In a recent webinar, I posed this question to the audience and found that 60% answered the poll “Yes, it has some social capital” and 40% “No, it has no social capital”. Both answers are correct, depending on how you define social capital. The latter group answered this way because, from their perspective, social capital is about resources in networks (or a similar meaning), and if there are no networks, such as in a new group of strangers, there can be no social capital. For those who answered “Yes”, social capital includes norms, trust, belonging, and shared understandings that are not necessarily tied to networks. From this perspective, a group of strangers already have these understandings from being part of society, so social capital precedes the existence of networks.
An important question when considering these differences is: what is the boundary of a social network? Who is a stranger, and who is a network tie or ‘friend’? It may seem as though there is a very clear distinction between a friend and a stranger (a simpler way to think of this distinction is between known individuals and unknown individuals). However, if we examine this demarcation in more detail, we find it is not as clear as we might expect.
Research by Robin Dunbar and others postulated that an individual sits in the centre of a personal social network with social contacts located at varying distances based on emotional closeness and frequency of contact. The “inner circle” may include just a handful of people with whom there is a deep personal connection and frequent contact, while the outer circle of acquaintances may include up to 1500 or more people (Dunbar and Spoors 1995; Hill and Dunbar 2003). The strength of relationships could be represented as a continuum from family and close friends to friends and acquaintances, with strangers at the other end of the spectrum (as represented in Figure 2).
Figure 2. The continuum from close friends and family to strangers
The vertical orange line in Figure 2 represents the distinction between those who are in your network and those who are not in your network. While it would be possible to define criteria for this delineation, it is not as clearly defined as the known/unknown distinction would suggest.
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.