Published on
14 December 2012

How to build a Trustful Society and not just a Big Society


In this paper the speaker explored the comparative dynamics of trust and trustworthiness, and considered the social prerequisites for a trustful society. Given the challenges of migration and multiculturalism, recent scholarship has attempted to determine the props of an inclusive citizenship that can bridge divides between cultures. Is this endeavour feasible? Is it worthwhile? What are the barriers to a trustful society and how may these be overcome?

The victory of David Cameron in the 2010 elections ushered in a ‘Big Society’ approach, which has seen a withdrawal of the State and the promotion of charitable and civil society activities to replace and improve on these areas of State welfare delivery. Specifically, the Big Society has had three general aims:

  1. cutting back on State provision;
  2. empowering community action (for example, through the electing of police commissioners, the developing of a Big Society bank, or the Centre for Social Justice’s championing of local charitable activities); and
  3. permanently changing culture (for example, through cracking down on welfare dependency).

Cameron’s call for a Big Society hit an abrupt barrier one year after his election when London descended into a period of fierce violence and looting that has still not been fully explained. The so-called ‘London riots’ turned any idea of Britain as a ‘Big Society’ into Britain as a ‘sick society’ — Cameron’s own phrase. The ongoing revelation of our country as a ‘sick society’ has a chilling effect on theories of voluntarism.

And yet, at the same time, the UK has displayed some evidence of a civil society of which she can well be proud, most notably the 2012 Olympics, characterised as it was by a focus on Britain’s youth, a seemingly inexhaustible supply of diverse volunteers, and the championing of those with disabilities through the Paralympics. We see a country between two paths, therefore. The first, a rights-based culture of consumerism and division; the second, a responsibilities-based culture of co-operation and community.

The term ‘Big Society’ is a play on the ‘small state’ associated with Thatcherism. Whilst Cameron has focused on cuts, he seeks to place attention instead on the need for society to play its own role, independent of State targets and State bureaucracy. However, questions remain over whether any such thing as a Big Society is possible, and whether the policies the government has implemented will have such an outcome. In order to address this debate, therefore, this paper considers the academic concept of ‘social capital’, something that grew in popularity towards the end of the twentieth century, and which has gone on to attract an audience in political and public policy circles — leading, in turn, to renewed government interest in what society is apart from the State. This is discussion not of the reach of the State but of the nature of community; whether community has something unique to it that capitalist development may have taken away over the course of time; something that pertains to a trustful society and not just a big society. I therefore present a review of academic understandings of social capital and then ask whether the Big Society captures this or not.


Social capital

The concept of social capital is most commonly associated with the works of the sociologist, James S. Coleman, and of the political scientist, Robert D. Putnam, and it is to these two scholars that contemporary studies look when adopting the general theory and holding it against the light of empirical findings. Nevertheless, it is important to recall an earlier use of the concept — only recently discovered by contemporary authors — situated in the work of John Dewey at the start of the twentieth century. Dewey explores the importance of sympathy, described as ‘a cultivated imagination for what men have in common and a rebellion at whatever unnecessarily divides them’,[1] and so, whilst drawing on a pool of vocabulary used to explain the process of industrialisation, he weds his approach with Adam Smith’s and David Hume’s emphases on empathy, common-feeling and moral sentiments.[2] As such, the tradition of social capital links back to theorists attempting to come to terms with the industrial revolution and that aspect of society which is lost when labour becomes wage-based, land becomes tenant-based, and all members of society are forced by rapid development of the factors of production to become more self-seeking than other-seeking. Dewey’s critical pragmatism brings together the terms ‘social’ and ‘capital’ alongside exploring how ‘all that we call society, state, and humanity are the realization of these permanent and universal relations of persons which are based upon active sympathy’.[3] He used the term ‘social capital’ in four publications, the first of which appeared in the year 1900.[4] Subsequently, the educationalist Hanifan directed attention again to the power of community that seemed to have died away, and posited in 1916:

In the use of the phrase social capital I make no reference to the usual acceptation of   the term capital, except in a figurative sense. I do not refer to real estate, or to personal property or to cold cash, but rather to that in life which tends to make these tangible substances count for most in the daily lives of a people, namely, goodwill, fellowship, mutual sympathy and social intercourse among a group of individuals and families who make up a social unit…[5]

In Hanifan we see an echo of Dewey’s use, though focused more on the practical question of education and the place of the school within the community. Hanifan clearly studied Dewey — who was, amongst other things, an authoritative philosopher for educationists of the early twentieth century — but it is unclear whether he took ‘social capital’ directly, despite citing Dewey for numerous other topics and even studying with a friend of Dewey’s in 1908.[6]

Although these thinkers first introduced the term, it would be wrong to project back an image of a century-long school of thought culminating in the works we see today. Putnam makes reference to Loury, Bourdieu, Jacobs and Seeley et al.,[7] and for the earliest use of the term notes Hanifan. In this way we see a reading back into earlier sociological, philosophical and political literature by contemporary authors in order to source the tradition more comprehensively and understand why its recent emergence has chimed with what seems to be a buried academic instinct. The mixture between etymological investigation of the term ‘social capital’ and the history of ideas which may have been like current understandings but expressed with different catch-words (or no catch-words at all) further complicates this sewing together of the past. In pursuit of similar ideas not necessarily expressed under the same term, Putnam makes reference to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, which looked at how associational life and active participation amongst citizens was connected with the success of a healthy polity.[8] Lichterman considers how Tocqueville imagines civic life and notes three features: 1) ‘meaningful relationships that people develop and transform in the course of interaction in civic groups’; 2) engaging ‘routinely in civic relationships over time, not merely sporadically’; and 3) generating ‘social capacity’ such that people ‘work together organizing public relationships rather than ceding those relationships entirely to market exchange or administrative fiats of the state’.[9] One part of Democracy in America that helps demonstrate Tocqueville’s perspective and the conduciveness of this to the social capital school is his discussion of mores, the ‘customs and conventions embodying the fundamental values of a group or society’.[10] Tocqueville writes:

I have said earlier that I considered mores to be one of the great general causes responsible for the maintenance of a democratic republic in the United States.

I here mean the term “mores” (moeurs) to have its original Latin meaning; I mean it to apply not only to “moeurs” in the strict sense, which might be called the habits of the heart, but also to the different notions possessed by men, the various opinions current among them, and the sum of ideas that shape mental habits.

So I use the word to cover the whole moral and intellectual state of a people.[11]

Putnam refers to Tocqueville as the ‘patron saint of contemporary social capitalists’[12] and it is clear that both the late French aristocrat and this newly founded tradition share much, most notably a relaxed attitude when moving from the social to the economic or political, which in turn allows the sourcing of co-operation or institutional development in cultural norms and values.[13] In this vein, another piece supportive of the social capital argument is Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which identified how a particular religious group was conducive to development of the market economy through its collective understanding of the value of business.[14] Broadly, social capital literature explains institutional performance by reference to associational tradition and it is in this spirit that Putnam’s linking of associational membership as the main ‘building blocks’ for active citizenship and governmental stability has managed to reinvigorate hope in the explanatory power of cultural norms.[15] By nature of the wideness of its position, therefore, discussions from the history of social scientific thought that could contribute to a re-discovered (or re-imagined) social capital tradition are legion. Even Dewey, the first known user of the term, makes reference to the thoughts of the utopian socialist Edward Bellamy:

His picture of a reign of brotherly love may be overdrawn. But the same cannot be said of his account of freedom in personal life outside of the imperative demand for the amount of work necessary to provide for the upkeep of social capital. In an incidental chapter on the present servility to fashion he brings out the underlying principle. “Equality creates an atmosphere which kills imitation, and is pregnant with originality, for everyone acts out himself, having nothing to gain by imitating anyone else.” It is the present system that promotes uniformity, standardization, and regimentation.[16]

Despite these links to an aged tradition of thought, however, Farr notices a key difference between those older thinkers who were coming to terms with the de-humanising experience of urbanisation and modernisation, and the contemporary sociologists of social capital:

The political economists of the nineteenth century — from Marx to Marshall to Bellamy — took capital from the social point of view. Today’s social capitalists, apparently, take “the social” from capital’s point of view. The one reflected an age coming to terms with capital, the other an age coming to capital for its terms. Then, “social capital” expressed an explicit antithesis to an unsocial perspective upon capital, now, an implicit antithesis to a non-capitalist perspective on society. “Social capital” was once a category of political economy in a period of its transformation, now one of economized politics, expressing the general dominance of economic modes of analysis in society and social science.[17]

This instructive distinction helps contemporary users of the concept see the fundamental reason for its controversy — disagreement over what exactly social capital has identified. Portes, for example, notes mutually exclusive definitions of the term: social capital can mean ‘(1) a source of social control, (2) a source of family-mediated benefits, and (3) a source of resources mediated by nonfamily networks’.[18] Additionally, we can ask, is social capital a product of the individual, the family, or the community? Or is it further a product of entire nations? Popularity for the term mushroomed upon Putnam’s work Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,[19] where the unit of analysis could be criticised as having held together all the flexibility of older generations’ appreciation of ‘the good old days’. In contrast, Coleman takes a radically individualistic approach to locating social capital. He cites Loury as a central contributor and explains social capital as pertaining to individual capabilities:

These social relationships which come into existence when individuals attempt to make best use of their individual resources need not only be seen as components of social structures […]. They may also be seen as resources for the individuals. Loury introduced the term “social capital” to describe these resources. In Loury’s usage social capital is the set of resources that inhere in family relations and in community social organization and that are useful for the cognitive or social development of a child or young person.[20]

Portes maintains that ‘social capital as a property of cities or nations is qualitatively distinct from its individual version’[21] and it is easy to see how, when lack of clarity over the unit of analysis is joined with the reputed ability of social capital to increase through use,[22] the term can be written off as ‘tautological’[23] and ‘synonymous with each and all things that are positive in social life.’[24] Part of the dilemma of inconsistent analytical use of the concept of social capital has come because criticism of the de-humanising dynamics of capitalism necessarily takes on some of the vocabulary and lenses of what is being criticised, leading in its most complete phase to social capital becoming not just a way of understanding immaterial networks of relations but a discrete property in and of itself, on a par with economic capital in both its multiplying effects for human productivity and the extent to which it can be empirically measured.[25] Just as the process of industrialisation facilitated a certain rationalisation of the person qua economic individual, so too does social capital, as a criticism of capitalist dynamics, demand a rationalisation of the spirit of co-operation towards an image of the economic individual. For example, Svendsen and Svendsen, advocates for social capital research, argue how:

intangible forms of capital, for example, cultural and social capital, should be accounted for alongside the more traditional, visible capitals such as physical and economic capital. In such an approach, culture is seen as no less economic than economics, and vice versa, and various forms of intangible, normative resources such as trust, cooperative skills, tolerance, optimism and happiness are included in the equation…[26]

At the same time, the popularity and distinct contribution of the social capital tradition lies in reaching out to that which binds heterogeneous persons in their pursuit of co-operative endeavours — an academic contribution novel insofar as it tells us more than structural models already do.

It is because of this contradictory position that contemporary definitions of social capital re-describe the concept as a discrete variable for each level of co-operative behaviour under investigation. Many of the general attempts at deciphering what social capital can be defined as concentrate on comparing existing definitions and seeking consistency,[27] and yet sometimes the reason for the settling on one over another by authors is due not to frequency of previous use but to the demands of what will work for the unit of analysis then under study. Social capital is defined by Ostrom and Ahn, for example, as ‘an attribute of individuals and of their relationships that enhance their ability to solve collective-action problems’,[28] and this is in part because their attention is on the question of how one person comes to trust another in a game theory or microeconomic context. In contrast, Woolcock and Narayan do not make reference to social capital as an attribute of individuals and focus instead on the collective: ‘social capital refers to the norms and networks that enable people to act collectively’[29] — something that reflects their evaluation of economic development. Interestingly, the avoidance of explicit reference to individualistic capital possession is also held to by Putnam’s definition: ‘features of social life — networks, norms, and trust — that enable participants to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives’,[30] which, in turn, facilitates a more seamless focus on the aggregate implications of social capital for national development.

These internal troubles with the concept also explain the emergent distinction between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ social capital, whereby internal ‘bonding’ fosters unity and co-operation for members of a closed group, and external ‘bridging’ develops extracommunity networks.[31] The phenomenon of ‘dark’ or ‘negative’ social capital is understood to arise from a growth of internal bonds at the expense of bridging to wider society.[32] In this way social capital can exclude outsiders from networks and also restrict the individual freedom of group members, one example of which is Loury’s understanding of how poorer black workers cannot gain entirely meritocratic access to the labour market because ‘[t]he social context within which individual maturation occurs strongly conditions what otherwise equally competent individuals can achieve.’[33]

In explaining the taxonomy of definitions of social capital, Adler and Kwon consider different levels of distinction:

First, the definitions vary depending on whether they focus on the substance, the sources, or the effects of social capital. Second, they vary depending on whether their focus is primarily on (1) the relations an actor maintains with other actors, (2) the structure of relations among actors within a collectivity, or (3) both types of linkages. A focus on external relations foregrounds what has been called “bridging” forms of social capital, whereas a focus on internal ties within collectivities foregrounds “bonding” forms of social capital.[34]

In response to these variations, Adler and Kwon develop a conceptual model that brings together the different strands whilst retaining how the overall dynamic has an element of self-perpetuity (that social capital can increase through use and diminish through lack of use). Their main contribution lies in making a simple distinction between the causal and consequential stages of social capital analyses in their definition: ‘Social capital is the goodwill available to individuals or groups. Its source lies in the structure and content of the actor’s social relations. Its effects flow from the information, influence, and solidarity it makes available to the actor.’[35]


Trustful Society and not just Big Society

And so, given the widespread appreciation of social capital as leading to stronger communities, we can turn attention to the question of what causes it, and whether the Big Society is likely to produce it.

The key difference between interest in social capital from the social sciences and interest in the Big Society from policy circles is the former’s focus on trust. Trust between citizens is the bread and butter of social capital and yet it is, almost by definition, something that cannot be engineered by the State. Just as the courts provide fall-back security for contract when business relations collapse, so the State provides fall-back security for a society without trust, bringing forward its coercive and welfare apparatus in order to compensate for lack of goodwill or mutual understanding between citizens. If trust is what greases the wheels of social capital and community solidarity, it puts government in a very difficult position. The State that somehow ensures its citizens trust each other takes on the form of a totalitarian State, because trust is a commitment that permeates almost every aspect of social living and to guarantee it requires State regulation in as many scenarios. Nevertheless, apart from whether and how much the State can intervene in society there is debate on whether the State is facilitating or preventing the development of trustful relations between citizens.

This seems to be the intention behind the Big Society: trying to find a way of giving room to the charitable sector without directing it. From the perspective of the social capital literature, however, the approach appears as an application of supply-side economics to social questions; that is, the growth of trust, community and charitable activities through the lowering of barriers to entry into the charitable sector.

The problem with this is that there is no evidence that trust is brought about in the same way as entrepreneurship and, indeed, the very nature of a trustful society is associated in the academic literature with market-cultural norms that are causes, not consequences, of economic and political creativity.

This period of British politics will not be remembered for its Big Society but for its debates on marriage and equality, through which understandings of roles and responsibilities gave way to individuality. If the government were serious about mending the broken, sick society, it would explore whether habit-formation and role-playing was possible at the family level in Britain today.


[1] Dewey, J., The Middle Works, 1899-1924 (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1980), Vol. 6 (1916), p. 128.

[2] Farr, J., ‘Social Capital: A Conceptual History’. Political Theory, Vol. 32, No. 1 (2004), pp. 6-33, p. 16. See Smith, A., The Theory of Moral Sentiments. To Which is Added a Dissertation on the Origin of Languages (London: Cadell, 1767), 3rd Ed.; and Hume, D., A Treatise of Human Nature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978 [1739-40]), 2nd Ed.

[3] Dewey, J. The Early Works, 1882-1898 (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967), Vol. 2 (1887), p. 294.

[4] Farr, 2004, p. 17.

[5] Hanifan, L. J., ‘The Rural School Community Center’. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 67 (Sep 1916), pp. 130-138, p. 130 (emphasis in original).

[6] Farr, 2004, p. 19.

[7] Ibid, p. 7. For works related to social capital from these authors, see Loury, G. C., ‘A dynamic theory of racial income differences’. Ch 8 of Wallace, P. A. & La Mond, A. M. (eds.), Women, Minorities, and Employment Discrimination (Lexington, Massachusetts: Heath, 1977); Bourdieu, P., ‘Forms of capital’. In Richardson, J. G. (ed.), Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986), pp. 241-58; Jacobs, J., The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Random House, 1961); and Seeley, J. R., Sim, A. & Loosley, E. W., Crestwood Heights: A Study of the Culture of Subaltern Life (New York: Basic Books, 1956).

[8] Tocqueville, A., Democracy in America (New York: Random House, 1945 [1835]).

[9] Lichterman, P., ‘Social Capital or Group Style? Rescuing Tocqueville’s Insights on Civic Engagement’. Theory and Society, Vol. 35, No. 5/6 (Dec 2006), pp. 529-563, pp. 534-5 (emphases in original).

[10] Collins English Dictionary (Glasgow: HarperCollins Publishers, 1998), 4th Ed., p. 1011. From the Latin mōs, meaning custom.

[11] Tocqueville, A., Democracy in America (London: Fontana Press, 1969), p. 287. For others’ adoption of Tocqueville’s phrase “habits of the heart”, see Putnam, 1993, p. 11; and Bellah, R. N., Madsen, R., Sullivan, W. M., Swidler, A. & Tipton, S. M., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (London: University of California Press, 1996), p. xlii.

[12] Putnam, 2000, p. 292.

[13] See, for example, how Tocqueville finds that cultural solidifications and an emphasis on equality amongst immigrants to the American colonies helped ensure the emergence of a stable republican democracy over the long term. Tocqueville, 1945, Book I, Chapter II.

[14] Weber, M., The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (London: Unwin University Books, 1930). (Note that Tocqueville also places great importance on the contribution of religion.) Coleman cites the work of Weber’s as central to his approach to sociology but not in the context of the phenomenon of social capital. Coleman, 1990, p. 7.

[15] Putnam, 1993. Lichterman sees Putnam’s quantification of associational behaviour to be a bridge too far for Tocqueville. Lichterman, 2006, p. 531.

[16] Dewey, J. ‘A Great American Prophet’. The Later Works of John Dewey, 1925-1953 (Charlottesville, Virginia: InteLex, 1996), Vol. 9 (1933-4), pp. 104-5. Originally published in Common Sense, Vol. 3 (Apr 1934), pp. 6-7. See Bellamy, E., Equality (New York: Appleton, 1898); and Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (Boston, 1888).

[17] Farr, 2004, p. 25.

[18] Portes, A., ‘The Two Meanings of Social Capital’. Sociological Forum, Vol. 15, No. 1 (2000), pp. 1-12, p. 2.

[19] Putnam, 2000.

[20] Coleman, 1990, p. 300. See Loury, 1977; and ‘Why Should We Care about Group Inequality?’ Social Philosophy and Public Policy, Vol. 5, No. 1 (1987), pp. 249-271.

[21] Portes, 2000, p. 3.

[22] Gambetta, D., ‘Can We Trust Trust?’ Ch 13 of Gambetta, D. (ed.), Trust: Making and Breaking Cooperative Relations (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988), p. 234.

[23] Portes, A., ‘Social Capital: Its Origins and Applications in Modern Sociology’. Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 24 (1998), pp. 1-24, p. 5.

[24] Portes, 2000, p. 3.

[25] Portes notes how a ‘conceptual stretch, initiated by political scientist Robert Putnam, made possible to speak of the “stock” of social capital possessed by communities and even nations and the consequent structural effects on their development.’ Portes, 2000, p. 3.

[26] Svendsen, G. T. & Svendsen, G. L. H., ‘The troika of sociology, political science and economics’. Ch 1 of Svendsen, G. T. & Svendsen, G. L. H. (eds.), Handbook of Social Capital: The Troika of Sociology, Political Science and Economics (Edward Elgar: Cheltenham, 2009), p. 1. As another example, a World Bank piece used the concept of social capital in investigating poverty in Tanzania and explained how the study ‘explored the role of social capital as a determinant of household welfare alongside other determinants, such as human capital, physical capital, natural capital, and access to markets. Social capital can be defined as the web of groups, associations, networks, and norms of trust at the community level that form the social underpinnings of poverty and prosperity.’ Narayan, D., Voices of the Poor: Poverty and Social Capital in Tanzania (Washington, D.C.: The World Bank, 1997), p. 3.

[27] Comparative lists of definitions of social capital can be found in Adler, P. S. & Kwon, S., ‘Social Capital: Prospects for a New Concept’. Academy of Management Review, Vol. 27, No. 1 (2002), pp. 17-40, p. 20, and Dubé, K., ‘Social Capital and HIV/AIDS in Siaya District, Kenya: A Theoretical and Empirical Critique’. MPhil thesis, Queen Elizabeth House, University of Oxford (2005), p. 11.

[28] Ostrom, E. & Ahn, T. K., ‘The meaning of social capital and its link to collective action’. Ch 2 of Svendsen, G. T. & Svendsen, G. L. H. (eds.), Handbook of Social Capital: The Troika of Sociology, Political Science and Economics (Edward Elgar: Cheltenham, 2009), p. 20.

[29] Woolcock, M. & Narayan, D., ‘Social Capital: Implications for Development Theory, Research, and Policy’. The World Bank Research Observer, Vol. 15, No. 2 (2000), pp. 225-249, p. 226.

[30] Putnam, R. D., ‘Turning In, Turning Out: The Strange Disappearance of Social Capital in America’. Political Science and Politics, Vol. 28, No. 4 (1995), pp. 664-683, pp. 664-5.

[31] Woolcock & Narayan, 2000, p. 231. See also Vervisch, T., & Titeca, K., ‘Bridging community associations in post-conflict Burundi: the difficult merging of social capital endowments and new ‘institutional settings’’. Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 48, No. 3 (2010), pp. 485-511.

[32] Portes, 1998, p. 15.

[33] Loury, 1977, p. 176.

[34] Adler & Kwon, 2002, p. 19.

[35] Ibid, p. 23. This definition is also useful as it manages to link the different emphases given to social capital by authors that are often thought to hold irreconcilable positions, providing room for both individual and group social capital and reconciling to some degree social capital’s critical and creative contributions.