Guide to Social Capital: The Concept, Theory, and its Research
The term “social capital” may seem like an almost non-sensical combination of words. How can ‘social’ be ‘capital’? The term does not fit well with the traditional meaning of capital (from an economic perspective) and is an over simplification of complex social phenomena (from a sociological perspective). Yet the term is an intriguing integration of sociology and economics so is a very important conceptual innovation for inter and transdisciplinary theoretical integration.
Social capital experts can make the concept sound almost mystical, and
for many people approaching social capital for the first time it can be daunting. Social capital theory can seem like an ivory tower, impenetrable except by those who possess the keys. Yet the truth is that social capital is intuitively understood by all humans since we are fundamentally, to our core, social.
This guide provides answers to many of the important questions about social capital and includes links to our extensive resources on the concept and theory.
A MESSAGE FROM OUR FOUNDER
I have spent over 20 years working with social capital theory. I’ve compiled this guide, and the hundreds of articles on this website, to help people understand the concept and theory.
The theory has much promise, but often in the same sentence I talk about the problems with the concept. The term is often used with little understanding of what it means and even the peer-reviewed academic literature contains extensive ‘vulgar scholarship’ that would be incapable of withstanding even rudimentary scrutiny.
I hope you find this website, and the extensive resources it provides, helpful in navigating the complex concept and theory of social capital.
Founder of Social Capital Research & Training
Click the questions below for answers and more resources
Social capital exists at the level of the individual, the informal social group, the formal organization, the community, the ethnic group and even the nation. The basis of social capital is individual actors and their relationships, but also the social structures within which they are embedded. This means that an individual may have some control over their social capital, but they do not own their social capital per se. Many aspects of social capital relate to shared values, attitudes and norms that exist within social groups. Social capital is identifiable at any level of social grouping, from the individual level to the level of the nation, and it exists at any level where there is identification and belonging, i.e. a social grouping.
It is important to be clear about what level of social capital is relevant to your discussion or analysis. Although the factors are different at each level, the levels are inseparably related.
The different types of social capital are typically defined as structural social capital, cognitive social capital, and relational social capital. Another common categorisation of social capital is the following types: bonding social capital, bridging social capital, and linking social capital.
These dimensions are conceptual distinctions that are useful for analytic convenience but in practice social capital involves complex interrelations between dimensions. In practice, the dimensions of social capital may be so intertwined that it is hard to dissect them. The dimensions are connected and mutually reinforcing.
The sources of social capital are any factors that promote social interaction and exchange, that facilitate the development of norms for these interactions, and the factors that shape the individual and societal beliefs and values.
The literature often mentions social capital’s sources as a long list of factors that relate to virtually every aspect of human existence. This is not surprising considering a broad definition of social capital would suggest that any factor that relates to being ‘social’ is relevant for inclusion in the list. If being social brings about any potential benefits, or costs, then it could be reasonable to consider it a source of social capital.
The sources of social capital span the full breadth of the social sciences having links to sociology, psychology, political science, economics, theology, anthropology, and many more. These disciplines have all contributed to social capital theory, each approaching the concept from their discipline-relevant perspective, and each contributing to our overall understanding of the concept. To gain a thorough understanding of social capital we must take an interdisciplinary approach by gleaning relevant insights from across the social sciences.