Social Capital

views updated Jun 27 2018

Social Capital




In a broad and nonessentialist sense, social capital means that the relations humans enter into are a potential source of utility and benefit for them. However, the concept of social capital is perceived in divergent ways with a plurality of approaches and empirical operationalizations. Unfortunately, there is little discussion among dissenting viewpoints.

After an earlier emergence in the work of Lydia Hanifan (1916) or Jane Jacobs (1961), the term social capital resurfaced in the 1970s in the work of economist Glenn Loury. For Loury, the social context in which one finds oneself embedded strongly conditions ones achievement. This is profoundly evident whenever social divisions that structure inequalities, such as race or class, are at play. In such a context, Loury describes social capital as the impact of ones own social position, which acts to further or impede the acquisition of human capital (the market-valued assets of education and skills) (Loury 1977, pp. 175-176).


Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) was the first to conceptualize social capital in an explicitly sociological manner that is at variance with Lourys view. For Bourdieu, capital consists of accumulated human labor that either assumes a distinct material form or an integrated form as part of an objective or subjective structure, the latter being the predispositions of mind and body (Bourdieu 2001, p. 98). Bourdieu also understands capital in the sense of power and resources (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992).

Bourdieu is concerned with three forms of capital: economic, cultural, and social, each operating in a different field. Among them, social capital, which neither derives from nor is independent of the other forms, comprises social responsibilities, connections, or linkages, and under certain circumstances is convertible into economic capital. Bourdieu also considers the family to be a basic source of social capital, mainly found among the socially powerful in the upper middle class or haute bourgeoisie ; the ideal-typical institutionalized form of social capital is the nobility title (Bourdieu 2001, p. 98). By contrast, the lower social strata do not possess capital, including social capital (Bourdieu 1986).

Social capital is formed, more or less consciously, via integration into networks. Unlike economic capital, social capital has no specific material form. It is also characterized by a certain indeterminacy, so that there can be, for example, a residual sense of unspecified obligation. Social capital is, in a sense, suspended in midair, like social structures. This, according to Bourdieu, is an inevitable dimension of social capital. If it were clear and specific, it would simply be a series of ordinary nonmarket transactions. Social capital, according to Bourdieu, is the sum of active or potential resources that are connected through the possession of a network of permanent relations of mutual acquaintance and recognition, which are more or less institutionalized, or, in other words, with the inclusion into a group (Bourdieu 1994, p. 90). Participation in a group provides each member with the backing of the collectivity-owned capital, a credential that entitles them to credit in the various senses of the word (Bourdieu 2001, p. 103). Importantly, the agent of action is the separate individual member of the group.

Transactions between group members require a minimum degree of homogeneity, and the profits that accrue from membership form the basis of the solidarity that makes such transactions possible. Bourdieu clearly holds that the reproduction of social capital requires a continuous effort of sociability and continual repeated contacts during which mutual recognition by group members is confirmed in order to sustain group cohesion (Bourdieu 2001, p. 104).

For his part, while studying school failure and aiming at the reinforcement of human capital, James Coleman (1926-1995) came to regard social capital as a means of support. In particular, he claims that social capital strengthens students school and university performance and, therefore, the generation of human capital. This view is much in line with Lourys conceptualization of social capital, yet here social capital is explicitly a positive and enhanceable quality (Coleman and Hoffer 1987; Coleman 1988).

Coleman uses this notion of social capital in connection with other forms of capital, such as economic-financial, natural, and human capital. Specifically, social capital results from changes that take place between individuals, facilitating social action (Coleman 1990, p. 302).

Coleman defines social capital on the basis of its function, as a range of entities with two common attributes: These entities are all aspects of social structures, and they all facilitate certain actions within structures, by individual or collective agents (Coleman 1988, p. S98). Social capital may assume three forms: obligations and expectations, which depend on trustworthiness of the social environment, information-flow capability of the social structure, and norms accompanied by sanctions (p. S119). Coleman, like Bourdieu, stresses the nonconcrete, nonmaterial, and indefinite character of social capital as compared to other forms of capital. However, in contradistinction to Bourdieu, he notes that unlike other forms of capital, social capital is a public good, because those who generate social capital enjoy only a limited part of its benefits (pp. S116S118). Social capital is not solely a property or benefit of the individual agent who generates it, but also of other individuals, as well as of the community. Because social capital is embedded within the social context, certain characteristics of social relations can facilitate its appearance, including trust and reciprocity among the members of the inner-group, effective normative regulations, and open social structures (pp. S102S105, S106).

It is important to distinguish resources from the ability to acquire them, through participation in networks or social structures. This distinction is clear in Bourdieu, but vague in Coleman. By equating social capital with the resources through which it is acquired, or which it creates, one is led toward tautology and a vicious circle. In this sense, it can be argued that Colemans conceptualization gets blurred and eventually loses much of its value.


Parallel to the ongoing sociological interest in social capital, this notion has also been adopted by other disciplines. Political scientist Robert Putnam, for example, has developed his ideas in relation to social capital especially. He points out that social capital is formed by features of [social organizations, or ] social life networks, norms, and trustthat enable participants to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives (Putnam 1995, pp. 664-665, emphasis added; Putnam 1993, p. 67).

Putman broadens the notion of social capital from the level of individual and collective actors to the level of organizations and communities (Wollebaek and Selle 2002, p. 34; Portes 2000), and from there to social life as a whole. The latter includes cities, regions, and even entire countries. Coleman had already attempted such an expansion of meaning, as we have seen. However, the problem of silence relating to the supposedly neutral character of horizontal ties, raised in sociological discussions of Colemans definition of social capital, cannot be tolerated in Putnams conceptual transference. In the neopluralistic participatory context that the latter has adopted, differences in economic, social, or other forms of power do not raise a significant issue; hence what prevails is participation as such and the extent to which it appears.

Participatory attitudes within the context of community networks seem to generate additional forms of social capital. Thus, social capital can do the bonding, bridging, or even linking of social groups. This means, respectively, forming ties between people in similar situations, bringing together people in different situations who belong to different social groups (Svendsen 2006), and mustering heterogeneous social groups together (Woolcock 2001). All result in synergies that effect positive outcomes in virtually all fronts. Undoubtedly, in this way networks appear to be vehicles of social capital.

In fact, in Putnams approach, social capital stock is equal to the participatory attitude in a community. Specifically, social capital is not researched directly, but instead proxies are used: Social capital is operationalized through indices such as, primarily, the degree of participation in volunteer organizations (Welzel et al. 2005, p. 121); trust toward authorities or others; the reading of newspapers, which reflects an interest in public affairs; and similar indices that mostly apply to the mezzo- and macro-levels (Putnam 2000). So, the key in researching social capital is the keenness of participation, or more broadly civic values or the ethos of civicness from which willingness to participate originates.

Attempts at deconstruction and critical recomposition of social capital have been made by sociologist Alejandro Portes and his associates, among others. Portes and Julia Sensenbrenner (1993) suggest a clear distinction between the sources of social capital and the results of its action. They recognize four sources from which social capital originates: (1) internalization of values; (2) transactions of a reciprocal character; (3) forms of collective solidarity; and (4) the trust imposed by negative or positive sanctions. It is accepted that the sources of social capital are embedded in the motives of network/group members to provide resources. These include consummatory motives, and those cultivated within the community, with solidarity strikes being a typical case. They may also originate from instrumental motives involving the expectation of reciprocity and trust (e.g., the sponsor is secured against fraud) (Portes and Sensenbrenner 1993; Portes 1998, p. 8).

The various sources of social capital lead to its composite formation so that social capital is the ability to secure benefits via participation in networks and other social structures (Portes 1998, p. 6). Of course, the idea that interconnections favor individual upward mobility may also be found in writers like Mark Granovetter (1973, 1983) who avoid the term social capital.

While Bourdieu does not take an interest in whether the effects of social capital are positive or negative, in Colemans work, social capital is presented as exerting a fundamentally positive social influence, especially in the case of social problems tackled through the effectiveness of social capital. For Putnam too, social capital is a blessing that reduces anomie, promotes democracy, and produces wealth. However, Portes and his associates reject this all-positive account of social capital and its effects as one-dimensional, while stressing a number of negative aspects: Of prime importance is the exclusion of non-members, and the excessive demands made upon rich members of the social capital network (or group) for compliance, uncensored acceptance, and so forth.

Portess interventions offer a more balanced understanding of social capital and its potential. The notion is not rejected but rationalized, with emphasis on the need to systematically study the effects of social capital and avoid attributing irrelevant, accidental, or spurious effects to it (Portes 1998, 2000; Portes and Landolt 2000; Portes and Mooney 2002). This perception has led to conceptualizations of social capital more akin to the micro-level that focus on the individuals relationships to her or his network of social connections and the benefits and resources she or he may muster. Such approaches tend to restrict the agentic impact, even if they give a place to it, while underlying that of social structure (Lin 2000, 2001). In such explorations, which tend to utilize qualitative methods, one of the main concerns is to decipher causality in generating and activating social capital (Mouw 2005; Smith 2003).

The wider promotion of the contentious notion of social capital, and the strengthening and broadening of its usage, mainly took place through the work of Putnam, who came to influence key politicians, including U.S. president Bill Clinton, plus a series of international organizations like the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the European Union. At the same time, social capital has come to be used in ever-increasing ways as a recipe for non-economic solutions to social problems (Halpern 2005). The overextension of its meaning and the consequent slackening of its application have led to contestation about its true content. It now appears that the notion of social capital has, to a significant extent, been taken over by agents of ideological and political intervention (Koniordos 2006). However, the social capital notion is certainly of social-scientific interest if its use is suitably restricted to what it may substantively explain.

SEE ALSO Authority; Bourdieu, Pierre; Conformity; Ethnic Enclave; Ethnocentrism; Networks; Networks, Communication; Pluralism; Putnam, Robert; Solidarity; Trust


Bourdieu, Pierre. 1986. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1994. Social Capital: Preliminary Notes. In P. Bourdieu: Sociological Texts, ed. Nikos Panagiotopoulos, 91-95. Athens: Delfini (in Greek).

Bourdieu, Pierre. 2001. Forms of Capital. In The Sociology of Economic Life, eds. Mark Granovetter and Richard Swedberg, 96-111. 2nd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Bourdieu, Pierre, and Loïc Wacquant. 1992. An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity.

Coleman, James S. 1988. Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital. American Journal of Sociology 94: S95S120.

Coleman, James S. 1990. Foundations of Social Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Coleman, James S., and Thomas Hoffer. 1987. Public and Private Schools: The Impact of Community. New York: Basic Books.

Granovetter, Mark. 1973. The Strength of Weak Ties. American Journal of Sociology 78 (6): 1360-1380.

Granovetter, Mark. 1983. The Strength of Weak Ties: A Network Theory Revisited. Sociological Theory 1: 201-233.

Halpern, David. 2005. Social Capital. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Koniordos, Sokratis M. 2006. Social Capital: Between Theoretical Clarity and Confusion. Science and Society 16 (Spring-Summer): 1-38 (in Greek).

Lin, Nan. 2000. Inequality in Social Capital. Contemporary Sociology 29 (6): 785-795.

Lin, Nan. 2001. Building a Network Theory of Social Capital. In Social Capital: Theory and Research, eds. Nan Lin, Karen Cook, and Ronald Burt, 3-31. New York: de Gruyter.

Loury, Glenn C. 1977. A Dynamic Theory of Racial Income Differences. In Women, Minorities, and Employment Discrimination, eds. Phyllis A. Wallace and Annette LaMond, 153-186. Lexington, MA: Heath.

Mouw, Ted. 2005. Social Capital and Finding A Job: Do Contacts Matter? American Sociological Review 68: 868-898.

Parkin, Frank. 1978. Class Inequality and Political Order. London: MacGibbon & Kee.

Portes, Alejandro. 1998. Social Capital: Its Origins and Applications in Modern Sociology. Annual Review of Sociology 24: 1-24.

Portes, Alejandro. 2000. The Two Meanings of Social Capital. Sociological Forum 15: 1-12.

Portes, Alejandro, and Patricia Landolt. 2000. Social Capital: Promise and Pitfalls of Its Role in Development. Journal of Latin American Studies 32: 529-547.

Portes, Alejandro, and Margarita Mooney. 2002. Social Capital and Community Development. In The New Economic Sociology: Developments in an Emerging Field, eds. Mauro F. Guillén et al., 303-329. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Portes, Alejandro, and Julia Sensenbrenner. 1993. Embeddedness and Immigration: Notes on the Social Determinants of Economic Action. American Journal of Sociology 98 (6): 1320-1350.

Putnam, Robert D., with Robert Leonardi and Raffaella Y. Nanetti. 1993. Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Putnam, Robert D. 1995. Tuning In, Tuning Out: The Strange Disappearance of Social Capital in America. Political Science and Politics 28: 664-683.

Putnam, Robert D. 2000. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Touchstone.

Smith, Sandra S. 2003. Dont Put My Name On It: Social Capital Activation and Job-Finding Assistance among Black Urban Poor. American Journal of Sociology 111 (1): 1-57.

Svendsen, Gunnar L. H. 2006. Studying Social Capital in Situ : A Qualitative Approach. Theory and Society 35: 39-70.

Welzel, Christian, Ronald Inglehart, and Franziska Deutsch. 2005. Social Capital, Voluntary Associations, and Collective Action: Which Aspects of Social Capital Have the Greatest Civic Payoff? Journal of Civil Society 1 (2): 121-146.

Wollebaek, Dag, and Per Selle. 2002. Does Participation in Voluntary Associations Contribute to Social Capital? The Impact of Intensity, Scope, and Type. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 31 (1): 32-61.

Woolcock, Michael. 2001. The Place of Social Capital in Understanding Social and Economic Outcomes. Canadian Journal of Policy Research 2 (1): 65-88.

Sokratis M. Koniordos

Social Capital

views updated May 11 2018


The term social capital first began to be defined in the 1970s and remained largely restricted to the academic world of the social sciences until the 1990s, when it suddenly emerged as a central element in public discussions and policy debates about the quality of civic culture in Western nations, especially the United States of America. At the same time it also gained a place of prominence in discussions of political and economic "development" in the non-Western world by international agencies such as the World Bank. Despite this rapid ascentbecoming a key analytical concept used by academics (primarily sociologists, political scientists, and economists, but also anthropologists and historians), government policy planners, and international officials in development agencies within less than a generationa firm definition of the term has not yet emerged, which is not surprising given that what it seeks to describe is largely intangible, diffuse, and elusive. As a result there has been a proliferation of usages, which has weakened the conceptual cogency of the term.

Broadly defined, what most authors mean in the early twenty-first century, when they write of social capital are social networks of cooperation in which people invest and from which they may ultimately derive benefits. According to most contemporary theorists of the concept, the three most important diagnostic features of such networks are social interaction, civic trust, and normative behavior.

Social capital is a theoretical concept rather than a clearly tangible phenomenon. Interaction, trust, and norms are observable and even measurable phenomena, whereas social capital is not itself perceptible, and hence difficult to define. Nevertheless, the first references to the term (as opposed to a defined concept) of social capital were observational rather than theoretical.

Most studies trace the first use of the term to a 1916 academic study by Lyda Judson Hanifan, a school supervisor, on the deterioration of civic culture in rural West Virginia. The next and perhaps most influential use of the idea came with Jane Jacobs's 1961 study of the decline of American cities, a study that was based on her close observations of the changing nature of urban communities in New York City. Both authors called attention to the features and benefits of close social communities, and hence the need to preserve them.

It was not until the 1970s that the idea began to attract theoretical attention in the academic world; elements of the theory of social capital predate these attempts at definition, having been traced back to the idea of, among others, Jeremy Bentham (17481832), James Mill (17731836), Alexis de Tocqueville (18051859), Karl Marx (18181883), Max Weber (18641920), Georg Simmel (18581918), John Dewey (18591952), and Emile Durkheim (18581917). It is widely accepted that the three most important proponents of the concept of social capital have been the French social theorist Pierre Bourdieu (19302002) and two American social scientists, the sociologist James Coleman and the political scientist David Putnam. Their definitions of the concept, which vary considerably, usefully summarize a range of analytical and definitional perspectives.

Bourdieu's conceptualization of social capital, which owed nothing to the work of Hanifan and Jacobs, came out of his understanding of the workings of cultural capital among the upper classes of French society. He was interested in elucidating disguised or invisible forms of capital that were deployed by elites to maintain social inequality. He saw the nonmaterial exchanges inherent in social relationships as producing resources that members of elites drew upon to maintain their positions within the existing social structure. This view of social capital was very hierarchical and exclusive in its conceptualization, whereas Coleman's understanding of social capital was egalitarian and benign. His interest in social capital came out of his research on the importance of family and community in educational results. He found that familial and community resources, which he defined as social capital, were sufficiently powerful to compensate for economic disadvantages. For Coleman, whose definition of social capital drew on the concept of human capital that had been current in economics for over two decades, not only individuals benefited from social capital, but also society as a whole.

The highly influential definition of the social capital put forward by Putnam in the 1990s originated in his examination of the differences in civic engagement in northern and southern Italy; he used the concept to explain the more successful integration of civil society and the state in the north, which he traced back to medieval guilds. He went on to apply the concept of social capital to his study of civic culture in the United States; in an article published in 1995, which anticipated and summarized the argument of his book Bowling Alone, he brought the concept of social capital into the world of political debate and the popular media, first in the United States and then internationally.

Putnam looked at social capital primarily in terms of its benefits to society rather than the individual. He argued that there was a direct correlation between the quality of civic culture and levels of poverty, violence, and democracy. The diagnosis became popular in no small part because it suggested noneconomic solutions to social problems: increase social capital and solve a range of social problems. However, there was at least one major flaw in such reasoning: Putnam had failed to consider the role of economics adequately in the deterioration of civic culture in the first instance. Furthermore, as critics of Putnam, such as Alejandro Portes, have noted, social capital can itself lead to social problems, whether in the form of organized crime associations, prostitution and gambling rings, or youth gangs. These negative forms of social capital are much different than newspaper readership, voluntary associations, and political trust, which were the positive forms Putnam examined.

Social capital has been appealing to both conservatives, who use it to argue for the devolution of former governmental responsibilities onto society, as well as to liberals, who see it as a means for the state to deal directly with the causes of social problems rather than merely their symptoms.

Despite the divergent ideological lessons drawn from it, there is wide agreement about the importance of the concept in both academic and public policy circles today. However, there is no consensus on how to measure it. Unlike conventional forms of capital, social capital is primarily relational rather than material. Some economists have been skeptical about the cogency of the concept as well as about the ability of proponents of social capital to arrive at quantifiable measures. Measuring social capital has been a particularly important task because of the prominent role the concept has assumed in discourses concerning economic development in the non-Western world, where the emphasis is not on civic culture but directly on amelioration of economic and political conditions.

By bringing the social to the forefront of discussions of economic and political conditions, social capital has had an important impact on the thinking of institutions such as the World Bank about development in the non-Western world. But the application of the concept beyond the West has raised a series of important questions, the central one of which is its relationship between society and the state. Some forms of social capital have been seen as inimical to economic and political development; where states have collapsed or become oppressive and economies deteriorated, and where accordingly survival strategies have heightened the importance of social capital, the symptoms have been read as a cause of continuing economic and political failure. Many forms of social capital that appear to be negative in the context of the West, must be understood within the much different historical origins and more problematic dynamics of the relationship between state and society in many parts of the non-Western world.

Both within the West and for the non-Western world, the idea of social capital offers new ways of thinking about social problems. In particular, it offers the possibility of integrating our understandings of the social and economic; however, if not properly integrated there is a real danger of the latter merely colonizing the former, thereby reducing social interactions to sets of instrumental strategies and rational calculations. Simply because it is a relatively recent concept, it requires further elaboration and refinement, which it is already beginning to attract. Even more nuanced insights will result.

See also Cultural Capital ; Human Capital .


Bourdieu, Pierre. "Le capital social: notes provisoires." Actes de la recherché en sciences socials (1980): 23.

."The Forms of Capital." In Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, edited by J. G. Richardson. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986.

Coleman, James S. "Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital." American Journal of Sociology 94 (1988): 95120.

Collier, Paul. Foundations of Social Theory. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990.

. "Social Capital and Poverty: A Microeconomic Perspective." In The Role of Social Capital in Development: An Empirical Assessment, edited by Christiaan Grootaert and Thierry van Bastelaer. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Dasgupta, Partha, and Ismail Serageldin, eds. Social Capital: A Multifaceted Perspective. Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 2000.

Farr, James. "Social Capital: A Conceptual History." Political Theory 31, no. 10 (2003): 128.

Field, John. Social Capital. London: Routledge, 2003.

Hanifan, Lyda Judson. The Community Center. Boston: Silver Burdett, 1920.

. "The Rural School Community Center." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, 67 (1916): 130138.

Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House, 1961.

Portes, Alejandro. "Social Capital: Its Origins and Applications in Modern Sociology." Annual Review of Sociology 24 (1998): 124.

Putnam, Robert. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.

. Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Rotberg, Robert I. "Social Capital and Political Culture in Africa, America, Australasia, and Europe." Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 29, 3 (1999): 339356. Introduction to two special issues of JIH : 29, no. 3 (1999), and 29, no. 4 (2000).

Woolcock, Michael. "Social Capital and Economic Development: Toward a Theoretical Synthesis and Policy Framework." Theory and Society 27, no. 2 (1998): 151208.

Sean Hawkins

Social Capital

views updated May 23 2018


Social capital is a form of capital that exists within relationships among individuals. According to Bourdieu (1986), capital is accumulated labor that can be appropriated by individuals or groups for their exclusive use to further their interests and increase their capital holdings. By drawing on the social capital resources in their relationships, individuals can further their own goals. For example, the larger the social network an individual has while looking for a job, the more resources—through company contacts, information, and higher-status references—that individual can draw on. Greater availability of resources increases the likelihood that the individual will find a job better than will an individual with fewer social network resources. It is also likely that a well-connected individual will find employment sooner. Simply put, social capital is "an elegant term to call attention to the possible individual and family benefits of sociability" (Portes and Landolt 1996, p. 94).

Some scholars have remarked on the "plethora of capitals" recently appearing in social and economic theories that refer to virtually all aspects of social life as a form of capital (Baron and Hannan 1994). The notion of physical capital, as embodied in machines, tools, and equipment, has been extended by economists to include human capital. Just as investments can be made to improve physical capital—newer and better tools—human capital can be increased by enlarging an individual's skills or knowledge base. Social capital, then, is created when relationships are used to enable actions by individuals to further their own interests. According to Coleman (1988), each actor has control over and interests in certain resources and events. Social capital constitutes a specific kind of resource that is available to an actor. Unlike other resources, social capital is based on reciprocity and thus comes with the expectation that obligations will be repaid as requested by other individuals in the network. Social capital does not have a set rate of exchange, and payments often are made according to need rather than in standard purchase terms as is done with equipment and education.

The theoretical foundation of the concept of social capital is still in a nascent phase, and there is much debate about its definition, creation, and utility as well as its role in public policy and modernization strategies. Advanced most notably in the work of the French sociologist Bourdieu and further developed by Coleman, the notion of social capital has been put forth as a conceptual tool to bridge two divergent theories of social action: economism and semiologism (Bourdieu 1986). Economism reduces all social exchanges to economic transactions in which independent social actors pursue their own self-interest with little attention to social context. In this view, social action is based on the principle of maximizing utility. In contrast, semiologism reduces social exchanges to communicative acts by socialized actors and downplays the impact of economic factors. In this theoretical orientation, social action is governed by social norms, rules, and obligations. The notion of social capital mediates these divergent orientations by acknowledging both the self-interest of actors and the influence of the social and economic context.

As social capital refers to the aspects of the social structure that are of value to social actors as resources that can be mobilized in pursuit of their interests, it is defined by its function. Social capital is not located in the actors themselves (as with human capital) or in any physical implements of production (as with physical capital). Instead, it is located in the relationships and personal networks between and among social actors. Social capital, then, appears in a variety of forms that have two common elements: (1) Social capital appears as an aspect of social structures, and (2) actors are able to use social capital as a resource to achieve their goals within the social structure.

Coleman (1988, 1990) conceives of social capital as a social structural resource that is a capital asset for the individual. It is productive, making it possible to achieve certain goals that cannot be achieved in its absence, and it is constituted within social organizations often as a by-product of activities undertaken for other purposes. For Coleman, the value of the concept lies primarily in accounting for different outcomes of individual efforts and illuminating how resources can be combined with other resources to create system-level differences. The concept of social capital is most useful in qualitative analyses of social systems and studies relying on qualitative indicators.


Coleman (1990) identifies six forms of social capital: obligations and expectations, information potential, norms and effective sanctions, authority relations, appropriable social organizations, and intentional organizations.

Obligations and Expectations. A social system that relies heavily on reciprocal actions creates obligations and expectations on the part of its participants. Each "favor" is expected to be repaid, and those who can provide "favors" are expected to do so when requested. This form of exchange engenders social capital for a group member who has done many favors without collecting reciprocal favors in return. These unreciprocated favors create obligations that allow the favor-granting member to request aid from those who are obligated to her or him. These unpaid obligations accrue in the form of social capital that the member can use.

This form of social capital has two critical elements: the mutual trust within the social system and the extent of outstanding obligations. Without trust that obligations will be reciprocated, there is no incentive to accrue social capital. For social capital to have value, there must be trust that the resources will be there to be drawn on when needed. Furthermore, it is the extent of outstanding obligations that denotes the amount of social capital an individual can draw on. Indeed, the overall number of outstanding obligations within a system can be a measure of its interconnectedness as members are obligated to one another. This connectedness also increases the resources available to each member.

Information Potential. By interacting with informed members, individuals can increase their knowledge without having to obtain the information directly, whether by reading the newspaper or by interpreting research findings. A member also may become privy to specialized information— such as unadvertised business opportunities—through informal information exchange. Useful information can be the impetus for action that furthers the individual's on goals and can be a beneficial commodity.

Norms and Effective Sanctions. Within a social system, norms can support and provide rewards for specific behaviors. Norms that encourage the subjugation of self-interest to the needs of the community are an especially powerful form of social capital. By promoting certain activities, norms by nature constrain other activities. Criminal pursuits are an obvious example of activities that communities want to constrain. Less obvious examples would be that the promotion of athletic activities constrains the time available for other interests and that norms that promote conformity constrain innovation. Effective "norms can constitute a powerful form of social capital" (Coleman 1990, p. 311).

Authority Relations. Within groups organized to address a specific issue, a leader often is chosen and given the right to make decisions and speak for the group. Thus, the members of the group transfer the "rights of control" to one individual, who then has access to an extensive network of social capital that can be directed toward a specific goal. When the rights of control are located in one individual, the social capital of all the members is amplified. Examples of this form of social capital can be found in political action groups, business cartels, and grassroots organizations.

Appropriable Social Organizations. Social organizations usually are created to address a specific issue, and after that issue is resolved, the organization often continues to exist through a redefinition of its goals. Thus, an organization that was developed for one purpose can be appropriated for another purpose. This constitutes a form of social capital available for use.

Intentional Organizations. This form of social capital occurs when individuals join together to create an organization that will benefit them directly. An example of this can be a joint business venture or a voluntary association that produces a public good, such as a Parents and Teachers Association (PTA) chapter. This form of social capital advances the interests of those who invest in it. Additionally, it can create two by-products as social capital: a public good that benefits others who did not invest directly and a social organization that can be appropriated for other purposes.

These six forms of social capital have certain properties that distinguish them from other assets. Social capital's value lies in its use and cannot be exchanged easily. Additionally, it is not the private property of those who benefit from it. Rather, it is most often a by-product of other intentioned actions. Individuals who invest in the creation of the necessary social structures (norms, reciprocal obligations, etc.) are not the primary beneficiaries of the social capital that is generated. Instead, the social capital profits all those who are part of the social structure. Thus, it is not necessarily in an individual's self-interest to bring social capital into being. If another form of assistance that does not incur an obligation, such as a government program, is available or if individuals can meet their needs through self-sufficiency, they may choose to utilize these resources rather than those which accrue social capital through reciprocity. Using such forms of assistance or sufficiency does not increase the general pool of social capital in the community.

Coleman (1990) identifies factors that can increase or diminish social capital. A high degree of closure in a social network strengthens its ability to engender norms and effective sanctions. Closure is also important in achieving mutual trust among members. Conversely, lower closure reduces the effective norms and trust that would lessen the social capital engendered. The stability of a social structure affects the development or destruction of social capital. Individual mobility can threaten the stability of an organization, which in turn threatens its social capital. Organizations and social relations that are dependent on specific individuals are less stable than are those which rely on positions that can be filled by various individuals. Those organized around positions have more stability and thus a more steady supply of social capital on which the members may draw. Ideology can create social capital by influencing individuals to act in the interest of the whole rather than in their own interests. Religious ideologies are an example of this factor. Alternatively, ideologies of self-sufficiency or individualism can hinder the generation of social capital. Other factors Coleman mentions include affluence, availability of official aid such as governmental support, and other factors that may make individuals less dependent on each other. Additionally, social capital must be maintained, as it depreciates over time and must be renewed.


Portes and Sensenbrenner (1993) have extended Coleman's basic theory of social capital, claiming that it contains two specific shortcomings. First, they call for a more defined discussion of the forms of social capital and how they are developed. Second, they question Coleman's optimistic instrumentalist orientation which focuses on the positive side of social capital. Furthermore, Portes and Sensenbrenner reidentify the sociological origins of notions of social capital by grounding their contribution in the works of classical social theorists. They begin by redefining social capital as "those expectations for action within a collectivity that affect the economic goals and goal-seeking behavior of its members" (1993, p.1323). This definition differs from Coleman's emphasis on social structures that can facilitate individual actions.

Portes and Sensenbrenner (1993) outline four different types of social capital, with each one corresponding to a classical tradition. From Parsons and Durkheim, they define value introjection as the first source of social capital because it promotes behaviors based on morals and values rather than on self-interest. From Durkheim's work, they conceive of economic transactions as reflections of an underlying moral order and contracts as reframing existing norms or values rather than creating new rules. Their second source of social capital—reciprocity transactions—comes from the work of Simmel and focuses on the dynamics of group membership. Reciprocity transactions are the obligations and expectations, backed by norms of reciprocity, that emerge through social networks of exchange. The third form of social capital is bounded solidarity, developed from Marx and Engels's writings on situational circumstances that lead to principled group action. This type of social capital is created when individuals join together in response for an adverse situation. The fourth form of social capital is drawn from Weber's distinction between formal and substantive rationality in market transactions; enforceable trust. Enforceable trust refers to the different mechanisms that formal institutions and particularistic group settings use to engender members' disciplined compliance with group norms and expectations. Formal institutions use legal, rational mechanisms, whereas particularistic groups utilize substantive, social means.

Acknowledging the Negative Effects. Portes and Sensenbrenner also point out the negative effects of social capital in direct contrast to Coleman's more positive position. The same social structures "that give rise to appropriable resources for individual use can also constrain action or even derail it from its original goals" (1993, p. 1338). The costs of solidarity can be obligations and interconnections within the community. The costs of community conformity can constrain individual freedom. Obligations to the community can inhibit attempts to succeed in a broader network with a richer array of rewards. Individuals may come to see these costs of developing and maintaining social capital as being too high and not in their best interest.

In spite of its inchoate state and the ongoing debates, Coleman's optimistic discussion of social capital has become popular with policymakers who see it as the key to solving a variety of social problems. These policy proponents identify social capital as the features of social organizations (networks, norms, and social trust) that enable cooperative efforts for mutual benefit. Social capital is favored for its ability to promote and maintain voluntary associations that allow individuals to work together to resolve collective difficulties. In direct response, Portes and Landolt (1996) warn of the "downside" of social capital by making three specific criticisms of this use of social capital. First, social capital is discussed as the property of groups (communities), not individuals. Second, no distinction is made between the ability to access resources and the quality of those resources: Having networks is not enough; the networks need to have sufficient resources of value to make a difference. Third, policy proponents focus exclusively on the positive benefits of high levels of social capital and ignore the possibility of negative consequences.

Portes and Landolt (1996) specifically identify the less desirable possibilities of developing social capital. Social networks can promote "public bads" just as easily as public goods. Social capital can contribute to discrimination, restriction of individual freedom and creativity, lack of economic opportunity, and overwhelming obligations. Strong voluntary associations, communities, and social networks that maintain high levels of solidarity often do so by excluding outsiders. Thus, noninsiders are disadvantaged within those groups. Additionally, high social capital is contingent on a high degree of conformity within the group, and nonconformists can be ostracized. This greatly impinges on personal freedom and expression. It also can result in a great deal of power for those in leadership positions in the group. Mafia-type power structures are an example of this.

Tight social networks also can undermine entrepreneurial activity. Successful business owners often are expected to help others, and this can affect their ability to maintain their businesses. Portes and Landolt (1996) identify further "downward leveling pressures" that can be consequences of social capital. The pressure to conform to group norms in order to access group resources (which may be perceived as the only resources available) can keep an individual from attempting to enter the mainstream and find a way up from poverty. Portes and Landolt use the examples of prostitution rings and youth gangs. The network norms function to keep individuals within the familiar group culture. Any attempt by a member to achieve something outside the network may be seen as a threat to group solidarity and is discouraged.


Within the discipline, sociologists recognize the need to conduct empirical investigations as an important component of theory building. The concept of social capital has been advanced in many diverse subfields of sociology. Sociologists have applied it to the macro issues of modernization, economic development or lack of it, networks, and organizations. Others have studied the empirical implications of social capital for families and youth behavior problems, schooling and education, community life, work and organizations, democracy and governance, and collective action (see Woolcock 1998 for an overview).

As a theoretical concept, social capital holds great promise for furthering the sociological understanding of social action. There is still much to learn; the perspective needs to be grounded in established bodies of empirical research before it can be translated into optimistic public policies. Its greatest promise, Woolcock (1998, p.188) points out, "is that it provides a credible point of entry for sociopolitical issues into a comprehensive multi- and interdisciplinary approach to some of the most pressing issues of our time." Social capital may be seen as a common theoretical language that can allow historians, political scientists, anthropologists, economists, sociologists, and policymakers to work together in an open and constructive manner.


Baron, James, and Michael Hannan 1994 "The Impact of Economics on Contemporary Sociology." Journalof Economic Literature, 32:1111–1146.

Bourdieu, Pierre 1986 "The Forms of Capital." In John G. Richardson, ed., Handbook of Theory and Researchfor the Sociology of Education. New York: Greenwood Press.

Coleman, James 1988 "Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital." American Journal of Sociology, 94: S95–S120.

—— 1990 Foundations of Social Theory, Cambridge, Mass. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Portes, Alejandro, and Patricia Landolt 1996 "The Downside of Social Capital" American Prospect, 26:18–21, 94.

——, and Julia Sensenbrenner 1993 "Embeddedness and Immigration: Notes on the Social Determinants of Economic Action." American Journal of Sociology, 98(6):1320–1350.

Woolcock, Michael 1998 "Social Capital and Economic Development: Toward a Theoretical Synthesis and Policy Framework" Theory and Society, 27(2):151–208.

Tracy X. Karner

Social Capital

views updated Jun 08 2018


Social capital has been defined as "the resources that emerge from one's social ties" (Portes and Landolt 1996, p. 26). One of the first scholars to use the term was George Homans in Social Behavior: Its Elementary Forms (1961). Homans was interested in understanding how people in some small groups but not others are able to expand a group and transform it into a complex organization. This is accomplished, he argued, by group members engaging in social exchange to such a large extent that a "surplus" of interaction, activity, and sentiment (the building blocks of social exchange) accumulates (Homans 1950). That surplus can be directed toward the creation and maintenance of elaborate social structures, which facilitate more interaction and activity among group members in an iterative and self-reinforcing process. An input to production (in this case the production of a social form) that has been produced by a prior process (in this case a prior process of social exchange) is referred to by economists as a capital resource and, in this instance, as social capital.

Explorations of Social Capital

In the late 1970s the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and the economist Glen Loury independently began to use the term. Bourdieu (1986) incorporated into his definition of social capital the Marxist idea that the raw material that produces a capital resource is always, at its ultimate origin, human labor. Loury's (1977) work examined the effect of differential access to social capital by ethnic group. His analysis found that in a society that is ethnically stratified, differential levels of resources by ethnicity at the group level are an important determinant of individual earnings.

Building on the work of Bourdieu and Loury as well as that of Mark Granovetter (1973, 1974, 1985) and Nan Lin (Lin 1982, 1988; Lin, Ensel, and Vaughn 1981), the sociologist James S. Coleman brought the concept of social capital into widespread use in the social sciences (Coleman 1988, 1990). Notable examples of its use are found in the work of the political scientist Robert D. Putnam. Putnam has been concerned mainly with the effects of social capital on political forms and levels of participation, such as the contrasting political outcomes in northern and southern Italy and the apparent fall in the level of associational activity in the United States. Other researchers have examined how social capital promotes child development and affects health outcomes for individuals.

Group Resource versus Individual Resource

There are two distinct views of social capital in this research. In one view social capital is considered a group-level resource to which all the members of a group have access; in the other it is considered an individual resource that is inherent in social structures. Coleman took the former position, in which it is thought that an individual's level of social capital can be measured by that individual's membership in a particular group.

Critics argue that construing social capital as a group resource leads to measurement ambiguities, for example, making it impossible to distinguish between social capital and its putative benefits, such as trust and norms. This position tends to downplay the effects of stratification within a group, making social capital merely a public good that is equally accessible to all. Moreover, this approach leads to the view that social capital by necessity confers benefits on individuals, which need not be the case.

The alternative view–social capital as a resource specific to individuals–ties the concept to the literature on social networks. Network analysis provides conceptual and analytic tools that can be applied to the study of social capital, investigating, for example, how a person's location in a social network affects that person's access to social capital or how the embedded resources in a particular social network affect network members' levels of social capital.

Applications in Population Research

For population scientists the concept of social capital has potential value in illuminating both the motivations of individuals to form social relationships and the consequences of social relationships for individual well-being. Many of the individual behaviors that in the aggregate produce demographic outcomes can be seen as investments (or disinvestments) in social capital. Such behaviors include forming sexual partnerships, rearing children, moving, coresidence, intergenerational exchange, and caring for the frail, the disabled, and the ill. Trends and differentials in these behaviors can be interpreted in part as resulting from shifts in the value of the social capital available to those who engage in them (Astone et al. 1999). Fertility transition, for example, could be seen as the outcome of a shift in investment from social capital to other kinds of capital, particularly human capital, perceived as offering higher returns.

See also: Culture and Population; Diffusion in Population Theory; Social Networks.


Astone, Nan Marie, Constance A. Nathanson, Robert Schoen, and Young J. Kim. 1999. "Family Demography, Social Theory and Investment in Social Capital." Population and Development Re-view 25(1):1–32.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1986. "The Forms of Capital." In Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, ed. John G. Richardson. New York: Greenwood.

Coleman, James S. 1988. "Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital." American Journal of Sociology 94: S95–S120.

——. 1990. Foundations of Social Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Granovetter, Mark. 1973. "The Strength of Weak Ties." American Journal of Sociology 78(6): 1,360–1,380.

——. 1974. Getting a Job: A Study of Contacts and Careers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

——. 1985. "Economic Action and Social Structure: The Problem of Embeddedness." American Journal of Sociology 91(3): 481–510.

Homans, George C. 1950. The Human Group. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.

——. 1961. Social Behavior: Its Elementary Forms. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.

Lin, Nan. 1982. "Social Resources and Instrumental Action." In Social Structure and Network Analysis, ed. Peter Marsden and Nan Lin. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

——. 1988. "Social Resources and Social Mobility: A Structural Theory of Status Attainment." In Social Mobility and Social Structure, ed. R. L. Breiger. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

Lin, Nan, Walter M. Ensel, and John C. Vaughn. 1981. "Social Resources and Strength of Ties: Structural Factors in Occupational Attainment." American Sociological Review 46: 393–405.

Loury, Glenn C. 1977. "A Dynamic Theory of Racial Income Differences." In Women, Minorities, and Employment Discrimination, ed. Phyllis A. Wallace and Annette M. LaMond. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

Portes, Alejandro, and Patricia Landolt. 1996. "The Downside of Social Capital." The American Prospect 26: 18ff.

Putnam, Robert D. 1993a. Making Democracy Work. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

——. 1993b. "The Prosperous Community: Social Capital and Economic Growth." The American Prospect 13: 35–42.

——. 1995. "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital." Journal of Democracy 6: 65–78.

Nan Marie Astone

Social Capital and Education

views updated May 17 2018


Social capital refers to the intangible resources embedded within interpersonal relationships or social institutions. Social capital can exist in three major forms: as obligations and expectations, as information channels, and as social norms. Obligations and expectations can be conceived of as a "credit slip" that people hold, and that can be cashed when necessary. Information channels provide appropriate information as an important basis for action. Social norms provide the criteria for rewarding or sanctioning individual actions.

In the context of education, social capital in the forms of parental expectations, obligations, and social networks that exist within the family, school, and community are important for student success. These variations in academic success can be attributed to parents' expectations and obligations for educating their children; to the network and connections between families whom the school serves; to the disciplinary and academic climate at school; and to the cultural norms and values that promote student efforts. The concept of social capital is a useful theoretical construct for explaining the disparities in students' educational performance among different nations.

In the 1980s James Coleman developed the concept of social capital to conceptualize social patterns and processes that contribute to the ethnic disparities of student achievement. He argued that the educational expectation, norms, and obligations that exist within a family or a community are important social capital that can influence the level of parental involvement and investment, which in turn affect academic success.

At the family level, parents' cultural capital and financial capital become available to the child only if the social connection between the child and the parents is sufficiently strong. Youths from single-parent families or with larger numbers of siblings are more likely to drop out of high school because of the eroded social capital associated with the nontraditional family structure. As new structures of the household in modern society become more prevalent, many linkages and activities that provided social capital for the next generation are no longer present, and their absence may be detrimental to children's learning.

At the institutional level, disciplinary climate and academic norms established by the school community and the mutual trust between home and school are major forms of social capital. These forms of social capital are found to contribute to student learning outcomes in East Asian countries such as Singapore, Korea, and Hong Kong. They have been shown to have a significant impact, not only on creating a learning and caring school climate, but also on improving the quality of schooling and reducing inequality of learning outcomes between social-class groups.

In summation, the concept of social capital is a useful tool for understanding differences among student learning outcomes. Nations with high stocks of social capital are more likely to produce students with better academic performance than nations with low stocks. However, studies by Pamela Paxton, and Michael Woolcock and Deepa Narayan, have noted that high levels of social capital could restrict individual growth and societal development. Further analysis is needed to identify the potential negative impact of high social capital.

See also: Community Education; Family, School, and Community Connections; Parental Involvement in Education; Social Cohesion and Education.


Coleman, James S. 1988. "Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital." American Journal of Sociology 94 (supplement):95120.

Ho, Sui Chu. 2000. "The Nature and Impact of Social Capital in Three Asian Education Systems: Singapore, Korea, and Hong Kong." International Journal of Educational Policy: Research and Practices 1 (2):171189.

Ho, Sui Chu, and Willms, J. Douglas. 1996. "Effects of Parental Involvement on Eighth-Grade Achievement." Sociology of Education 69 (2):126141.

Paxton, Pamela. 1999. "Is Social Capital Declining in the United States? A Multiple Indicator Assessment." American Journal of Education 105 (1):88127.

Sampson, Robert J.;Morenoff, Jeffrey D.; and Earls, Felton. 1999. "Beyond Social Capital: Spatial Dynamics of Collective Efficacy for Children." American Sociological Review 64:633660.

Stevenson, Harold W., and Stigler, James W. 1992. The Learning Gap: Why Our Schools Are Failing and What We Can Learn from Japanese and Chinese Education. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Woolcock, Michael, and Narayan, Deepa. 2000. "Social Capital: Implications for Development Theory, Research, and Policy." The World Bank Research Observer 15 (2):225249.

Sui Chu Esther Ho

social capital

views updated Jun 11 2018

social capital A concept devised by James Coleman, used to describe the types of relations that exist between individuals as located within both families and communities, and which are said to exert a strong influence on levels of educational achievement (see James S. Coleman and and Thomas Hoffer , Public and Private High Schools: The Impact of Communities, 1987
). The concept parallels those of physical and human capital in economics. Coleman and Hoffer argued that deficiencies in social capital–such as would follow from single-parenthood, decreased parental involvement with the child or with family activities, and low levels of interaction between adults and especially parents in local communities–were detrimental to development in adolescence.

Coleman maintained that ‘the social capital for a young person's development resides in the functional community, the actual social relationships that exist among parents, in the closure exhibited by this structure of relations, and in the parent's relations with the institutions of the community. Part of that social capital is the set of norms that develop in communities with a high degree of closure’. Closed networks, giving rise to functional communities, foster among children living therein such things as conformity to school norms, an interest in academic matters, and avoidance of deviance. Lack of interaction between parents and children, and between parents and other adults, fosters open networks, lack of communication, lack of adherence to and enforcement of norms and of family control, all of which reduces the probability of building up human capital and increases opportunities for deviant behaviour.

It has been suggested that this argument represents a significant shift in Coleman's thinking about academic socialization from his earlier work. In his classic The Adolescent Society (1961), Coleman stresses the importance for adolescence and educational achievement of the youth cultures within schools, whereas the concept of social capital emphasized the out-of-school influence of the family as it interacts with the larger community. However, it has also been observed that it is possible to marry the two accounts, by considering the possibility that social capital (lack of parental monitoring, the decision to reside in particular neighbourhoods, and to establish ties with some but not other types of parents and institutions in the local community) exerts an indirect influence on peer-group selection among children; that is, that social capital is an indirect determinant of the subcultures in which young people become involved, both in the community and at school.

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