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The role of relational influence and social/structural influence Part of 2022 report "Exploring the limits of social capital"

Social capital is a potential for social action. Regardless of whether you focus on networks, norms, or trust as the ‘potential’, it is useful to consider the source of influence of social action, i.e., why people do what they do. Social action is the result of various influences, including but not limited to self-interest and beliefs about outcomes, habituated patterns of interaction, normative influence, the influence of coordinating institutions and associated laws and their patterns of enforcement, cognitive biases, and even instinct.

When it comes to determining the boundary of our social network and the difference between a known and unknown individual, it is helpful to consider the relative influence of relational attributes and social/structural influence in different strength relationships. Relational attributes are the properties or characteristics of a relationship and include trust, trustworthiness, reputation, solidarity, goodwill, and various norms and shared understandings. They are the things you know about the other person and the nature of your relationship with them.

In strong relationships, such as family and close friends, the influence of relational attributes generally dominates the nature of social action. However, even in the strongest relationships, the way someone acts towards the other person is partially influenced by social and structural factors. All relationships exist within the broader social context of the family, club, organisation, community, and society and exist within the context of various norms, rules, precedents, and laws. In strong relationships, these social/structural influences may have relatively little influence compared to relational attributes (refer to Figure 4). However, in weak relationships, the relatively under-developed relational attributes mean social/structural factors tend to have greater influence. If you do not know someone well, you are more likely to rely on norms and rules of the social grouping to guide your interaction with them.

Figure 4. Source of influence of social action in different strength relationships

The difference between strong and weak relationships illustrated in Figure 4 is a gross generalisation. Different relationships are highly variable due to differences in personality, cultural influence, nature of social sanctions, and a range of other factors. Figure 4 illustrates this generalisation and the distinction between a stranger and a weak relationship. From this discussion, we can conclude that the difference between a stranger and a weak relationship does not produce a binary demarcation in terms of the source of influence of social action. Social/structural influence plays a role in social action between known individuals, and the role of recognised characteristics means that social action between strangers is also influenced by assumed relational attributes.

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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