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The ‘normal’ amount of social capital Part of 2022 report "Exploring the limits of social capital"

The rest of this article is based on an understanding of social capital where a new group has some social capital and that the potential for social action is influenced by a wide range of factors, not just the existence of networks. It is based on the idea that social capital exists in every social grouping[1]. In this section, I will explore the theses that most social groupings have a ‘normal’ amount of social capital, that every group could have more or less social capital, and that relatively few groups have very low or very high social capital.

In any social grouping, there is always scope for social capital to change. Theoretically, any social grouping could have more or stronger social capital and less or weaker social capital. For example, there could be more social connections, the nature of these social relationships could be more positive, there could be more shared understandings, stronger social norms of collaboration, reciprocity and trust, there could be more effective social structures, rules, and more effective and just enforcement of these rules. Similarly, any social grouping could have less social capital if there were fewer connections, the nature of these relationships was less positive or even negative, if there were less cooperative or even uncooperative norms, or if there were betrayals of trust or ineffective social structures. This suggests there may be no upper or lower limit to social capital, that investment or sabotage, or virtuous or vicious cycles, could drive social capital to higher and higher or lower and lower levels without limit. However, there are various interrelationships that mean this is unlikely. Unfortunately, we currently know very little about these processes and relationships.

Figure 6 attempts to graphically represent the number of social groupings that have low, normal, and high levels of social capital. The shape of the curve in Figure 6 is unknown and may be unknowable due to the dynamic nature of social capital and the challenges of measuring it. The curve may be skewed left or right; however, this shape of the curve is not important. My point is that few groups have low or high social capital, and most groups have a normal amount. The reasons for this will be explored below.

Figure 6. Graphical representation of the social capital of social groupings

Few groups are likely to persist towards the lower limit because there tend to be vicious cycles that drive groups near the lower limit towards disintegration or this dysfunction provides sufficient reason and motivation to improve their social capital. The relationship between action and reaction tends to create positive and negative feedback loops that can drive some aspects of social capital towards lower or higher levels. For example, a betrayal of trust has ripple effects through a social grouping. It changes perceptions of trustworthiness and increases suspicion, and can make people reluctant to engage in the trusting behaviours necessary for effective cooperation. It may also influence people to act with self-interest rather than collective interest, which may also represent or be interpreted as further betrayals of trust, creating a vicious cycle. This dysfunction may, however, provide the motivation to make changes to improve social capital. Efforts to improve social capital can create virtuous cycles that reinforce and magnify the improvements in social capital. For example, efforts to establish shared goals and narratives can lead to shared norms and obligations and enhanced feelings of trust and identity (Rao and Gebremichael 2017) that may create changes that improve social capital rapidly. For these reasons, few groups are likely to persist near the low end of the spectrum.

When I started developing this idea, I thought the lower limit would be the point where the benefits of the group’s existence outweighed the costs of negative social capital outcomes. I incorrectly assumed that group members would not be part of a group if there were no net benefits. However, I realised that many groups do not exist for members’ benefit and that there are other reasons to be part of a group. For example, for an employee, their salary may offset, to some extent, a negative social environment in their workplace. There are numerous other examples where membership in the group is required for other reasons other than the group’s productivity. On the graph in Figure 6, I have indicated a ‘net neutral’ line to indicate that some groups are likely to exist below this line. However, as previously noted, being below this line may provide the reason and incentive to improve.

Few groups are also likely to persist towards the upper limit. There are numerous reasons for this. I will identify some of the obvious reasons here, and the following sections will explore the reasons in greater detail. Some aspects of social capital are fragile, such as trust, which can be built through investment over a long period of time only to be damaged by a single act (or even how an action is interpreted). Because of that fragility, groups with high social capital could easily be pushed back to the left in Figure 6 toward lower levels of social capital. Other aspects of social capital require investment but involve diminishing returns, making it difficult and expensive to reach very high levels of social capital. And finally, some aspects of social capital have non-linear or inverted U-shaped relationships with outcomes meaning that higher levels may result in worse outcomes.

Most social groupings are likely to have normal levels of social capital, representing something approximating the normal distribution in Figure 6. Building on the idea that new groups have some social capital, I have added a line to indicate that in most societies, new groups would have a little less social capital than the average since we would expect most groups to improve their social capital from this starting point (although some groups may decrease from this starting point).


  1. Social grouping means any group of people who identify as a group and can include family, sporting groups, organisations and the teams or departments within organisations, interest groups, neighbourhoods, cities, states, countries, etc. Each person is a member of potentially hundreds of social groupings. This is similar to Bourdieu’s (1977) concept of fields. ^

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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