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Different understandings of social capital Part of 2022 report "Exploring the limits of social capital"

Returning to the question of whether a new group of strangers has social capital, the answer would depend on the way in which social capital is defined. For followers of James Coleman and Robert Putnam, the answer would be “yes” since social capital is defined as “aspect[s] of social structure” and “features of social organisation” respectively (see Coleman 1990; Putnam 1995). However, followers of Nan Lin would answer “no” because, from this perspective, social capital is “resources embedded in networks” and therefore, where there are no networks[1], there can be no social capital (see Lin 1999).

The discussion in the previous section may suggest that the distinction between a network tie and a stranger is not delineated clearly enough to justify the inclusion of ‘networks’ and exclusion of ‘social structure’[2] in a definition of social capital. However, for many uses of the social capital concept, such as in some types of empirical inquiry, it is essential to clearly define the meaning of a concept, and this involves specifying the boundary of what is and is not relevant and included in analysis. There is clearly a difference between a known and unknown individual, and this could be a suitable distinction to define an empirical concept. What I think is important is that the nature of this demarcation is understood, and the strengths and weaknesses of the chosen approach are acknowledged in the discussion and implications of any findings or claims arising from the research.

There is a danger that excessive concern for conceptual clarity may hinder the effective use of the social capital concept, depending on the purposes the concept is being used to address. Most scholars agree that social capital is an umbrella concept that highlights numerous sociological processes. As an interdisciplinary concept, social capital has the potential to integrate theories and understandings from various disciplines. While it is important to maintain rigour and to not consider social capital as everything social, there is value in not preferencing any one influence of social action. The danger is that assumptions related to delineations such as the known/unknown individual distinction, undermine the usefulness of the concept.


  1. There is clearly a temporal factor that complicates this issue. The moment the group is formed, people meet each other, and new network relationships come into existence that have the potential to facilitate the flow of resources. ^
  2. I have used ‘networks’ and ‘social structure’ as shorthand for the variety of relational and extra-relational attributes respectively. ^

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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