During the 1990s, powerful development institutions like the World Bank came to see the social networks and norms of the rural poor in developing countries as 'assets' to be tapped for poverty alleviation. Defined by Robert Putnam (1995:67) as 'features of social organisation such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit', social capital was proclaimed the 'missing link' in development (Grooetaert 1997). Its contribution to various types of development outcomes became the subject of practical experimentation and scholarly research. The animating hypothesis of this large research programme has been that social capital, as an asset adhering in villages, regions, or even nation-states, is good for both democracy and development.
Based on a study of how land brokers in rural Rajasthan mediate the arrival of a Special Economic Zone, this paper argues that theories of collective social capital cannot explain how networks, norms, and trust interact in a process of economic change. It then reconstructs Bourdieu's distinct theory of individual social capital by showing how better connected farmers are able to broker land and capture profits at the expense of fellow villagers—undermining trust, norms, and collective action. It argues that social capital is most plausibly seen as an aspect of class inequality that hinders inclusive development.
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