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Introduction to Social Capital for Researchers


This session provides a foundation for understanding what social capital is, where it comes from, and what it does as well as some of the challenges of reading the literature and conducting research on social capital. The session is designed to kick-start your social capital research or to help you with your existing research.

The session gives you a blueprint for understanding the different meanings of social capital and how to navigate the literature on social capital. It is designed to give you a rapid introduction to the concept of social capital and its use in research, helping you avoid weeks or even months of reading.

Who is this for?
This session is designed for people who are new to social capital research or for anyone who would like to understand the concept better. It would suit PhD and Masters students and other people who are conducting research on social capital.

This session was facilitated by Tristan Claridge, President of the International Social Captial Association. Tristan has been researching social capital for over 20 years. He has explored the theoretical foundations of the concept and much of his work aims to bring conceptual and theoretical clarification.


Welcome. My name is Tristan Claridge. I am the president of the International Social Capital Association. In this session, I will give a brief introduction to social capital for researchers, looking at what social capital is and understanding the concept of social capital. I will also talk about the value of the concept, why we might want to use a concept such as social capital and what we can get out of it, as well as talking about the outcomes. Because I think talking about the outcomes helps us to understand what social capital is, and outcomes are different for different research projects. And so thinking about what the outcomes are for your project can be really quite useful. Also, I will talk about what complicates social capital theory because there are a lot of different things that can create complexity as well. I will give an introduction to different conceptual approaches also then talk about the challenges of reading literature and the challenges of conducting research, as well as details where you can get some support as well.

If we start talking about social capital – getting started with social capital – it’s quite puzzling, cumbersome, and intriguing. It implies that social relationships are valuable and important. And, of course, this isn’t a new or novel idea. We have known for hundreds, thousands of years, throughout human history, we’ve known that social relationships are very, very important. But in modern times, they tend to be overlooked and undervalued. So it’s intriguing. A lot of people are really interested in the idea of this. These social relationships being valuable and calling them capital can be a bit puzzling, a bit cumbersome, and even a bit difficult to understand. I think it highlights the social and cultural processes so it can be corrective to asocial thinking that has permeated a lot of our organizations and politics and media, and other areas of modern life. And it certainly has sparked widespread interest in the last 30 years. Social capital, as a concept in research and practice, has spread across all of the social sciences and even into some of the physical sciences. And it is of great interest in politics and international development and a range of other practical areas as well. But all of these interests across so many different disciplines and levels and contexts has created different meanings and different approaches. And this can be really quite confusing. And reading the literature requires an understanding of these different conceptual approaches. Otherwise, we can get mismatches. And unfortunately, in the literature, we see quite a lot of mismatches that can create even more confusion when you start reading the literature for the first time. And social capital is quite difficult to measure. I think a lot of people have measured it for sure, but it’s an ongoing challenge. There are many different approaches out there that you’ll find in the literature, and unfortunately, there’s often some poor scholarship associated with the way in which social capital is measured, you know, inappropriate assumptions being made or these kinds of things that can really bring into question the results of some of the research that’s been done. So that’s my very brief getting started with social capital, perhaps some of the things that we need to look out for when we’re conducting research in this area. But I wanted to get on to talking about what social capital is now.

There are hundreds of different definitions out there, and when you’re reading them, quite often, it can be a bit confusing. Some of these definitions may leave you feeling a bit confused, and there are still outstanding questions. What does it really mean, and how do I actually use it? And so I think it’s useful to get back to basics, to break the two words apart and look at what each word means in isolation to get an idea about what we generally mean by social capital as a term. So social can mean a variety of different things. And we could be talking about social relationships like networks, but we could be talking about society, you know, social structure and organization as well. So there are various ways we might interpret the word social. And on the capital side, we’re talking about being productive, beneficial or valuable in some way. The nature of capital having a potential or ability or a capacity, and one of the other important requirements for the capital is that we can invest in it with some sort of reasonable expectation of return. So if we put these words together, and this is by no means a definition, but I think this is intuitively what we mean by social capital is that it involves a potential or an ability or a capacity to be social in ways that are productive or beneficial or valuable.

And I think that’s a good way of understanding what we’re talking about. And I think it cuts across a lot of the different definitions. We’re talking about something social that has this sort of potential or ability and capacity to be valuable, basically. You’ve probably heard about a range of different forms of capital and the relationship between these forms of capital. There are a lot of relationships and so going all the way back to one of James Coleman’s first publications on social capital was Social capital in the creation of human capital. And so clearly, social capital is related to human capital; perhaps social capital creates human capital. But human capital also perhaps creates social capital because social skills, for example, are individual competencies. We could talk about them being human capital that an individual can possess. But social skills are important in being able to develop social relationships and not only develop social relationships, but actually to realize the outcomes of social relationships as well. And so clearly, there’s a very close relationship between human capital and social capital. And also, cultural capital perhaps overlaps with social capital depending on the way, of course, in which you define the nature of the concept. But I think we can also say perhaps that human capital also overlaps with social capital in some key ways. But this is the complexity of these different forms of capital. And I think it’s important to identify the interrelationships between them.

So what is the value of the concept? Why should we care about social capital? Why should we use it in our research? I think the key thing here is that social capital communicates something that we couldn’t communicate before we had the term social capital. So it’s something that I think is often overlooked and under-valued by conventional analysis and reporting. And I think it’s also part of a trend in recent decades to communicate these forms of non-economic value as capital. Such things as natural capital and human capital have been researched since probably the 1970s or 1980s, as well as intellectual capital in a variety of other forms of sort of nontraditional or non-economic forms of capital. And I think there are also some other attempts that are closely related to this desire to incorporate the importance of social things, like social impact or social value or social investment. I think there are other attempts to include these really important aspects in analysis. And it also provides a way to understand and improve practice as well. So a lot of the social capital research is interested in how could we improve a particular situation, you know, how can we improve the function of an organization or society or our economy or any other particular area of interest as well. So social capital provides us with that way because this social capital is those things that are productive, that have that potential. And so if we can improve it and we can understand how to improve it, then there can be great benefits from it.

When I first approached social capital more than 20 years ago, I was interested in how groups could receive funding, they could be set up, and they could have really great structures. But some groups were more effective than others. And I thought it was the social aspect, particularly the social relationships that people had. I felt it was really important, and I think I felt like they were being overlooked. So I embraced social capital as a way to understand the benefits of those social relationships that people brought together in groups to collectively change things.

If we think about the outcomes of social capital, I think a lot of them are social actions. Things like cooperation or collective action, pro-social actions such as giving, sharing, helping, caring, supporting these kinds of things, as well as social interactions and, reduce transaction costs and the nature and frequency of various actions with various consequences that we might not necessarily think of as being social actions. So there’s a bit of overlap here between some of these different items I put in the list because cooperation, we might say, is very similar to giving and sharing and helping – similar perhaps to social interaction. So when you introduce somebody else so that perhaps they could get a job or you recommend somebody to try to get a reliable mechanic to fix their car or make those sort of social introductions. It’s a bit like helping or caring will cooperate action, but if we separated these out, they similar, but I think there’s some overlap between them as well. And this final point here about various actions because something like littering, you know, throwing rubbish out the window of your car, social capital may help to reduce the incidence of littering in a particular group or society, but littering isn’t necessarily a social action. We might not think of it as a social action, and as other things you might think of, your own health behaviour as not being really a social action, as just how you look after your own health. Maybe the exercise that you do or the food that you eat. And so social capital can have an important influence on that as well. So clearly, there’s a range of different social actions that might come about, but there are also intrinsic outcomes that come about. We don’t necessarily need actions in order to realize some of the benefits of social capital. So having a sense of belonging or social identity, these kinds of values that we can realize without any need to actually engage in actions. And this is really important in fields of study like mental health and social capital because people don’t necessarily need to do anything in order to get the benefits of social capital. So then we could say from all of those actions, there’s all of a sort of second-order or flow on outcomes or benefits that might arise as a result of them. So you might read in the literature quite often about information flows, for example, or innovation and creativity. And the reason why I put them over here on this right-hand side is because things like giving and sharing and helping can lead to innovation. For example. But often, you’ll need multiple of these things. You might need some giving and some sharing and some social interactions, and some cooperation. And all of those things may lead to innovation occurring or resilience or economic development, and so forth. So I tend to think of these as first-order on the left outcomes and then second-order outcomes on the right. And this isn’t an exhaustive list. There’s bound to be a range of other outcomes that are likely to occur. And the other thing about this list is they’re all positive. And as we know, not every outcome of social capital is positive. And so we need to keep that in mind.

It’s useful to think this through. So another one is psychological and physical wellness and happiness. Yeah. So it’s useful to think these things through because when you start narrowing in on what outcomes are most relevant to your research, you can start to think about what aspects of social capital perhaps are also most relevant for your research, because social capital is an umbrella term that includes a range of different process, social processes and factors. And you don’t necessarily want to look at absolutely everything. You may be able to narrow in and target those things that are most relevant for your particular research. So we’ll move on.

Social capital, as I mentioned, is very, very complicated. And what I’ve done here is I’ve identified some of the things that create that complexity. So on the left, we have the level of interest. Some research projects are very interested in social capital for an individual and how individuals can utilize and benefit from social capital, whereas others may be interested in the group internally within the group, or perhaps how a group externally to the group can engage people and develop social capital. Or, in fact, we may be interested at the community or society level, at the big macro level. And so there are clearly some very significant differences depending on our level of interest. And if we move over to a perspective of benefit, we can also see some differences here that for our research we may be interested in how social capital can benefit an individual, or we may be interested in how social capital can benefit the collective overall or perhaps even both. And then from different researchers’ perspectives, there are different methodological requirements as well. So sometimes it needs to be quantifiable, or perhaps it could be a qualified, or it might need to be observable or modellable. All of these different methodological requirements can therefore shape our understanding of what social capital actually is. Typically, if we’re focusing on it being quantifiable, then we need it to be tangible, and we need it to be observable so that we can actually measure it in some sort of way. And therefore, we often shape the way in which we think about social capital and as also very different theories of human experience that can be found across all of the different disciplines and subject areas that study social capital. So perhaps we might be looking at self-interest in how, say, in economics, how individual actors pursue self-interest, or perhaps say within sociology, we see that the socially-situated concept or theory of human experience. Perhaps within anthropology or biology, we might look at instinctive drivers of human experience. Or perhaps within, say, political science or even within sociology as well, we may see it as being more normatively defined as well. So all of these different things, all of these different factors, mean that social capital can be understood in very different ways across all the literature. But unfortunately, at the same time, the same social capital words are used to describe this concept, even though it can be incredibly different.

There have been various attempts to try to categorize all of these different understandings and approaches in the literature. So here are four different publications that have attempted to create these sorts of categories or boxes for all these different approaches. And I think this is quite useful to try to understand the different meanings that can be attributed to social capital. But we also need to keep in mind that these boxes don’t work very well. You know, there’s a lot of literature that sort of fits somewhere in between, and so it can be quite challenging. And I’ll present a set of different conceptual approaches shortly. And I think it’s useful to understand the literature in this way. But before we do that, I want to dig in a little bit more into these different understandings of social capital to explore what is meant by this the term social capital.

Some literature focuses exclusively on relationships, on the existence of relationships. So it looks at patterns of how people are connected. Other research may include the qualities of those relationships. So these relational properties, whether or not this trust or belonging or solidarity within those relationships as well, and then of other approaches to social capital, may even go further and look at the nature of social organization, the way in which institutions create rules and norms and shape the experience within those relationships as well. So we can quite a bit of variation already as to whether you focus exclusively on relationships, where you also include the quality of those relationships or you also include social organization as well. And as I mentioned, the different levels can have quite a significant impact on how you think about and look at social capital. But of course, they are all interrelated. So individuals are influenced by the group and society to which they belong, and a group in society is comprised of individuals. So even if we’re interested at the level of the individual, I think it would be wise to see how the other levels influence the nature of social action at that level. And the same with community or society. We can look at that level, but we need to understand that community and society is made up of social groupings and individuals as well now adds a bit of a layer of complexity. And so, as I mentioned before, private goods are something that is of benefit to the individual, that I can develop social capital for myself, and I can utilize the benefits for myself. I can invest, and I can get a return on that investment and perhaps into private good. But perhaps it’s a public good from a different perspective where society or a group can invest in and grow their social capital for the benefit of everybody. Or perhaps it has qualities that are both private and public in nature.

If we think about the different conceptual approaches, we can think about connectedness as being really important. Connectedness is the network and social structures. We also have social networks. So the nature of the relationships that we have, you know, the norms and trust and goodwill. But it’s also important to think about the resources as well. So the wealth, the power, the influence, the information, the material and all those kinds of things as well and so fairly is quite a simple way of thinking about the different conceptual approaches is that the network approach focuses exclusively on connectedness, you know, the configuration of the way in which the relationships are structured. The resource approach is also looking at networks and the way in which we’re connected, but it’s really interested in the resources that may exist, that may be mobilized, that may be transferred and transmitted within that network, that can provide benefit. And then the normative approach is also focusing on networks, but it’s interested in the sociability, the nature of those social relationships. And so we can see all three of these approaches include networks. And then the difference is whether you also include resources or you also include the aspects of sociability. But this doesn’t include all of the different approaches to social capital by any means. And one of the key ones I’ve missed is the work of Pierre Bourdieu.

And so what I would suggest is we could think of this as being five different approaches. So the first three were on the previous slide, and we have Bourdieu’s approach, which is distinctly different. And then I have included this other category – heterodox categories of other approaches that do not fit into any of the other four approaches. So what I’ll do is I’ll quite quickly run us through each of these five approaches and keeping in mind, of course, that these are just boxes that we try to put different bits of research into, doesn’t fit perfectly well, of course.

So social capital is connections between individuals. It’s their social network that produces benefits. I think the important thing here is that it’s not a single approach, but it’s a variety of different, but similar approaches. But what it does is it focuses on the analysis of the network. It involves things like mapping social ties and identifying configurations such as analyzing directionality and reciprocity. And then we are attributing qualities to that social structure. Things like density and multiplexing and segregation and structural holes and leadership boundaries and bridges and all of these kinds of aspects of the structure of the network. And something to look out for in the literature also, such as Ronald Burt and Mark Granovetter, who I think are probably the key authors in this area. But of course, there are many hundreds and perhaps even thousands of other authors who have taken this kind of approach.

The Resource approach, I think, is very, very similar because it’s also focused on the existence of social networks, but it’s interested in how resources or what resources exist and are mobilized through those social networks. And this is really a rebranding of Social Resource Theory that was developed. Primarily a key author in that area was Nan Lin, who defined social resources as “the wealth and status and power, as well as the social ties of those persons who are directly or indirectly linked to the individual”. And so this really asked that question of what resources exist in the network and, how much are they being mobilized, how can they be mobilized within the network to produce benefits? So very similar to the network approach, but with the key distinction being that the network approach focuses on the configuration of a structure, whereas the resource approach focuses more on the existence and mobilization of those resources.

The normative approach is, is the nature of social organization that influences positive or beneficial outcomes. So it focuses on the normative, social structural arrangements that result from actors working together for mutual benefit. So it tends to focus on norms as well as values and beliefs about social interaction or shared social interaction. And it tends to focus on culture and socialization and the internalization of norms and values that influence the nature of social action. So whether or not we are cooperative or whether or not we are trusting or those kinds of things, and the key authors here, James Colman and Robert Putnam, perhaps it’s not quite so simple because some authors in the literature say that James Coleman’s approach is is perhaps quite similar to a network approach, and that Putnam’s approach perhaps is altogether different again. But I think they probably belong here best, although not perfectly.

I mentioned that Bourdieu’s approach is distinctly different from the others because from his approach, social capital enables a person to exert power on a group or individual who mobilizes the resources. So it is still about the network, and it is still about the resource – which is similar to both the network and the resource approach. However, Bourdieu’s approach focuses on the structural constraints that create unequal access to institutional resources based on class and gender and race. And the difference is that his approach is grounded in theories of social reproduction and social power. So his approach is really about how an individual’s position within a social structure within society can afford them many benefits – social capital benefits as a result of that position. So it’s really quite different. It’s about power over others rather than power to. It’s a very, very different way of thinking about social capital, and even though that’s for different and quite, quite different conceptual approaches, there’s also a vast group of other approaches that don’t fit neatly into those other categories. They’re elusive; they’re difficult to identify. But I’ve identified what I think are a couple of examples. Here are Adler and Kwon talking about goodwill that’s available to individuals or groups. Lindon Robinson and coauthors talking about sympathy towards not a person or group and cost over on or off and talked about it being so psychological states perceptions and behavioral expectations.

One of these approaches isn’t necessarily better than other approaches. They’re just different ways of thinking about social capital and going about conducting research in this area. I think there can be a tendency sometimes to want to do everything in research. So we might be thinking we want to look at the configuration of a network, but then we also want to look at resources because we know that’s important too. But we also want to look at norms and trust and those kinds of aspects as well, because we know that’s important too. And then maybe we also want to look at how class and gender and race and all of these kinds of things also might influence the way in which social capital is mobilized. And so we try to include Bourdieu as well, and then maybe even a whole lot of more heterodox approaches looking at sympathy and goodwill and all these kinds of ideas. And before we know it, we’ve got this enormous melting pot of different ideas, and that can be really difficult. I don’t think that’s necessarily going to produce the best research. So but then again, not necessarily you don’t necessarily need to pick one of these and stay exclusively within it because some of these, of course, have limitations as well.

I think if I could go back 20 years or so and I someone could help me to read the literature, I think the key thing that I would like to know is what these different meetings are, these conceptualizations that I’ve been talking about, and what sort of theoretical foundations and methods, if I could understand that a bit better from the beginning, it would make things so much easier, because when you read literature for the first time, I think quite often you can it can be a bit mixed and confused. You can be reading about social capital being networks, and then you pick up the next journal article, and you’re reading about how social capital is resources. And then the next thing you pick up, it’s talking about social norms and trust, and it can be really confusing how the same term is being used to refer to these quite different things. So I think having an understanding of the kinds of approaches that I’ve just been talking about can really help you to read the literature and perhaps narrow in on which part of the literature, which approach is going to be most useful and relevant for you. Because another thing is to look out for as well, because we would hope that any one journal article or book would fall neatly into one of those conceptual approaches. But we definitely don’t find that. We tend to find that there’s overlap or a bit of mixture and confusion, even in the literature, even among these the scholars who are publishing this work in peer-reviewed journals, it’s not always clear, and it can be really and it can be really confusing about what they what a particular author is actually meaning when they say social capital.

I did quite a big survey of the literature a couple of years ago, 250 articles where I looked for which authors they cited for a definition, and I tried to put each of them into a conceptual box. Didn’t work very well because so many of them didn’t fit neatly into any of those boxes. And quite a lot of the authors would cite multiple definitions from quite different conceptual approaches, and they wouldn’t necessarily identify which one they were adopting for their research. And so that can create quite a lot of confusion, and it’s quite a challenge. And the next point is that there are quite a lot of tautologies to be found in the literature. I’ve said some, but I think it’s perhaps a little bit more than that, and what I mean by a tautology is it’s a statement that is true by virtue of its logical form alone. And so if we’re defining social capital as being positive and then we’re interested in how important that is for a particular social activity, then, of course, we’re going to find that it is because we’ve defined social capital as being positive. So, of course, it’s going to be important for the social activity where it will be positive. And so we tend to find these kinds of truisms or tautologies in the literature. And the big challenge is that some of the assumptions that are made in the literature are quite unjustified and may have been based on some correlational data and previous research, but then future authors have taken it as being fact and have presented it without examining whether or not that that assumption can be justified. Because I think it’s important to be quite critical of the literature as you’re reading it. You know, yes, it’s published in peer-reviewed journals, or it’s books that have been published by an academic press, but it still is worthwhile being quite critical of this literature and thinking through these kinds of ideas as we approach it.

The next thing is when you’re conducting research on social capital, the first challenge, if you like, or one of the key challenges, is to choose a definition and a conceptual approach that you’ll use. And so there are hundreds of different definitions, and I encourage you not to make up your own. You know, there already are so many. I’m sure you’ll be able to find one that fits quite neatly with your research and ideally also fits and matches your conceptual approach as well. We certainly don’t want you to do what I just mentioned before, which is to list various different definitions to only not settle on one, and therefore you’re not being clear about what social capital actually is for your particular research. And that can, of course, lead to a whole range of different problems and challenges. The other challenges, the literature review, because the term means so many different things, and the literature is so incredibly vast, that there are literally thousands of publications on the social capital. You can’t possibly review all of it. You know, you can’t achieve that circularity where you get to a point where you find a publication you haven’t read before. And then, you have a look at the references, and you’ve effectively read all of their references. That’s when you get to circularity. But that’s incredibly difficult when the literature is so broad. And you also perhaps need to make some decisions about whether or not your review literature that doesn’t fit with your conceptual approach. So do you review all of the literature based on Bourdieu? Yea, if you’re taking a network approach to social capital, and that’s not a question for me to answer. I think you would need to talk about that with your research supervisors or perhaps with colleagues if you’re not doing a PhD to determine what you think is most appropriate in that space. And I think I see that as being a bit of a challenge when you’re doing a literature review, because you may need to be able to quickly identify publications that are relevant and then to discard those publications that you decide are not relevant for your literature review. Then there’s the issue of measurement, and unfortunately there isn’t a blueprint for measurement. So I’m very often asked, I’m doing this particular research and how should I measure social capital? And there isn’t an answer that I can give at this stage, unfortunately, because there are a lot of people have measured social capital for sure. There are probably hundreds of different instruments out there that have been used to measure social capital, but there isn’t agreement about which measure is best. There isn’t even really agreement about which measure is best for any given context. And so this is something that you’ll need to grapple with yourself to look at what has been done and work out for years in your conceptual approach and your definition, the measurement technique that is best suited. And whichever approach you use, it’s going to be complicated by the nature of social capital, which tends to be somewhat tangible but also intangible and also tends to be quite dynamic as well because it change is dynamically over time as people interact and different events and things occur. And so you need to grapple with that whether you measure in a snapshot in time or whether or not you’re interested in the way in which it changes over a period of time. And I think just about everybody agrees that social capital is multi-dimensional. So if you’re measuring social capital, you probably need to measure more than one dimension, perhaps three, depending on what conceptual approach to social capital you’re taking. And, of course, the other challenges, the availability of data and the challenges of data collection. This is maybe isn’t such a big problem if you’re looking at the individual level, but if you’re looking at the societal level, then you may need to utilize data that was not collected for the purposes of measuring social capital. And you need to make it fit, and you need to justify why its use is appropriate based on your understanding of what social capital is. So that kind of can be a little bit of a challenge.

So in terms of getting further support, I think the first thing that I would recommend you do if you aren’t already is to join the International Social Capital Association (ISCA) because membership in that association will get you access to social networks and people and make connections. And ISCA is running a lot of free events as well. You can tap into these sessions and discussion sessions and networking events and webinars and these research design and methods, workshops and so forth. And there’s also an enormous amount of resources on the Institute for Social Capital’s website – hundreds of articles that look at different definitions and different approaches, the dimensions of social capital that discusses levels. All of these kinds of resources exist for free. And there are also some online courses as well that you could take if you’re interested in taking what I’ve been talking about today and just taking it further by getting into definition and into some of these dimensions and levels and these kinds of different approaches. So that’s the end of the presentation.

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