These are some old notes I wrote on Bourdieu’s Forms of Capital and Putnam’s Bowling Alone while taking Sheila Jasanoff’s course in STS.

Notes on Capital in Bordieu and Putnam

For Bourdieu, capital—in its various forms (cultural, social, economic)—defines the immanent structures of the economic and and social worlds of individuals and groups. Capital is “the set of constraints … which govern [the social world’s] functioning in a durable way”, and fundamentally represents the accumulation of historical labor inscribed in some physical or social form. The private ownership of capital allows the holder to exert “social energy in the form of reified or living labor” — in short, produce private economic gain. For Bourdieu, capital requires labor to produce and so is essentially finite at a given point in time, though it may be converted to different forms or inscribed in institutions. Bourdieu’s forms of capital differ in important ways — e.g. in terms of their ability to be concealed, reproduced, transmitted and converted — but are fundamentally similar in terms of their ability to facilitate private gain and structure the social world.

Putnam, by contrast, is focused primarily on social capital. For Putnam, social capital is distinct from other forms of capital (human and physical in his reading) in that it is a shared societal resource for collective benefit, rather than an accumulated private asset for individual gain (contra Bourdieu). Putnam’s social capital is fundamentally renewable — it may be formed (or not formed) collectively through shared activities like PTA meetings, church groups, and bowling leagues. Its production facilitates and facilitates not only shared economic benefit, but also the continued viability of democratic society. “Life is easier in a community blessed with a substantial stock of social capital,” Putnam writes, and so we should lament and correct a world in which its formation appears to be in decline1.


  1. N.B. there’s some interesting commentary on (and critique of) Putnam’s understanding of social capital in Danielle Allen’s recent piece “Towards a Connected Society”; I have some notes on that piece that I’d like to post sometime as well and perhaps link to the comments here.