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Social capital has proven exceptionally fruitful as a metaphor. By invoking financial imagery, this phrase points to the generative power of social ties, their capacity to produce social goods such as economic growth or effective governance. But metaphors are also dangerous, not least because they assert multiple dimensions of similarity, some of which may be inappropriate or positively misleading. Prominent among these potential false parallels is the presumption that social capital is marked by the same portability or fungibility that makes financial capital such a powerful motor of economic growth and transformation. In its purest form, economic capital is not tied to particular persons, places, or objects, but "presents itself as an independent substance, endowed with a motion of its own, passing through a life-process of its own, in which money and commodities are mere forms which it assumes and casts off in turn." Social capital, by comparison, is fundamentally embedded, rooted in "norms of reciprocity and networks of civic engagement." The very term "social capital" embodies a seeming paradox - a deeply embedded capacity for social action that is transposable from one setting to another, from one domain to other diverse projects.(1)
In its operation, social capital involves a certain alchemy, transforming personal ties, trust in specific persons, and localized capacities for collective action into such macrosocial outcomes as economic performance and political efficacy. This transmutation, however, is fraught with tension. A closer analysis of the ways that social capital is tied to individuals and organizations reveals dynamic processes and strategic opportunities rather than a steady conversion of interpersonal trust into social goods. This structure of social capital constitutes a terrain for politics and a landscape that is reconfigured through politics.
In the course of political contests, social capital is generated and destroyed, enrolled in or disengaged from collective action. Indeed, the hallmark of successful organizers is their ability to harness informal networks and noninstitutional capacities to collective action in the pursuit of social change. Consequently, an analysis of how social capital is enrolled in politics must begin by exploring its distribution at different levels of analysis and mapping those levels onto one another. Individuals with ties to one another do not always belong to the same associations; nor do these associations necessarily take compatible positions across a range of issues or invoke similar positions within public debates. Hence, the relative location of the multiple forms of social capital - personal skills, interpersonal ties and trust, formal organizations, and the cultural norms that legitimate collective action - presents distinctive obstacles to, and opportunities for, their deployment.
In United States political history, few efforts to enroll informal networks and voluntary associations in political projects match the accomplishments of the "woman movement" of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Without benefit of the vote, women both gained the vote and helped to lay the foundations of a distinctively maternalist welfare state. To invoke the language of nineteenth-century philanthropy, the consolidation and ultimate fragmentation of the woman movement presents an "object lesson" in the political uses of social capital.
LOCATING SOCIAL CAPITAL
Social capital can be located in at least three ways or, more precisely, at three levels of civic society. First, trusting relationships, or social ties, may exist between individuals; such ties may or may not be constituted within formal organizations or associations. At this level, social capital refers either to the skills and capacities of individuals for social action or to the web of ties among individuals. Two dimensions of variation should be noted: Skills acquired in one set of interactions may be more or less easily transposed to another; informal networks of trust and friendship may or may not coincide with memberships in formal organizations. The genius of nineteenth-century voluntary associations lay in both their cultivation of transposable routines for acting collectively (for example, Roberts Rules of Order) and their elaboration of national federations grounded in the sociability of communities and friendship networks.(2)
The formation of these associations created social capital at a second level, changing "the relations among persons . . . in ways that facilitate action." Formal organization transforms a network of interpersonal ties into a system of roles and routines. New members are more easily integrated and expansive campaigns more easily coordinated. In addition, the establishment of formal organizations creates a new kind of social network - ties between organizations, constituted through either formal alliances or the joint memberships of individuals. When interorganizational and interpersonal networks diverge, recruitment and rupture are possible.(3)
Finally, these interpersonal networks and formal associations were both embedded in cultural categories that structured discourse about civic life. Although the care of the infirm and the moral education of children might be the objects of either a woman's club or a local Women's Christian Temperance Union, the public identities of these organizations gave distinctive meanings to their efforts. Organizations anchor meaning; they "provide a visible interpretive frame upon which the otherwise slippery and ineffable character of institutional life can be firmed up." Particularly before survey research promised direct access to individual opinions, organizations served as critical signals of positions within public debate.(4)
Given its multiple locations, or forms - individual, organizational, and cultural - social capital may not aggregate neatly from interpersonal ties into broader networks of collective action, nor be easily transposed to one new project as to another. Tensions are generated when levels do not map cleanly onto one another. An association identified with one goal might also be committed to another one that a member might find deeply offensive. The resulting conflicts underscore a more general theoretical point: The ability to transpose social capital cultivated at the individual level to larger projects of collective action is limited by the available organizations, as well as the location of those organizations within the cultural categories of public discourse.
Exploring the intersection of individual participation, formal organization, and political culture sheds light on the dynamics of recruitment and training, on the mobilization of political coalitions, and on the sources of rupture in the web of group affiliations. Consider the following puzzle: Drawing on membership records, recent research has documented that membership in the Moose, Elks, Masons, and other fraternal organizations in the United States increased significantly during the second half of the nineteenth century and into the early decades of the twentieth. What does this surge imply about the creation and distribution of social capital? The answer depends on how individual memberships mapped onto formal organizations. Imagine a town in which both the Masons and the Knights of Pythias boasted 100 members in one decade and 200 during the next. Among the possible scenarios are that 100 previously unaffiliated individuals joined the Masons, and another 100 became Knights; or all of the Masons joined the Knights of Pythias, and vice versa.(5)
From the viewpoint of maximizing participation, recruitment of the unaffiliated would be the more promising development for a democratic polity. In the context of late nineteenth-century American politics, however, a third possibility was most promising: Political influence increased with both broader participation and greater ties among associations. Few cases illustrate this process more clearly than the "woman movement," an associational effort of the (largely) disenfranchised to shape political and civic life in localities, states, and nation. But the eventual decline of the woman movement also provides important lessons for understanding how networks of voluntary associations can create the conditions for faction, schism, and demobilization.
THE WOMAN MOVEMENT
"Women's clubs are the big sticks of society," proclaimed a commercial postcard of the time. This sentiment reflected the extraordinary growth of women's associations and celebrated their political accomplishments. Recent studies amply document how these mass-membership women's organizations shaped political culture and social policy prior to World War I, despite women's disenfranchisement. This conjuncture of associational activity and the absence of formal political standing provides an exceptional case for the analysis of social capital and the consequences of its effective deployment.(6)
For all this associational energy, many women still desired the right to vote. Their agitation for woman suffrage was part of a broader field of political activity in which shifting segments of the woman …