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It is hard to think of an academic term whose rise has been quite as spectacular as “social capital.” Like a virus escaped from a laboratory, it has spread from Harvard’s school of government to the think tank world, and then to politicians, civil servants and beyond. Architects and planners are no longer exhorted to design safe and attractive communities but to “promote social capital.” Where personnel manuals once provided guidance on maintaining a good work atmosphere they now instruct on “sustaining high levels of social capital.”

The key figure in social capital’s spectacular rise has been Robert Putnam, ten…

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