Workshop: Social Capital and the Sense of Belonging in an Individualized Society


University of St. Gallen, Mai 7-9, 2009


The workshop “Social Capital and the Sense of Belonging in an Individualized Socitey” will be held at the University of St. Gallen on May 7-9, 2009. It will bring together leading scholars from various fields who will take stock of the dynamics of individualization and social integration in modern societies and discuss strong notions of sociality. Scholars from philosophy, management studies, sociology, history, and religious studies will compare different methodological approaches, examine how social capital theory can be used for explaining and evaluating social embeddedness, and analyze the instrumental and non-instrumental aspects of cooperation.


From its earliest beginnings up to recent times, the rise of the individual has been accompanied by worries about the erosion of social bonds. – When Adam Smith analyzed self-interest in the 18th century, he also explored the notions of fellow-feeling and sympathy. – When Alexis de Tocqueville coined the term “individualism” in the early 19th century, he at once turned to resources of communality and sociability as well. – In recent years, discussions on the “individualized society” and its discontents have led to a growing interest in the concept of “social capital.” 

All these debates revolve around the question of how cooperation, social integration and the sense of belonging coalesce with individual self-determination and independence. Yet the concepts used are notoriously vague. 


In this workshop we will focus on strong notions of sociality as they emerge against the backdrop of an individualized society. The approach will be two-pronged. We seek to initiate an exchange on conceptual and methodological issues by pooling the discourses on “belonging” on the one hand, “social capital” on the other hand. While the notion of “belonging” can be traced back to a communitarian framework and often alludes to a somewhat romanticized image of togetherness, the notion of “social capital” which has been put forward by economic and social theory appeals to the champions of matter-of-factness. Differences in terms of atmosphere notwithstanding, those approaches share a similar set of questions and face related problems, as they both aim at describing the “cement of society.”  “Belonging” stands for a particularly strong social relation among people that implies reliability and availability of the persons concerned. “Social capital” is deemed to be instrumental for explaining cooperation in organizations and in the social sphere in general. Both concepts aim at social relations that imply some kind of affiliation, ownership or appropriation. This applies to “belonging together” or “belonging to somebody” as well as to the property rights linked to “capital.” Both instrumental and non-instrumental relationships come into play here. “Belonging” encompasses various forms of social relations that may be symmetrical (among people on an equal footing) or asymmetrical (like e.g. the relation between parents and children). Questions of power and recognition, dependency and trust come into play here. The individual is exposed to demands, is committed to somebody, depends on the backing and the support of others etc. The issues of affiliation and ownership also come up in recent debates on “social capital,” albeit in a different way. The term “social capital” has been used to criticize the privileged access of specific groups to social networks or to foster the functioning of the civil society. To the extent that “social capital” is disposed of by individuals, they expect to benefit (or capitalize) from using it. Yet generating and maintaining it is a matter of collective behavior. This again brings up the issues of dependency and commitment.


The envisaged meeting will be the 3rd event in a series of interdisciplinary research workshops co-organized by the Department of Philosophy at the University of St. Gallen and the “St. Gallen Symposium.” Previous workshops were held on Rationality and Commitment in 2003 (participants included, among others, Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen and Philip Pettit) and on Altruism in 2007 (participants included, among others, Nobel prize winner Gary Becker and Robert Frank). As the previous events, this 3rd conference will be a research-oriented, closed workshop taking place within the St. Gallen Symposium, which is a major yearly event for leaders from the political and the business world and for students. The St. Gallen Symposium is interested in presenting some of the workshop participants as keynote speakers to the general audience and is willing to support the workshop financially.


Organizing Committee:

Prof. Dr. Dieter Thomä (Homepage)
Dr. Christoph Henning (Homepage)
Dr. Olivia Mitscherlich (Homepage)
Universität St. Gallen 
Kulturwissenschaftliche Abteilung 
Fachbereich Philosophie 
Gatterstr. 1 
CH-9010 St. Gallen

Prof. Dr. Hans Bernhard Schmid 
Universität Basel 
SNF-Förderungsprofessur Philosophie 
Bernoullistr. 16 
CH-4056 Basel

PD Dr. Michael Schefczyk (Homepage)
Universität Zürich 
Philosophisches Seminar 
CH-8044 Zürich