Journal of Latin American Studies


Social Capital: Promise and Pitfalls of its Role in Development

ALEJANDRO PORTES Professor of Sociology a1 and PATRICIA LANDOLT Assistant Professor a2
a1 Princeton University
a2 Department of Sociology at Simon Fraser University, British Columbia


The purpose of this commentary is threefold. First, to review the origins and definitions of the concept of social capital as it has developed in the recent literature. Second, to examine the limitations of this concept when interpreted as a causal force able to transform communities and nations. Third, to present several relevant examples from the recent empirical literature on Latin American urbanisation and migration. These examples point to the significance of social networks and community monitoring in the viability of grass-roots economic initiatives and the simultaneous difficulty of institutionalising such forces.

Current interest in the concept of social capital in the field of national development stems from the limitations of an exclusively economic approach toward the achievement of the basic developmental goals: sustained growth, equity, and democracy. The record of application of neoliberal adjustment policies in less developed nations is decidedly mixed, even when evaluated by strict economic criteria. Orthodox adjustment policies have led to low inflation and sustained growth in some countries, while in others they have failed spectacularly, leading to currency crises, devaluations, and political instability. The ‘one-size-fits- all’ package of economic policies foisted by the International Monetary Fund and the US Treasury on countries at very different levels of development have led to a series of contradictory outcomes that orthodox economic theory itself is incapable of explaining.