Monday, February 02, 2009

Privatizing Social Capital

A couple of years ago over on money law I wrote a blog on making nice and doing nothing -- a common trait of the elites. Now it occurs to me that it is a great example of capitalism only the capital is social.

Let me provide some background. In the higher education contexts in which I have participated, there is always a subtle form of extortion. People can disagree but they never show exactly how much something really matters because if he or she does that to the point of causing discomfort, there are sanctions ranging from being the subject of gossip to being discounted or socially ostracized completely. When this happens -- pushing hard enough to make someone uncomfortable -- social capital is used. Kiss enough butt or scratch enough backs and you and regain some of it.

Discomfort is the operative concept here. Make enough people uncomfortable and you use up all your capital. Also we are not talking about right, wrong, truth or beauty. Even pushing the most dead solid truth or good cause can lead to discomfort. Never use social capital and you are completely ineffective. Use it all up and you are equally ineffective. I know people at both ends of this continuum.

There is another continuum as well and this is defined by how you use the capital if you choose to use it at all. You can use it for yourself -- complain about a teaching assignment, fight for your favorite program or more travel money because, afterall, you are special and doing God's work -- or you can use it for others -- a change in law school policy in which self-interest is not involved.

You could graph all this and if I knew how I would. The horizontal axis from left to right would be not willing to use social capital to very willing to use social capital. The vertical axis would be from bottom to top, use social capital for self and use social capital in matters in which there is no self interest.

Now we could take each person and put a point on this grid and the all four quadrants would have some points. Just for orientation sake, the bottom left quadrant would be little use/ but personal use when used. In this quadrant you find many law professors. I would say "most" but that would mean over 50% and I am not sure. But if you had to pick one quadrant and put $5.00 on it, that would be your best bet. They hoard social capital and spend it one themselves.

I think there is some sociological literature to the effect that this behavior is very common among the upper classes and it is critical for a someone trying to climb the ladder to stay solidly in that bottom left quadrant -- or at least appear to be.

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