Ten: Social work, social capital and community

The language of social work is ‘community-focused’ and ‘community-based solutions’ are sought. What does this really mean for social work practice and for those who live in communities? Is social work in fact retreating from communities, and distancing itself from exclusion and poverty? With a focus on choice, social work has succeeded in individualising social problems, yet offering little new in the way of solutions.

Social capital is difficult to define. It refers to those intangible resources: friendships, networks, trust and shared values, many of which are associated with positive ideas of community. Field (2003, p 1) sums it up as “relationships matter”. This should have an immediate resonance for social workers who are engaged in a variety of neighbourhood-based schemes and projects.

Generally speaking, the more friends you have, the nearer your family and the greater your network of support, the greater your levels of social capital. The different types of ‘community’ you belong to can also reflect social capital. The sociological concept of social capital therefore provides a valuable framework for understanding the nature of community-oriented social work.

Bourdieu (1984) is arguably the originator of the concept of social capital, which for him is closely aligned to cultural capital. This in turn is connected with consumption (see Chapter Seven). Bourdieu began with a study of French society influenced by class and he specifically investigated the French middle class. His interest is in how social capital (or the lack of it) is a feature in maintaining the existing social order and inequality. He also identified cultural capital and actual capital as being significant.

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