A New Conceptualistion of Social Capital

Any conceptualization of social capital aims to simplify the complexity of the social world to assist in the development of an understanding of the structures and processes that affect a variety of outcomes. The challenge is to make tradeoffs between competing objectives simplification to facilitate increased understanding, and maintenance of the complexity to maximize validity. In the past, many efforts to conceptualize social capital have resulted in over-simplification and therefore questionable operationalization. There are considerable unknowns surrounding our current understanding of social capital theory. We know that various relationships exist between determinants, structural elements and consequences or manifestations but interactions are largely unknown (refer to figure 12). Anything that has an impact on social interactions can be seen as a determinant and any situation arising because of social interactions can be seen as a manifestation. We know some of the elements in between but have little understanding of the processes. This highlights the importance of establishing a rigorous conceptualization, as the appropriate operationalization of social capital must be based on a rigorous conceptualization.

Current attempts to conceptualize social capital do not sufficiently account for the complexity between the determinants and consequences or outcomes of social capital.

Figure 12. Current attempts to conceptualize social capital do not sufficiently account for the complexity between the determinants and consequences or outcomes of social capital.

The conceptualization designed for the purposes of this study details processes and relationships operating between the determinants of social capital, the structure, or elements of social capital, and the consequences or manifestations of social capital (refer to figure 13). It attempts to take into account factors such as causal relationships, specific contexts, externalities, levels, feedback loops and chance (refer to figure 14). This section will discuss this conceptualization and highlight the need for further research to reach a more rigorous conceptualization of social capital in general and particularly for application to natural resource management outcomes.

The literature review identified a wide range of determinants that have been linked to social capital including history and culture, social structures, family, education, environment, mobility, economics, social class, civil society, consumption, values, networks, associations, political society, institutions, policy, and social norms at various levels.  Clearly the factors listed here play an important role in determining the characteristics of the social capital structure however the causal factors and functional relationships are largely unknown. Some studies have focused on some of the factors in-so-much as detailing the social capital of the circumstance, for example, family, trust, or networks, but have not studied factors as determinants of multi level, multi dimensional social capital.

The links between determinants, structural elements and consequences or manifestations are currently not well understood and generally grossly oversimplified.

Figure 13. The links between determinants, structural elements and consequences or manifestations are currently not well understood and generally grossly oversimplified.

It is important to identify that social capital building, and measuring attempts, focus on different components of the conceptualization detailed in figure 14. While social capital building projects could focus on particular aspects of the structure, they are unlikely to be effective without attention to, or understanding of, the underlying determinants that bring about the given structure (refer to discussion of feedback loops). An appropriate analogy is to treat the symptom rather than the cause of the problem. Investment could be negated by underlying feedback loops or context specific determinants. Similarly, attempts to measure only the consequences of social capital are only capturing a snapshot of a moving target. Social capital is a dynamic relationship between its components that evolves constantly on spatial and temporal scales. Every social interaction between actors has wide ranging and unpredictable outcomes to the structure and consequences of the social capital at various levels. Similar structures can have very different externalities and ends (displayed as a continuum in figure 13, negative examples include exclusion and crime), and the role of time, space, feedback loops and chance further illustrate the complexity of the dynamic relationships involved. It is particularly important to identify the causal factors and the specific context as these are most critical in determining the structural elements and consequences or manifestations. These factors are not considered in the literature.

Conceptualization of social capital simplifying the complexity of the social world into a diagram outlining relationships between determinants, structure (or elements) and consequences.

Figure 14. Conceptualization of social capital simplifying the complexity of the social world into a diagram outlining relationships between determinants, structure (or elements) and consequences.

Various aspects of social capital structure are identified in figure 14. These could be referred to as elements, components, forms or factors. Although difficult to identify on paper, this conceptualization should be thought of as three dimensional with the various levels acting as the third dimension (for an example of the application to natural resource management see figure 11). Ties are a fundamental component of social capital that describes the nature of social relationships, which simply put, can be strong or weak. Hierarchical refers to the distribution of vertical and horizontal ties. Temporal features are identified as a component as time has a considerable impact on other components of social capital. There is significant change in the nature of social capital over time, particularly with depreciation, reinforcing of ties and other network features. Figure 15 hypothesizes the possible temporal change of different norms over time. Both the norms relate to trust and reciprocity. Norms of networks, associated with ties, are expected to decrease over time with decreased expected future returns (connected to rational choice theory). These norms should be separate from norms associated with membership or belonging which may or may not include a social tie. These norms are likely to increase over time as one develops reminiscence and therefore increased strength of norms of trust and reciprocity towards other members whether a network tie existed or not. This diagram is a generalization based on applied theory and does not attempt to illustrate the complexity of social processes as there are likely to be numerous factors affecting the strength of norms over time.

Norms of networks are likely to depreciate over time without reinforcement while norms of membership and belonging are likely to increase over time.

Figure 15. Norms of networks are likely to depreciate over time without reinforcement while norms of membership and belonging are likely to increase over time.

Membership accessibility (refer to figure 14) relates to whether there is group exclusion or inclusion and so strongly determines the nature of the externalities. The type refers to important distinctions made in the literature between structural and cognitive, and between bonding and bridging social capital. There are many aspects of network structure (the study of network theories) that are relevant to social capital structure. The concepts of network closure and structural holes play a significant role in the interaction of ties at the meso and macro levels. As such, spatial features interact to determine the nature and impacts of social capital structure. It has been found in past studies that geographic proximity has a role in the formation of norms of reciprocity and the strength of ties, particularly in relation to the sense of belonging and membership through the opportunity for face to face contact and reinforcement of norms, particularly information flows. Technology has rapidly changed the effect of space and time on social capital networks. Email is increasingly being utilized for communication, which offers cheap and fast connectivity that compresses the space-time continuum. More recently SMS (short message service) is increasing networks of mobility. Both of these technologies have different impacts on social capital because of the lack of personal contact of face-to-face interaction. The type of social capital that is produced from this interaction is significantly different from that found in traditional relations (for further discussion see (Kavanaugh and Patterson 2001[1] ; Meredyth and Ewing 2003[2] ; Pruijt 2002[3] ; Sullivan et al. 2002[4] ; Wellman et al. 2001[5] )). Although there are benefits, this contributes to social isolation, particularly in urban centers of developed countries. Whereas in the past, social networks were commonly based on proximity, they are now based more on work and interest groups. The strength of networks based on proximity has decreased because people know few of their neighbors, particularly in medium to high density areas and where there is high residential mobility. The result is limited opportunity for repeated interaction, which is fundamental to the equilibrium concept for social capital generation.

Alignment has received little attention in the literature but is significant for similar reasons to spatial features. Alignment refers to the interests, beliefs and views of individuals or groups. People may be aligned to groups or communities for various reasons, and this ‘membership’ results in a range of social capital manifestations. There is a dynamic relationship between all of the components described above with the other factors identified in figure 14 under the social capital structure bubble. These factors include, specific context, level, externalities, chance and feedback loops.

Just as the determinants are context specific, the consequences that result from the social capital structure strongly relate to circumstances that change rapidly over time. For example, only under certain circumstances can social capital be realized; one cannot cash in a favor anytime. Also, the social capital structure operating behind vastly different manifestations, such as collective action and organized crime, are not necessarily different only the circumstances. The level at which social capital is located has pervaded much of this discussion of social capital conceptualization. This is because different components of social capital operate at different levels. Ties operate at the individual level by their very nature (refer to figure 16), but aggregates of ties, described by network theory, operate at the meso and macro levels. Meso level studies look at groups, but these groups are still made up of individuals, with ties to other individuals outside the group and to other groups through ties with individuals who are members of other groups and through multiple membership. The complexity of these meso level interactions cannot be effectively graphically represented. Another example is belonging (types) that exists within levels or scales as one feels belonging to family, community, profession, country simultaneously.

Due to the transitory, impermanent nature of social capital, chance plays an important role. Chance meetings and chance events both play an important role in the structure of social capital but also in realizing the manifestations of social capital. For example, an individual might meet, by chance, a work colleague away from the workplace. This is likely to transform the weak tie from being associated with the same employer to a strong tie associated with belonging, mutual interest, and so on, and strong norms of reciprocity, thereby transforming the organizational social capital representing changes at both the micro and meso levels. Another chance event may prevent this potential from being realized, for example, if the colleague is away in a time of need.

There is evidence to suggest that there are a series of feedback loops that operate within the dynamic relationships between the components of social capital. For example, a community network created to build social capital has initial benefits in terms of information flows, norms of reciprocity and trust, however, network closure results in norms that restrict behavior with a high likelihood of negative externalities thereby self-regulating total benefit and potentially returning community networks to pre-project states through loss of membership. The role of determinants should be highlighted as there may be an underlying reason for propensity for network closure and negative ends such as history, geographic scale, religion, family and other social norms. This highlights the fact that an event can be a determinant of social capital; a breach of trust for example. In this way, the dynamic relationships of social capital structural elements become somewhat self regulatory, fundamentally based on the context specific determinants. This is what could have led Putnam to state that social capital’s roots were buried in centuries of cultural evolution and therefore cannot be built in the short term. The existence of feedback loops is further supported by other authors (for example, Biox and Prosner 1998[6] ) who have posited social capital theories as an equilibrium concept, although as equilibrium in terms of expected returns. It would be more appropriate to think of social capital as an equilibrium caused by limits and determinants, particularly in terms of beneficial manifestations.

Figure 16 identifies the location of social capital at the micro level. It is important to identify that different outcomes of social capital are evident at different levels. At the micro level the main outcomes relate to norms of reciprocity and information flows. In the diagram (figure 16) it can be seen that neither individual ‘owns’ the social capital that exists between them. At the meso level, it can be understood that an individual has a level of ownership or control of his or her social capital by choosing ties and membership and therefore sharing his or her social capital. Some authors refer to structure and quality of relationships as these factors are thought to be important in achieving various outcomes. Norms operate at various levels. Norms of reciprocity exist between the individuals, as do social norms that govern behavior. These same norms operate at other levels simultaneously, both meso and macro.

Location of social capital at the individual level within the framework of micro level social capital interactions.

Figure 16. Location of social capital at the individual level within the framework of micro level social capital interactions.

From this discussion it can be seen that social capital involves complex interactions between its determinants, structure and manifestations. The structure of social capital is marked by dynamic relationships between its components with the roles of chance, feedback loops and externalities that determine the outcomes or manifestations largely unknown. These relationships are further complicated by the level of investigation. Components operate at different levels and there is considerable interaction between components operating at different levels simultaneously. This complexity highlights the inadequacy of the current conceptualization of social capital, particularly for application to measurement and building attempts. As identified throughout this study, there is further need for research to determine the various causal factors and their relationships to determinants, structure and manifestations. Application should be primarily descriptive and process oriented in the area of applied theory as further work is required to enable appropriate conceptualization upon which to base appropriate operationalization.


  1. Kavanaugh, Andrea L, and Scott J Patterson. 2001. ‘The impact of community computer networks on social capital and community involvement.” The American Behavioral Scientist 45: 496-509. ^
  2. Meredyth, Denise, and Scott Ewing. 2003. “Social capital and wired communities: a case study.” in Australian Institute for Family Studies Conference. Melbourne. ^
  3. Pruijt, Hans. 2002. “Social capital and the equalizing potential of the Internet.” Social Science Computer Review 20: 109-115. ^
  4. Sullivan, John L, Eugene Borgida, Melinda S Jackson, Eric Riedel, and et al. 2002. “Social capital and community electronic networks: For-profit versus for-community approaches.” The American Behavioral Scientist 45: 868-886. ^
  5. Wellman, Barry, Anabel Quan Haase, James Witte, and Keith Hampton. 2001. “Does the Internet increase, decrease, or supplement social capital? Social networks, participation, and community commitment.” The American Behavioral Scientist 45: 436-455. ^
  6. Boix, Carles, and Daniel N. Posner. 1998. ‘Social Capital: Explaining its Origins and Effects on Government Performance.’ British Journal of Political Science 28: 686-94. ^
7 comments on “A New Conceptualistion of Social Capital
  1. Jacqueline Horan says:

    Thank you very informative. The use of diagrams helped to illustrate the concepts.

  2. Mulomi Comfort says:

    This article just saved my day..bigups

  3. TJR says:

    Is this Text book?

  4. Hassan Rafiey, MD, MPH says:

    There seems to be two dimensions for Social Capital (SC): whether it’s intra-group or inter-group? and whether it’s horizontal or vertical?
    intra-group*horizontal=bonding SC
    inter-group*horizontal=bridging SC
    intra-group*vertical=not named yet
    inter-group*vertical=linking SC
    Examples of the not-named-yet,intra-group, vertical SC are the relations between me and my boss, me and my rich relative, etc.
    How do you think about this dimensionalization?

  5. Elham says:

    Very goood

  6. Adia says:

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge. This website is very useful and informative. Hopefully in the future you’ll add more recent information and updates about social capital.

  7. Jim says:

    Really informative. Connection with globalisation has to be updated

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