Saturday, March 31, 2012

Danger, Super Vidoqo, Danger!

So, apparently Vidoqo is not so Super after all.  Well, that was kind of the point of the title*, right?  Who am I, lowly teacher with an undergraduate degree in Social Sciences and a Master's degree in Elementary Education from a state university, to think I could play with the big boys on issues as complex as race, class, philosophy and human development?  Well, in many ways I am not.  Yet in many ways I am.  I have a good deal of first hand experience with these issues, spending nearly two decades of my adult life among the disadvantaged, disabled, disenfranchised and generally dissed.  In many ways, my experience has given me insights that plenty of people with more prestigious academic credentials couldn't possibly obtain without direct experience of their own with the subjects on which they write, from behind the walls of an institution.

(*It occurs to me that I have never officially explained where the name Vidoqo comes from.  It's a pretty silly inside joke.  But it comes originally from a mispronunciation of the title (itself a mispronunciation) of a avante garde children's book I once created, titled "I am not Vidoco".  You can find the book, available for purchase here.)

And isn't this the beauty of blogging - that by simply having access to the internet and a linkable address, I can put my ideas out there for the world to see?  And I try to give you guys the good stuff.  I think a lot about these issues and when I write I do my best to bring thoughtfulness and clarity to my subjects.  But sometimes even the most thoughtful blogger makes mistakes.  Or, more generously, makes new discoveries about prior misunderstandings.  

So, why the long wind-up?  Well, one of the key areas of exploration and articulation on this blog is the concept of human and social capital.  That is why it has been somewhat unnerving for me to discover that my usage of the term social capital has been largely misapplied.  Apparently, the general consensus among sociologists and people who have spent years researching and writing papers on the subject, is that the term refers to the value of social relations.  I had been using the term, rather, to describe the value of one's external relations with society in general - a far larger and more generalized definition.

I think my original problem might have lain in trying to stretch the term out to transcend what I felt were its limitations, and thus provide a much more coherent and descriptive conceptualization, one powerful enough to functionally explain, alongside human capital, the total of human development and subsequent endeavor.  My interest was in developing a frame work for human agency, in terms of the process of input and output.  The social sciences have long found profound evidence that human agency is determined by genetic and societal forces.  Humans exist not in isolation, but rather as intimately wound players in the larger human drama.  Within this framework, there seems to be little room for determination that is neither rooted in genetics nor environment, certainly not in terms of explanatory power.

If one fears this framework to be overly reductionistic, I would caution that the explanatory claim is, like many powerful theories, not attempting to provide evidence for every human action, but merely laying the groundwork upon which any further causal mechanism might work.  For instance, we cannot possibly know with much resolution the precise causal mechanism for a vast range of human behaviors.  But we can, however, stipulate that any such behavior will have been rooted in genetic or environmental conditions.  It is then up to us to gather further evidence to increase the resolution of the causality.  An example of a similarly fundamental theory, would be evolution by natural selection.  While there are an almost infinite number of causal factors involved in the process - from the interaction of individual DNA base pair mutations up to the forces of nature such as weather patterns, and tectonic plate movements.  At the individual level, the process of evolution is quite low-resolution, yet in terms of broadly explanatory and predictive power, the theory is unmatched.

My interest in such a comprehensive narrative is largely a product not only of my readings in social science, but also in what I have witnessed in my life and career.  I suppose it should also be said that one of the imperatives of both adult civic, as well as interpersonal and self-reflective engagement, is to understand not merely what one believes but why one believes it.  At a most fundamental level, conscious life can be boiled down no further than the most basic and primary act of thought itself.  As Descrates famously wrote I think therefore I am, so too any claim we have as intelligent human actors must be derived from this basic premise: if I am what I think, then why do I think what I think?  In attempting this question, social science has been indispensable in providing evidence-based answers.

From this basic existential inquiry, arises all subsequent political, economic and cultural analysis.  No better example of this is in the frustratingly polarized political climate of our current era.  Almost every issue at which our countrymen find themselves at odds can be reduced down to fundamental questions of human development and human action.  Whether how to fairly tax the public, how to school our children, how to determine the morality of our laws, how to attack inequality and promote economic and social justice... all of these questions hinge upon the deeper question: why do men do what they do?

And here, I propose, social science has answers.  In terms of specifics, much less large-scale policy prescriptions, there is a vast amount we do not understand.  But all the evidence so far points to this very clear narrative: that human agency is a sum of Human Capital and capital that is derived from one's external resources, everything from a healthy uterus, the language spoken in a child's home, the condition of the neighborhood, the availability of health services or civic institutions, the adequacy education and social relationships that encourage emotional and cognitive development, the availability of employment opportunities, the quality of police and emergency services, and the quality and availability of government representation and journalistic inquiry

All of this, which I had wrongly been calling social capital previously, I will now refer to as Societal Capital. This term is, in my opinion, a much needed counterpart to the established term Human Capital.  Where the latter represents one's internal capacities, and therefore leverage and self-efficacy in society, the former represents the societal conditions which serve to either promote or inhibit those internal capacities. 

One of the main reasons the term Societal Capital is needed, is that neither term is static; neither is solely functional on its own.  One's Human Capital must often be understood in relation to one's corresponding Societal Capital, dependent as it often is both in its prior and future development.  Societal capital, likewise must often be understood in relation to corresponding Human Capital.  Without Human Capital, Societal Capital is often unclaimed, and thus unleveraged.  For instance, the ability to read is meaningless if there are no books available to read.  Likewise, the availability of books is meaningless if one is unable to read.

One of the powerful features of this framework is in its insight into the dynamic effects we see between Human and Societal Capital.  A lack in both will often produce a compounded effect that minimizes future capital acquisition, while an abundance of both will also compound, producing an increased future capital acquisition.  To return to the example of literacy, an absence of books and the capacity to read them will lead an individual to attend to other matters, and both forms of capital will likely remain dormant; no capacity to read stimulates no acquisition of books, no acquisition of books stimulates no capacity to read.  Yet capacity to read stimulates the acquisition of books, and visa-versa.

One can easily see how this dynamic, compounding effect has innumerable ripple effects throughout individual and community life.  This basic premise is a core feature of human culture and civilization, embedded in our societal relations at every level.  A defining feature of families, peer groups, communities, cities, states and countries is their implicit organization around the interaction between Human and Societal Capital.  We are a learning species.  We seek out friends and communities because of their utility in maximizing total Human and Societal Capital.  A friend calls on another friend for support in hard times, and both become stronger for it, their individual Human Capital is strengthened and Societal Capital is formed.  A government builds a system of mass transit that increases the individual Human Capital of nearby citizens, who then in turn vote to make the system better, increasing their Societal Capital.

There is of course the possibility of negative effects embedded in all of these interactions.  But the theory of Human and Societal Capital is only a general measurement designed to guide our analysis.  Some human interactions will have unintended negative consequences, and they will have to be accounted for in the design of our models.  Negative cognitive patterns of mind, for instance, are built that could be thought of as actively negative, in the sense that they actively contribute to a lowering of total individual or societal agency.  But I think it will be more practical, from a theoretical design perspective, to see these patterns in terms of being the result of a reduction in positive Human and Societal Capital.

In future posts, I look forward to continuing to hone this framework.  The term Social Capital, while certainly useful in a more narrow sense, I think fails to deal with what seems a glaring deficit of conceptualization in not taking on a role as an external counterpart to Human Capital's description of the internal mechanism of human agency.

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