Sociology and Anthropology

Social Capital, Civil Society, and the Question of Values

The rising interest in the idea of civil society in the last decade highlights the problematic place of values in social sciences.  Social sciences, seeking scientificity through mostly empirical verification and positivistic methods, presented themselves as the neutral guarantor rational and free society. Epistemological and metatheoretical discussions gradually retreated from social sciences, for those dimensions do not represent real research and they may bring back the shadow of religion and the less-than-relative. On the other hand, social experience continuously provides compelling evidence on the solidity and viability of the “natural social order” in which values are central. The concept of civil society and social capital were reincarnated only to face the perennial question of values. The inevitability of thinking in terms of values, where do they come from, and how they govern modern societies was asserted again.

This paper is two-fold. First, it provides a brief critical review of the concepts of civil society and social capital, highlighting their sidelining of values. Second, the paper argues that re-incorporating values into social sciences can be achieved through reclaiming meta-values that: (1) attune to moral, and not just utilitarian concerns, (2) assume historical validity, and (3) are conceptualized simultaneously at the individual and the collective levels. Thinking in terms of meta-values, this paper asserts, has the promise for a renewed vision of a just social order.

The notions of civil society, social capital, and communitarianism are now widely discussed in social sciences. Such concepts are sometimes treated as “discoveries” or new findings and fresh perspectives. For those who favor more holistic social sciences such developments should be looked upon as balancing tendencies. This paper takes the view that resurfacing of those two concepts speak of an old tension in social science, the place (or no place) for values in social theorizing, and the renewed interest in them represents an unacknowledged apology for past mis-theorizing attempts. The paper argues further that, for the most part, those concepts failed to find a proper place for values in social sciences.

From the outset, we need to remind ourselves that the development of social sciences came, largely, as a response to traditional religion. Religion and religious notions in Europe were the basis of culture along with a politicaleconomic structure in which the Church was prominent. The dismantling of the Church was accompanied with a gradual deconstruction of its ideology and with the desecration of its traditional value repertoire. The social sciences came to fill in at both levels. At the structural level, it envisioned a new form of social institutions in which traditions play a much smaller role. At the cultural level, it preached conceptions that are “fit” to the modern age. Social sciences, in effect, was the new religion, call it civil religion, which constructed a framework for understanding and constructing the modern social world. The Church did not directly rule, and so did social sciences. Like the Church, there was an implicit contract with social institutions—social sciences in relation to modern institutions functioned as the provider of vision, criticism, and legitimacy. The secular religiousness of social sciences was internalized and camouflaged.
However, the nonrational elements of the social survived (those elements that do not fit straightjacket rationalism); the natural proved its durability. On the other hand, the failures of the social sciences accumulated, and the crisis became imminent. Specifically, the internal dynamics of social sciences forced them to shed-off holism. The American Social Science Association, founded in 1865, withered away and was replaced by “specific” fields—economics, history, political science, sociology, etc. (cf. Haskell 1977). Teleology was condemned; indeed, if there is no authoritative source of the absolute, any end can be accused of bias and centrism. Analytical functionalism, the last refuge of holism, was finally defeated for being imperialistic.

The crisis of social sciences was manifested in two phases. The first came in increased fragmentation among social sciences and within disciplines. The US academia turned into tribes, territories, and small worlds, governed by its own rules and driven by its internal dynamics (Clark 2002). The inevitable next step was the rise of reductionism, and its spiral ensued with no end in the horizon. The sophistication of ideas was rejected in favor for the obscurity of methods.

Abstract empiricism appeared as the only viable solution since it claims no authority except that of numbers and codes. In other words, social sciences do not need any more to speak of a normative order, only of desired outputs. Abstract empiricism raised the cost of discoursing and reduced the space available for insight, only to foster new forms of ideologies tucked underneath split-hair methodologies and misplaced complexity. The second manifestation came in the form of a postmodern criticism that, with all of its insightful introspection, it is complacent with or destined to nihilism. Equipped with vicious excavating and demolition tools, postmodernism is capable of deconstructing everything,including itself. In responding to single-minded imperialistic positivism, postmodernism single-mindedly was caught in a spiral of perpetual revenge of systematic understanding. Postmodernism is handicapped in construction exactly because construction calls for acknowledging the nonrelative, the eminent and the normative in social life and human history.

The notions of civic society, social capital, and communitarianism are attempts on behalf of social sciences to restore some wholeness to the social phenomena and to distance itself from narrow rationalism. While communitarianism is the most holistic among them, it is hardly acknowledged by social sciences. As an illegitimate child, communitarianism had no choice but to carve for itself a safe haven outside of the parameters of social science proper.

Whereas the concepts of civic society and social capital stay within the larger boundaries of liberalism, communitarianism is well aware of the place of values in modern societies and deals with it seriously. In contrast, civil society talk is weary of values, and when it speaks of values it invokes them in terms of a utilitarian consensus. The discussion below visits the major elements of social capital and civil society conceptions, and briefly points to their theoretical blind spots. The paper specifically highlights the problematic of values, or the avoidance of their discussion. Lastly, the paper suggests criteria for non-sectarian universalistic values.

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