The New York Times' David Brooks writes today about redefining human capital from 'human capital to 'Human Capital'. What Brooks' describes as capital H Human capital consists of several analytically distinct capitals, including social capital, cultural capital, moral capital, and aspirational capital. Brooks does not try to define these different types of capital, but he rightly notes that the way economists and policy makers currently define human capital--with a focus on marketable skills and education--has led to a series of failed policies. He writes:
Over the past quarter-century, researchers have done a lot of work trying to understand the different parts of human capital. Their work has been almost completely ignored by policy makers, who continue to treat human capital as just skills and knowledge. The result? A series of expensive policy failures.
What Brooks' fails to emphasize is that sociologists, psychologists, and even some anthropologists' have been making these points for a long time but that they usually do not have a seat at the policy table.
While I like the thrust of Brooks' argument, his failure to define his terms weakens the piece. Instead, of precise definitions, he uses examples. For instance he defines social capital as: "the knowledge of how to behave in groups and within institutions. This can mean, for example, knowing what to do if your community college loses your transcript. Or it can mean knowing the basic rules of politeness." This description confounds the various capitals Brooks just distinguished between. Pierre Bourdieu, the sociologists most associated with the core idea of alternative capitals, would have defined the "basic rules of politeness" as an example of cultural capital, not social capital. I could go on here.
Within sociology, the precise definition of cultural capital suffers from some ambiguity, but the underlying idea is that there is capital, such as habit, attitudes and beliefs, that is acquired primarily through socialization, as opposed to direct investment, such as a college education. This capital plays a role in giving people access to particular positions in society and thus helps account for variation in economic outcomes. There are, however, several puzzles in sociology regarding social capital. For instance, why is some cultural capital more valuable than other types. The cultural capital that is valued in a society is often a function of those who are at the top of the economic strata, not the bottom. Consequently, cultural capital is a pure social construct, say as opposed to specific technical skills, like accounting or welding, which may be regarded as "objective" and task-related.
Anway, I'll write more about this at some later point. I apologize for not writing more often, but I am in the midst of revising a book.