these and other Civil Rights organizers grew the Welfare Rights Movement (Piven and Cloward, 1979) and eventually the famous Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) (Delgado, 1986; Russell, 2000).

The example of the Civil Rights movement is also illustrative not just because of the success it showed, but also because of the failure it showed. Because when the movement's use-value networks began to weaken, and the exchange-value policy of affirmative action was able to drive wedges between middle-class and poor African-Americans, and between African-Americans and whites, the movement faltered. The shift to development in the Civil Rights Movement, like the shift to development in many more localized community organizing efforts, catalyzed the contradiction between use values and exchange values.

The only thing standing in the way of complete capitalist domination is use-value-based community. Because, ultimately, use-value relationships are stronger than exchange-value relationships. Because elites operate through exchange-value-based networks, they always have to watch their backs and trust is never complete. Because of this, individual villains can be isolated, and factions of capital can be pitted against each other, creating the possibility for communities to win, and sometimes win big.

Even some CDCs are beginning to understand this. The $1.5 million Ricanne Hadrian Initiative for Community Organizing (RHICO), sponsored through the Massachusetts Association of CDCs and the Neighborhood Development Support Collaborative, supports and trains CDCs throughout Massachusetts to do community organizing. In some cases the organizing they do involves hard-core, in your face, confrontational tactics that forces elites to actually respond to community-designed programs, rather than force funder-driven programs down their throats.  I have helped with a similar though smaller program in Toledo, and one of our participating CDCs recently won half a million dollars in city capital improvement funds through its enhanced organizing skill.

Now it's all find and good to focus on rebuilding community relationships and developing community assets. But let's understand the truly radical implications of doing this correctly. Doing this in a way that maintains community relationships as assets and use values requires going up against capitalism and the ghost of social structure. And when we do it right, we will no longer have to fight over the crumbs of the Scooby snack.


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1. An earlier version of this paper was prepared for the American Sociological Association Annual Meetings, 2001.  It is part of a larger project studying the relationship between community organizing and community development, supported by a grant from the University of Toledo Urban Affairs Center.