Exploring the limits of social capital Can social capital be continually improved or is there a maximum?

Exploring the limits of social capital
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It is widely acknowledged that social capital is vital to a wide range of human activities and allows modern economies to function efficiently[1]. Building or improving social capital is therefore essential for any social group, organisation, or society. After over 30 years of research on social capital[2], our understanding of how to maximise social capital is rudimentary. We have many ideas about how to improve social capital in social groupings, but once these ideas have been implemented, we do not know much about the implications of continuing efforts to enhance social capital. There is some evidence that many aspects of social capital have non-linear relationships with outcomes and that some aspects may even have inverted U-shape relationships meaning very high levels of some aspects may be detrimental[3]. This would suggest that social capital has a limit; that it cannot be built or improved infinitely without limit. However, very little is known about what factors limit the maximum amount of social capital and the interrelationships between aspects of social capital that may interact to create this limit. Without this understanding, serious attempts to improve social capital are haphazard at best and reckless at worst. This article will outline a methodology for how to explore the social capital limit and some introductory findings using this approach. While this article will demonstrate that there is a social capital maximum, it is not an absolute limit since various aspects can be partially mitigated or supplemented to some extent. Therefore, social capital has a relative limit that is difficult or impossible to tangibly define.


  1. Fukuyama, Francis. 2001. “Social Capital, Civil Society and Development.” Third World Quarterly 22(1):7–20 ^
  2. Since Robert Putnam’s influential publications in the early 1990s that popularised the concept and led to an explosion of interest and research in social capital. ^
  3. Strong shared identity can have negative outcomes where close-knit groups can create a tendency for conformity and “group think”, which can limit creativity and innovation and ultimately constrain action (Stern 2013). ^

Citing this article

This report was prepared for the Institute for Social Capital. You should reference this work as:

Claridge, T., 2022. Exploring the limits of social capital: Can social capital be continually improved or is there a maximum?. Report, Institute for Social Capital, Dunedin, New Zealand.

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