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Explanation of types of social capital

There are several dichotomies for classifying types of social capital. There are two main classifications for social capital:

Network perspective

From a network perspective social capital can be classified as either bonding or bridging with a third type suggested as linking.

  • Bonding social capital – ties between individuals with a relatively high degree of network closure. Bonding social capital is often described as horizontal ties between individuals within the same social group (as opposed to vertical ties between social groups). Bonding social capital is often associated with local communities where many people know many other people in the group (network closure). Bonding social capital is often associated with strong norms, mores and trust which can have both positive and negative manifestations and implications for social exclusion. Many members have access to similar network assets so while providing solidarity, bonding social capital may not provide useful network assets in some situations. Read more about bonding social capital.
  • Bridging social capital – ties between individuals which cross social divides or between social groups. From a network perspective bridging social capital places the actors at structural holes where each is able to tap into the social network resources of each others social group. This is also described as vertical ties often operating through formal hierarchical structures.Bridging social capital may not involve many shared norms but is likely to be associated with reciprocity and ‘thin trust’. It may provide access to network resources outside of an individuals normal circles and as such can provide significant individual (and group) benefits. Read more about bridging social capital.
  • Linking social capital – ‘norms of respect and networks of trusting relationships between people who are interacting across explicit, formal, or institutionalised power or authority gradients in society’. In many ways linking social capital is not much different to bridging social capital. Read more about linking social capital.

Although the distinction bonding/bridging/linking may immediately seem straightforward, there is an underlying conceptual ambiguity that complicates measurement.

Social structure perspective

Although it is possible to distinguish between different types of social capital on the basis of source, cognitive and structural forms of social capital are commonly connected and mutually reinforcing.

  • Structural social capital – refers to elements of social structure that create opportunities for the social realisation of productive ends. Structural social capital includes established roles and social networks supplemented by rules, procedures and precedents. It gives structure and stability to social transactions. It is more than norms, structural social capital is built from the historical foundations of culture and institutions within society.
  • Cognitive social capital – includes shared norms, values, attitudes, and beliefs, predisposes people towards mutually beneficial collective action.
  • Relational social capital – is based on the characteristics of social relationships between individuals and is commonly described as including trust and trustworthiness.

These classifications of social capital into types provides a rich and descriptive way to talk about social capital. The network types and the structural types provide two different ways to describe elements of social capital and can be used interchangeably.

Want to measure social capital? Read more.

Types of social capital

Click here for further discussion of social capital types from a more academic perspective (written by me in 2004).

The structural perspective has become the dominant conceptualisation of social capital, although many authors still make reference to network types.

Structural dimension of social capital

The structural dimension of social capital relates to the properties of the social system, the various forms of social organisation that make up society. It is the impersonal configuration of linkages between people or units. It is roles, rules, precedents and procedures. It facilitates collective action by making peoples’ behaviour more predictable and beneficial. This lowers transaction costs and encourages interaction, exchange, and collaboration. The roles, rules, precedents and procedures together with incentives for conformity and punishments for nonconformity provide a powerful incentive for productive behaviours. The structural dimension of social capital is a construct of society, thus it is social organisation. Rules, roles, etc mostly resides in our minds (we have common understanding of the rules, roles, etc) although some aspects are obvious from the institutions and the documents they create. Common understanding is frequently hard to articulate in precise language but is intuitively understood by actors embedded in the social context. Read more about structural social capital.

Cognitive dimension of social capital

The cognitive dimension of social capital is the social setting, or culture, that dictate how one should act in any given setting or situation. It relates to the proper ways of acting in a social system. It is the shared representations, interpretations, and systems of meaning among parties. It predisposes people to collective action.  The norms, values, attitudes, and beliefs involved in cognitive social capital rationalise cooperative behavior and make it respectable, and even expected. It includes common understandings, shared language, shared purpose, and belonging. Common values and beliefs provide the harmony of interests that reduce the possibility of opportunistic behaviour. While the structural dimension can be observed in tangible roles, rules, etc, the cognitive dimension is intangible as it relates to interpretations of what is appropriate, and attitudes and beliefs, ie what people think and how people feel. It relates to Bourdieu’s theory of habitus – a set of dispositions, reflexes and forms of behaviour people acquire through acting in society. Or Habermas’ theory of lifeworld – the “background” environment of competencies, practices, and attitudes representable in terms of one’s cognitive horizon. Read more about cognitive social capital.

Relational dimension of social capital

The relational dimension of social capital relates to the personal relationships people have developed with each other through a history of interactions, and the nature of these relationships. It is the assets created or leveraged through relationships. It is the flow of resources through interaction in social relationships. The key factors of the relational dimension of social capital are trust and trustworthiness, norms and sanctions, obligations and expectations, and identity and identification. This is not to be confused with similar factors of the cognitive dimension since in the relational dimension they are embedded in, or relate specifically to, social relationships. Read more about relational social capital.

General notes on types of social capital

There is significant interaction between the dimensions of social capital. For example, the structural dimension of social capital, manifesting as social interaction ties, may stimulate trust and perceived trustworthiness, which represent the relational dimension of social capital.

There is a lack of agreement, and even confusion, in the literature about the dimensions of social capital. This seems to stem from the different discipline approaches to the theory. The nature of economic reductionism can make it difficult to conceptualise particularly the cognitive dimensions of social capital.

The dimensions tend to be described differently depending on the level of analysis. You should be aware of the level of analysis that is relevant to you or your project, and the level that is relevant to any literature.

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