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A Universal Concept Or Context-Dependent?

Vinod K. Jairath

Edited by Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya , Niraja Gopal Jayal, Bishnu N. Mohapatra and Sudha Pai
Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2004, pp. 335, Rs. 680.00


There has been a certain division of labour in the academic world. While the natural and social scientists from the North are seen to generate new concepts and theoretical propositions, the academicians from the South are expected to collect data which either corroborates the theories by using the existing concepts or acts as fodder for those in the North to construct new theories and concepts. But in recent years, social scientists from the South are increasingly challenging and deconstructing the “preferred” readings of concepts supplied by the North. One of the most discussed concepts in the world since the 1990s is that of “social capital”. It received tremendous visibility especially after it was adopted by the World Bank and some of the significant donor agencies from the North engaged in development assistance in the South. In the volume under review here, several scholars, mainly from India, have attempted to critically examine the concept of social capital through detailed field studies in India. Three out of the ten contributions, apart from the Introduction, in this volume are from western scholars. The distinction between the concept of social capital as understood by Bourdieu and as argued by Putnam is clearly emphasized. The four editors, in their joint Introduction make it clear that the ‘particular conception of social capital that (the essays in this volume) test (and interrogate) belongs, however, quite unambiguously to the Putnamesque tradition rather than Bourdieuian’(p.15).   Quite frequently, concepts that have emerged in the process of resolving certain problems in the western context are presented to the social science communities as universal concepts. In the context of social capital, Susanne H. Rudolph, in this volume, summarizes the problematic in the western context in this way: ‘The idea of associationalism is central to the concept of civil society. Associations empower citizens each of whom, in isolation, could not confront the state as agent and participant, nor create consequences within society. It is as social collectivities that citizens can resist, escape or influence state and society’ (p.119). This is the context of ‘mass’ society comprising isolated individuals where the earlier ‘communities’, primarily based on some ascriptive criteria, are assumed to be dissolved. It is in such a context that Robert Putnam, in his Italian study, Making Democracy Work (1993), defines social capital as ‘features of social organization, such as trust, norms, and networks, that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating ...

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