Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Corrective Critiques and Measuring Social Life: Social Capital in Political Communitarianism and Academia

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posted on 2021-11-15, 20:06 authored by Barton, Joshua George

Over the past quarter of a century social capital has grown from a relatively obscure concept to one routinely applied in a variety of literatures ranging from academic disciplines to international development programmes. Whilst the concept has been the subject of several critiques, these have largely been from a political economic perspective and have primarily discredited the concept by constructing it as having a basis and origins in economics. This thesis aims to offer an alternative analysis of social capital. By drawing on the work of French pragmatism, I treat social capital as a complex, heterogeneous object whose meaning and basis shifts as it has been employed in the enactment of different realities.  Whilst retaining this sensibility, I argue that insight can be gained into political uses of social capital by conceptualising it as part of various corrective critiques of economic liberalism. From a communitarian perspective, liberal policy is deficient because of its individualistic, and economic, foci. The incorporation of these, and other critiques, has resulted in the recent emergence of a ‘holistic’ approach that identifies human ‘wellbeing’ as the goal of policy. Social capital, with its promise to make the benefits of social life measurable and calculable, has helped to incorporate the communitarian critique into policy and political discourse both in New Zealand and internationally. However, social capital’s relationship to critique within policy and politics has varied. Some authors have constructed it as existing in a reciprocal relationship with existing liberal economic policies, from this perspective both economic growth and social capital are required to improve human wellbeing. For others, however, social capital and wellbeing are damaged by economic growth, and so economic policy requires modification in order to prevent damage to social capital. When the former construction is used, social capital is part of an expansionary critique of policy. From the latter perspective, social capital forms part of a reformist critique of policy.  These arguments are built on an analysis of social capital in texts from a variety of political and scholarly fields. My exploration of social capital in two academic fields, public health and management studies demonstrates that social capital often lacks an evident economic basis, and highlights the variability in the concept’s construction. I also explore the history of the concept in New Zealand political and policy texts, discussing its use in the New Zealand Institute of Policy Studies and by Prime Minister Jim Bolger in the 1990s, and how this changed as the concept was more thoroughly incorporated into policy during the Fifth Labour Government in the early 2000s. Furthermore, I offer an explanation of social capital’s current and central role in national accounting frameworks published by international and national government organisations, which provide the most clearly articulated attempts to measure social life via social capital.  As well as building on the existing critical and analytical literature around social capital, and offering an analysis of the concept within New Zealand, my approach demonstrates the advantages offered by adopting the sensibility of French pragmatic sociology. My analysis supports the argument that texts are a suitable topic of interest from a French pragmatic perspective, and shows the critical insight that can be gained from a more empirically-orientated and less dismissive approach to the concept of social capital.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

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Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970116 Expanding Knowledge through Studies of Human Society

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Social and Cultural Studies


Harrington, Carol; Dew, Kevin