11 Feb 2013

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.

Next Article

Previous Article

Comment List

  • BISMARK July 12, 2020

    Please, I am currently wiring my dissertation on The rural enterprise program and poverty reduction; examining the role of social capital in rural communities.

    Please, which qualitative methods can I use to write my project?

    • Tristan Claridge July 12, 2020

      Bismark, depending on your discipline of study, ethnography can be an appropriate qualitative methodology for researching social capital. You could base your research on the dimensions: structural, relational, and cognitive.

  • Mukiibi May 9, 2020

    I am writing a dissertation on the influence of teacher social capital on student achievement. What could be the indicators of teacher social capital.

    • Tristan Claridge May 9, 2020

      Mukiibi, I’m not sure social capital is the best concept for your research context. Social capital is very broad and you may benefit from a more specific and tangible concept. The role of the teacher’s social setting is an important factor in student outcomes, but perhaps networks are less important than shared understandings (similar to organisational culture). I would encourage you to explore other concepts that are easier to apply and more tangible.

  • John kwingwa February 24, 2020

    Thank you, for deep analysis of types of social capital, hope this is kind of capital that need more research and indeed can contribute a lot towards poverty elleviation in rural communities and enhance social wellbeing in urbarn , as a rular Dev masters student at Sua , I appreciate this great greatwork as it has broden my understanding as Iam approaching to my reaserch work.

  • Mathewos December 12, 2019

    I m trying to do my research on Social Capital and its contribution to rural business development.
    1. What are the indicators for both variables (SC) and Business dev?
    2. What is the applicable research design
    3. What are measurement tools and method of analysis.

    • Tristan Claridge December 12, 2019

      Mathewos, there are no simple answers to your questions since it depends on your approach to social capital and discipline requirements. You will find numerous articles on this website that would be of assistance to you.

  • Chel October 10, 2019

    Hi Tristan,
    Thank you for this. I am currently writing my dissertation. I am trying to look into the outcome of members SCT on organizational resiliency among community based organizations…Thus this sound logical…i am trying to add Giddens structuration theory as my analytical methodology to justify the effect of members SCT to the organizations resiliency..does this make sense…

    • Tristan Claridge October 11, 2019

      That sounds very interesting. It would seem that using structuration theory to guide analysis could provide very fruitful investigation – particularly where it allows for cross-disciplinary theoretical integration.

  • Timothy Campbell July 3, 2019

    Excellent overview of the varied types of social capital that has provided greater insight toward a better explanation and rationale for implementing a programmatic advancement of social capital.

  • upasna April 23, 2013

    I am currently using SCT to study farmer communities in India with regards to how they use ICT. I see that there are distinct patterns of usage of ICT within the community and with other community(one being relatively less than the other) . I want to use a social capital classification but using three like structural relational and cognitive makes my framework seem a bit unfocused. So I combined cognitive and relational and call it content based. So i have two classifications structural(ties and network) and content (norms and trust etc). does this sound feasible? please advice

    • Tristan Claridge April 24, 2013

      Yes it does. I think it is best to use both classifications to describe different elements of social capital.

  • Dr Kevin L Cook April 11, 2013

    I am trying to explain why bonding social capital is extremely well developed amongst community groups in the Machakos area of Kenya and why bridging and linking social capital is almost non-existent. Most women belong to at least one community group, known locally as ‘mwethya’, and these provide enormous amounts of social capital for members. Links between groups in the same area and with regional and national organisations do not exist. I am seeking to establish the role that trust plays in this and will be interviewing women’s groups and attempting to measure the amount of trust exhibited.

    Does anyone know of any similar studies carried out with community groups in the Global South and doe anyone have any advice for me before I set out on this research.

    • Tristan Claridge April 12, 2013

      What is your intended methodological approach?

      • Kevin Cook April 12, 2013

        Whilst this is only a very small piece of research, I have the advantage of being able to meet with Mwethya groups within a specific area/village and discuss the issues with them at length. My partner is a local resident who knows the members and who will set up the meetings for me. She will also act as translator. I hope to meet with six groups of 6-10 members each. The conversations will be recorded and coded after. A grounded theory approach will be used. I would like also to try out some of the trust games that have been used in the past to measure the degree of trust. These will be used to determine within group levels of trust.

        Thanks for your help and keep the excellent blg going. I am semi-retired now lecturing part-time and wish we had had such a support system when I was doing my PhD 40 years ago!


  • As March 16, 2013

    Hi Tristan, I have long been thinking about these two different types of classifications of social capital, and both classifications make sense and have strong theoretical foundations. But how do you integrate these two notions? e.g. is bonding or bridging a representation of relational social capital? And when we try to measure or quantify social capital, which set of classification should we follow? Does it depend on specific research questions we are looking at? Does it depend on other contingency factors such as environment?

    • Tristan Claridge March 16, 2013

      Hi As.
      These notions can be combined by taking account the different approaches to categorisation. E.g. bonding social capital also has relational characteristics.

      Given the lack of agreed methods for measurements, researchers tend to identify the important elements or factors that suit their research context and develop their own instrument. This is very effective in most cases as long as the researcher has sufficient understanding to develop an instrument informed by theory, and the ability to be critical of the potential for the instrument to make assumptions about the connection between the proxies being investigated and the elements of social capital.

  • Mokaya Moseti March 12, 2013

    how do you differenciate social capital and economic capital with regards to cultural capital?

    • Tristan Claridge March 12, 2013

      Mokaya, can you rephrase your question so it makes sense.

  • Robin Melender February 23, 2013

    Yani: I am applying the b/b/l-framework (as formulated by Szreter and Woolcock) in my master thesis exploring creation of social capital among visitors at a legal graffiti wall.

  • Yani February 15, 2013

    Do you know any art/cultural investigation that applied that concept? I want to use it for my thesis.


Leave a Reply