Social Capital

(excerpt from working paper)

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Social capital is a concept that was born from economics and was defined in sociology. Simply put, social capital is a source of power that humans accrue through connections in a social network. Humans are social creatures and thus need to be connected to others in close-knit groups; these connections are two-way investments that are maintained through reciprocal support and investment. Social capital has become “one of the most popular exports from sociological theory into everyday language” (Portes, 1998, p. 2). Bourdieu (1985/2001) was the first in sociology to distinguish social capital as a type of capital in social relations; Bourdieu’s three types of capital are economic capital, cultural capital, and social capital.

Bourdieu defined social capital as “the aggregate of the actual or potential resources that are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition – or in other words, to membership in a group – which provides each of its members with the backing of the collectivity-owned capital, a ‘credential’ that entitles them to credit in the various senses of the word” (Bourdieu, 1985/2001, p. 103). Social capital is not a form of currency in the sense that it is something that can be held and passed from hand to hand as material object, it is a type of value found only through social interaction and is built upon by social connections and affiliations, a commodity traded through trust and appreciation, through expectation of return and investment. Bourdieu goes on to state that the building of a social network presupposes a return of investment, “… the network of relationships is the product of investment strategies, individual or collective, consciously or unconsciously aimed at establishing or reproducing social relationships that are directly usable in the short or long term, that is, at transforming contingent relations, such as those of neighborhood, the workplace, or even kinship, into relationships that are at once necessary and elective, implying durable obligations subjectively felt (feelings of gratitude, respect, friendship, etc.) or institutionally guaranteed (rights)” (Bourdieu, 1985/2001, p. 103).

Social capital can be thought of as a resource derived from social connections with a network of individuals: actors in networks establish and maintain relationships with other actors in the hope that they may benefit in some way from these relationships. The relationships can be tight or they can be weak and this measure can have an impact on the return that an actor derives from either type. These social relationships can result in emotional support, the exchange of information, or mobilization toward a common goal.
Social capital is an extremely popular concept because it simplifies and focuses attention on two components: “First, the concept focuses attention on the positive consequences of sociability while putting aside its less attractive features. Second, it places those positive consequences in the framework of a broader discussion of capital and calls attention to how such non-monetary forms can be important sources of power and influence, like the size of one’s stock holdings or bank account” (Portes, 1998, p. 2). Bourdieu’s treatment of social capital is purely instrumental (ibid, p.3), breaking down the concept into a cost/benefit analysis in which he focuses on the advantages of group participation and the creation of network connections for increasing this advantage. Many other definitions in multiple fields have arisen since Bourdieu’s definition of social capital (Adler & Kwon, 2002).

Because of the variety of definitions (see Adler & Kwon, 2002, and Portes, 1998 for summaries), social capital could be considered a “contentious and slippery term” (Williams, 2006, para 4). Adler & Kwon (2002) categorize 20 social capital definitions into three categories: 1) definitions focusing on internal ties, 2) definitions focusing on external ties, and 3) definitions that focus on both types of ties. Those definitions of social capital focusing on external ties, also called “bridging” forms of social capital, focus primarily on the power of connections between actors in the network. The definitions focusing on internal ties, also called “bonding” forms of social capital, focus primarily on the benefits associated within belonging to a specific group or cluster of actors. The third group does not differentiate between internal or external types of social capital. In response to the argument that social capital isn’t really a resource and should therefore not be called “capital”, Adler & Kwon (2002) justify the term with seven rationale: 1) social capital is a long-lived asset which can be invested in; 2) social capital can be used toward multiple goals and can be exchanged for other types of capital; 3) social capital can substitute for other types of capital; 4) social capital requires maintenance; 5) social capital can be community owned; 6) social capital’s value is not in the individual, it is in the relationship(s); and 7) social capital investment is not easily quantifiable.

Another definition that is prominently cited in the literature is the definition of social capital put forth by Coleman (1988, 1990). Much as Bourdieu before him, Coleman breaks capital into three types: 1) physical capital, 2) human capital, and 3) social capital. Coleman defines social capital by its function stating that “[i]t is not a single entity, but a variety of different entities having two characteristics’ in common: They all consist of some aspect of social structure, and they facilitate certain actions of individuals who are within the structure” (Coleman, 1990, p. 302). Coleman’s definition differs from Bourdieu’s definition in that Coleman’s definition is much more vague and leaves room for multiple interpretations. Portes (1998) notes that Coleman’s vague definition “opened the way for relabeling a number of different and even contradictory processes as social capital” (p. 5). For Coleman, investigation of social capital must include three inquiries: 1) actors cashing in on social capital; 2) actors or groups providing the social capital; and 3) the resources used for social capital. Coleman’s definition was much more influential in American than Bourdieu’s and introduced the concept to American sociology (Portes, 1998).
In addition to Bourdieu and Coleman, Putnam (1995, 2000) added another definition to the growing list of social capital definitions when he released a book entitle Bowling Alone. This book characterized the social capital of American society as declining and garnished much attention from the general public. Putnam defined social capital as “features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit” (Putnam, 1995, p. 67). Putnam’s work expanded the focus from actors’ face-to-face interactions in social networks to internal ties with a society (e.g. America). Putnam argued that social capital would be valuable in fighting many disorders prevalent in today’s society. One of Putnam’s main contributions was the introduction of the distinction between “bridging” and “bonding” social capital. Bridging social capital is characterized by connections between actors in a social network that are used mainly for gathering new information, not emotional support. Bonding social capital, on the other hand, are connections made between actors in a close-knit environment (e.g. family, close friends) and are used for emotional support.

In addition to the concept of social capital, Granovetter (1973) and Lin, et al., (1981) are often cited in the literature for their concepts “strength of weak ties” and “strength of strong ties” accordingly. These concepts refer to the power of the connections between actors in dense social networks. Granovetter, examining employment referral, pointed to the power of indirect connections outside of an actors close social connections in social networks; his idea was interesting because it diverged from the commonsense notion that close connections, e.g. family connections, would be the most effective in a job search. Granovetter defined the strength of a tie as “a (probably linear) combination of the amount of time, the emotional intensity, the intimacy (mutual confiding), and the reciprocal services which characterize the tie” (Granovetter, 1973, p. 1361).
Lin, et al., (1981) focus their investigation on social resources that an actor has within a social network; they define social resources as “the wealth, status, power as well as social ties of those persons who are directly or indirectly linked to the individual” (ibid, p. 395). Lin, et al., like Granovetter, were interested in employment strategies and examined the relationship between a job seeker’s social network ties and the status of the job obtained. Lin, et al., found that as job status increased, the effectiveness of weak ties decreases whereas the effectiveness of strong ties increased. As might be evident, Granovetter’s notion of weak ties is very similar to Putnam’s idea of bridging social capital while Lin, et al., notion of strong ties is similar to Putnam’s idea of bonding social capital.

Outside the arena of information communication technologies (ICT), social capital has been used to study youth behavior problems, families, schooling, public health, education, political action, community, and organizational issues such as job and career success, innovation, supplier relations, to name a few (Adler & Kwon, 2002). As noted by the extent to which social capital has been used, the concept is in a sense a catchall term that captures aspects of social interaction that have been studied through the lens of other concepts.

References Used in the Larger Paper

Adler, P.S., & Kwon, S. (2002). Social capital: Prospects for a new concept. Academy
of Management Preview, 27(1), 17-40.

Bourdieu, P. (1985). The forms of capital. In J. G. Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of
theory and research for the sociology of education, 241-258. New York: Greenwood.

Coleman, J. (1988). Social capital in the creation of human capital. American
Journal of Sociology, 94, 95-120.

Coleman, J. (1990). Foundations of Social Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press.

Granovetter, M.S. (1973). The strength of weak ties. American Journal of
Sociology, 78 (6), 1360-1380.

Lin, N., Ensel, W.M., & Vaughn, J.C. (1981). Social resources and strength of ties:
Structural factors in occupational status attainment. American Sociological Review, 46(4), 393-405.

Portes, A. (1998). Social capital: Its origins and applications in modern Sociology.
Annual Review of Sociology, 24, 1-24. Retrieved from on Jan. 03, 2010.

Putnam, R.D. (1995). Bowling alone: America’s declining social capital. Journal of
Democracy, 6(1), 65-78. Retreived Feb 5, 2010 from

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

Williams, D. (2006). On and off the ‘net: Scales for social capital in an online era.
Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11(2), article 11. Retrieved from