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What is Cognitive Social Capital?

Cognitive social capital is a dimension of social capital that relates to resources providing shared representations, interpretations, and systems of meaning among parties[1]. It is the cognitive schemes and systems of meaning as exhibited in common vocabulary and narratives[2]. Cognitive social capital is the shared language and codes that provide the foundation for communication[3].

Cognitive social capital is one of three dimensions of social capital, the others being structural and relational social capital. The distinction between structural, cognitive, and relational social capital was made by Janine Nahapiet and Sumantra Ghoshal[1] and forms the most widely used and accepted framework for understanding social capital. These dimensions are conceptual distinctions that are useful for analytic convenience but in practice social capital involves complex interrelations between the three dimensions.

Structural Cognitive Relational
Social structure Shared understandings Nature and quality of relationships

Nahapiet and Ghoshal (1998)[1] had originally related cognitive social capital to shared language and shared narratives, but other authors have described it also through shared goals or vision, and shared culture[4][5].

While the structural dimension can be observed in tangible relationships, roles, rules, and procedures the cognitive dimension is intangible as it relates to interpretations of a shared reality. It relates to Bourdieu’s theory of habitus[6] – a set of dispositions, reflexes and forms of behaviour people acquire through acting in society. Or it relates to Habermas’ theory of lifeworld[7] – the “background” environment of competencies, practices, and attitudes representable in terms of one’s cognitive horizon.

Cognitive social capital is shared understanding and languageCognitive social capital is often manifested in the use of specific language and codes. For example, certain words within an organisation may have different, or no, meaning outside the organisation[8].

Some authors conceptualise two (structural and cognitive) rather than three dimensions (structural, cognitive, and relational), for example van Bastelaer 2001[9]; Chou, Yuan 2006[10]; Grootaert et al. 2003[11]; Krishna and Shrader 1999[12]; Uphoff 1999[13]). These authors do not distinguish between cognitive and relational social capital and may use the term cognitive or relational. This has led to additional confusion in the literature about what is included in cognitive and what is relational social capital.

For example, Normal Uphoff (1999)[13] stated that norms of trust and reciprocity are forms of cognitive social capital. However, he conceptualised social capital as only two dimensions: structural and cognitive. So, this may result in unwitting readers includes these factors as cognitive social capital even though under a three-way distinction these factors would be relational social capital.

This confusion is exacerbated by the similarity and overlap of cognitive and relational dimensions. Both forms arise from the mental rather than the material realm, so both are ultimately cognitive. The distinction between the two dimensions is that the characteristics of the relational dimension are embedded in, or relate specifically to, social relationships. This is somewhat different from cognitive social capital that describes the wider social context rather than being a characteristic of specific relationships.

Shared understanding within a group, organisation, or community is cognitive, whereas trust and norms of reciprocity is relational as it describes the quality of, or is embedded within, social relationships.

Cognitive social capital is shared values or paradigms that allow a common understanding of appropriate ways of acting. Thus, cognitive social capital provides a set of norms of acceptable behaviour[14].


  1. Nahapiet, Janine and Sumantra Ghoshal. 1998. “Social Capital, Intellectual Capital, and the Organizational Advantage.” Academy of Management Review 23(2):242. ^
  2. Davenport, Sally and Urs Daellenbach. 2011. “‘Belonging’ to a Virtual Research Centre: Exploring the Influence of Social Capital Formation Processes on Member Identification in a Virtual Organization.” British Journal of Management 22(1):54–76. ^
  3. Gooderham, Paul N. 2007. “Enhancing Knowledge Transfer in Multinational Corporations: A Dynamic Capabilities Driven Model.” Knowledge Management Research & Practice 5(1):34–43. ^
  4. Inkpen, A. C. and E. W. K. Tsang. 2005. “Social Capital, Networks, and Knowledge Transfer.” Academy of Management Review 30(1):146–65. ^
  5. Tsai, W. and S. Ghoshal. 1998. “Social Capital and Value Creation: The Role of Intrafirm Networks.” Academy of Management Journal 41(4):464–76. ^
  6. Bourdieu, P. 1986. “The Forms of Capital.” Pp. 241–58 in Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education, edited by J. G. Richardson. New York: Greenwood Press. ^
  7. Sitton, John. 2003. Habermas and Contemporary Soceity. New York: Palgrave MacMillan. ^
  8. Ansari, Shahzad, Kamal Munir, and Tricia Gregg. 2012. “Impact at the ‘Bottom of the Pyramid’: The Role of Social Capital in Capability Development and Community Empowerment.” Journal of Management Studies 49(4):813–42. ^
  9. van Bastelaer, Thierry. 2001. “Imperfect Information, Social Capital and the Poor’s Access to Credit.” IRIS Center Working Paper No. 234. ^
  10. Chou, Yuan, K. 2006. “Three Simple Models of Social Capital and Economic Growth.” The Journal of Socio-Economics 35(5):889–912. ^
  11. Grootaert, Christiaan, Deepa Narayan, Veronica Nyhan Jones, and Michael Woolcock. 2003. Measuring Social Capital: An Integrated Questionnaire. ^
  12. Krishna, Anirudh and Elizabeth Shrader. 1999. “Social Capital Assessment Tool.” in Conference on Social Capital and Poverty Reduction. Washington, D.C. ^
  13. Uphoff, Norman. 1999. “Understanding Social Capital: Learning from the Analysis and Experience of Participation.” Pp. 215–53 in Social Capital: A multifaceted perspective, edited by P. Dasgupta and I. Serageldin. Washington, DC: World Bank. ^
  14. Anderson, Alistair R. and Sarah L. Jack. 2002. “The Articulation of Social Capital in Entrepreneurial Networks: A Glue or a Lubricant?” Entrepreneurship & Regional Development 14(3):193–210. ^

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