Social capital refers to the advantage embedded in relationships that enables individuals to achieve certain desired ends through networks and unites societies through trust and shared norms and values. Unlike other forms of capital—physical (material goods, possessions), financial (investments, money) and human (skills, education)—social capital can only be acquired and enhanced through relations with others, specifically in families, social groups, and formal institutions including churches, professional associations, schools, or the state.
Although the conceptual core of the term social capital dates back to the writings of Aristotle, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith, and Alexis de Tocqueville, its use in today’s meaning begins in the early 20th century in Judson Hanifan’s analysis of rural school communities, where he defined social capital as goodwill, fellowship, and mutual sympathy among a group of individuals and families.
Two key contemporary scholars instrumental in defining the concept are James Coleman and Pierre Bourdieu. Coleman defines social capital as a consolidation of structural resources to pursue goals of an individual or institutions. Coleman argues that social capital can also accrue unintentionally or as a byproduct of other economic and political activities. As such, social capital manifests itself in (a) reciprocal relations as social obligations and expectations, (b) norms and effective sanctions, (c) authority relations within groups, and (d) social organizations. For Bourdieu, social capital is one of the key elements in the reproduction of power relations in modern societies. Because social capital is rarely shared across the boundaries of social class defined by cultural habits and economic resources, individuals or groups cannot easily change their social standing.
Moving away from Coleman and Bourdieu’s emphasis on the structural dimension of social relations, Robert Putnam redefines social capital as a generalized civic good built upon the engagement in common activities. Following Putnam, social capital is often used interchangeably with the concepts of “civil society,” “civic participation,” “civic health,” and “social trust.”
Critics argue that this latter definition of social capital does not take into account the exclusionary nature of social group interactions. In response to this criticism, two types of social capital—bonding and bridging—were proposed. Bonding social capital refers to strong ties within homogeneous social groups, while bridging social capital is the sharing of resources by members of external social networks. An example of bonding social capital is a street gang, while a bowling club generates bridging social capital. Bridging social capital is particularly important because it increases generalized social trust and, by so doing, enables the functioning of formal institutions and economic relations.
Throughout the 20th century, the term social capital occasionally surfaced in the works of sociologists, economists, and political scientists, and in organizational behavior scholarship. Since the published work of Bourdieu, Coleman, and Putnam in the early 1990s, the use of the term social capital in scholarship as well as in political debates has been growing exponentially.
- Bourdieu, Pierre. 1986. Distinction. Translated by R. Nice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Coleman, James S. 1988. “Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital.” American Journal of Sociology 94(suppl):95-120.
- Portes, Alejandro. 1998. “Social Capital: Its Origins and Applications in Modern Sociology.” Annual Review of Sociology 24:1-24.
- Putnam, Robert. 2000. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.
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