Philanthropy and Political Influence: A case study on the link between symbolic capital, political access and public perception of Bill Gates

University essay from Lunds universitet/Sociologi

Abstract: The influence wielded through private philanthropy has made a comeback to the academic and public discussion, as large foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) invest increasing amounts of money in national and international development efforts. This thesis researches one aspect of philanthropy that has received little attention in the debate on its implications for political equality: Firstly, the link of philanthropy and the accumulation of symbolic capital; and secondly, the resulting political influence of philanthropists. The theoretical basis for such a conceptualisation is derived from Bourdieu's theory of fields and the different forms of capital. The thesis focusses on the latest trend in philanthropic practices, namely entrepreneurial philanthropy. Using a case study approach, the prestige Bill Gates has accrued as a result of his charitable engagements with the BMGF, and the access to international high-level politicians this grants him as an individual are researched. Moreover, the public perception of his person is examined for changes that are related to his philanthropic work. To that end, data on awards and national honours Gates received from 2000 onwards, his meetings with high-level politicians since November 2014, and Google search term trends and correlations in the United States (US) since 2004 was analysed. Findings indicate that the symbolic rewards philanthropy brings are not to be underestimated, as both politicians and the general public seem to be influenced by his work with the BMGF. Development-related issues are discussed regularly with politicians, and philanthropy is increasingly reflected in Gates's public image.

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