Problems with Conceptualisation of Social Capital

As identified above, the conceptualization of social capital is the biggest challenge facing proponents of the theory. At present there is a lack of rigorous conceptualization of social capital (Krishna and Uphoff 2002[1] ). Lin, Cook et al (2001, p. 58)[2] identified that there is a ‘danger that we may reach a point where the term might be used in whatever way it suits the purpose at hand, and thus be rendered meaningless as a scientific concept that must meet the rigorous demands of theoretical and research validity and reliability’. Fine (1999)[3] pointed out that social capital is taking over explanations of economic development, growth, and prosperity, he also suggest that social capital had other possibilities before being turned against the other social sciences by economics (Fevre 2000[4] ).  Hean, Cowley et al (2003)[5] made the observation that the accumulation of literature on social capital has begun to obscure the understanding of the concept. The inappropriate measurement techniques that have been implemented have caused problems for understanding social capital at the conceptual level and led to debate over whether the concept is relevant or appropriate (Stone 2001)[6] . Or as McHugh and Prasetyo (2002, p. 1)[7] put it, ‘the proliferation of competing definitions, analytical methods and applications associated with the term is perhaps only dwarfed in volume by the literature critical of its theoretical ambiguity, ambitious conceptual scope, and practical over-versatility’.

Glaeser, Laibson et al (2002)[8] were very positive that economics will solve and answer problems with social capital theory, however Fukuyama (2001)[9] was of the view that the economists’ approach to understanding how social capital is generated is ultimately very limited. Good (2000)[10] posited that social capital theory will develop over time through debate to be more usable and measurable.

Collier (1998)[11] provided a good starting point for conceptualization, identifying that a conceptual model for social capital should identify the concept within the complexity of the social world, as defined by dynamic relationships between its components, rather than what at present often appears to be a disparate collection of circumstantial variables. Perhaps many authors struggle with the complexity of the concept, and there is some evidence that this is the case. Paxton (1999)[12] identified the complexity of social capital framework in terms of micro (individual), meso (group), and macro (societal) scales with the interaction of negative externalities in the form of exclusion and negative ends such as crime. Fukuyama (2001)[12] posited that many of the characteristics of social capital are epiphenomenal, arising as a result of social capital but not constituting social capital itself. Edwards and Foley (1998)[13] added to the complexity identifying that norms and values held by individuals become social capital only insofar as they facilitate action by others and in this respect, they are context specific; outside that situation they may be of little or no value. Another important factor is the distinction between two mechanisms through which actors pursue social capital, reciprocity transactions and enforceable trust, which are sustained by different norms and patterns of social ties among actors (Frank and Yasumoto 1998[14] ; Portes and Sensenbrenner 1993[15] ). Not only is it context specific and operates under different mechanisms, but each element bears different functional relationships to the causal factors (Johnston and Soroka 2001[16] ).

Attempting to conceptualize the concept, Grootaert and Van Bastelaer (2002)[17] building on the work of Uphoff (2000)[18] identify two important dimensions of social capital: level from micro to macro; and the continuum from cognitive to structural (refer to figure 8).

Figure 8. Conceptualization of social capital developed by Grootaert and Van Bastelaer (2002)

Figure 8. Conceptualization of social capital developed by Grootaert and Van Bastelaer (2002)

Figure 9 illustrates an existing conceptualization of social capital developed by Bain and Hicks (1998)[19] . The authors roughly divide social capital into two levels: the macro and the micro. The macro level refers to the institutional context in which organizations operate while the micro level refers to the potential contribution that horizontal organizations and social networks make to development (Bain and Hicks 1998).

Conceptual Framework: Levels and Types of Social Capital

Figure 9. Conceptual Framework: Levels and Types of Social Capital
Adapted from: Bain and Hicks, 1998


  1. Krishna, Anirudh, and Norman Uphoff. 2002. ‘Mapping and measuring social capital through assessment of collective action to conserve and develop watersheds in Rajasthan, India.” Pp. 85 – 88, 115 – 124 in The Role of Social Capital in Development, edited by Thierry Van Bastelaer. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press. ^
  2. Lin, Nan, Karen S Cook, and Ronald S Burt. 2001a. Social capital : theory and research. New York: Aldine de Gruyter. ^
  3. Fine, Ben. 1999. ‘The Developmental State Is Dead-Long Live Social Capital?’ Development Change 30: 1-19. ^
  4. Fevre, Ralph. 2000. ‘Socializing social capital: Identity, the transition to work, and economic development.’ Pp. 94-110 in Social Capital: Critical Perspectives, edited by Tom Schuller. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ^
  5. Hean, Sarah, Sarah Cowley, and Angus Forbes. 2003. ‘The M-C-M’ cycle and social capital.’ Social Science Medicine 56: 1061-72. ^
  6. Stone, Wendy. 2001. “Measuring social capital: Towards a theoretically informed measurement framework for researching social capital in family and community life.” Family Matters Autumn: 38. ^
  7. McHugh, Rebecca, and Raphael Jane Prasetyo. 2002. “Social capital in Asia: A proposal for discussion.” The International Scope Review 4. ^
  8. Glaeser, Edward L, David Laibson, and Bruce Sacerdote. 2002. ‘An economic approach to social capital.’ The Economic Journal 112: 437-458. ^
  9. Fukuyama, Francis. 2001. ‘Social capital, civil society and development.’ Third World Quarterly 22: 7-20. ^
  10. Good, Raewyn. 2000. ‘Social Capital and Policy Development.’ Social Policy Journal of New Zealand: 185. ^
  11. Collier, Paul. 1998. ‘Social Capital and Poverty.’ World Bank. ^
  12. Paxton, Pamela. 1999. “Is social capital declining in the United States?  A multiple indicator assessment.” The American Journal of Sociology 105: 88. ^
  13. Edwards, Bob, and Michael Foley. 1998. ‘Civil society and social capital beyond Putnam.’ American Behavioural Scientist 42: 124-139. ^
  14. Frank, Kenneth A, and Jeffrey Y Yasumoto. 1998. ‘Linking action to social structure within a system: Social capital within and between subgroups.” The American Journal of Sociology 104: 642. ^
  15. Portes, Alejandro, and Julia Sensenbrenner. 1993. “Embeddedness and immigration: Notes on the social determinants of economic action.” American Journal of Sociology 98: 1320 – 1350. ^
  16. Johnston, Richard, and Stuart N. Soroka. 2001. ‘Social capital in a multicultural society: the case of Canada.’ Pp. 30 – 36 in Social Capital and Participation in Everyday Life, edited by Eric M. Uslaner. London: Routledge. ^
  17. Grootaert, Christiaan, Thierry Van Bastelaer, and World Bank. 2002. Understanding and measuring social capital : a multidisciplinary tool for practitioners. Washington, D.C.: World Bank.
  18. Uphoff, Norman, and C. M. Wijayaratna. 2000. “Demonstrated Benefits from Social Capital: The Productivity of Farmer Organizations in Gal Oya, Sri Lanka.” World Development 28: 1875-1890. ^
  19. Bain, K., and N Hicks. 1998. ‘Building social capital and reaching out to excluded groups: The challenge of partnerships.’ in Paper presented at CELAM meeting on The Struggle Against Poverty Towards the Turn of the Millenium. Washington D.C. ^
One comment on “Problems with Conceptualisation of Social Capital
  1. Hasan says:

    Thanks. Great overview.

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