Contemporary Authors on Social Capital

The contemporary strain of literature dates back to the 1980’s and flows primarily from the work of Pieere Bourdieu, James Coleman and Robert Putnam (Carroll and Stanfield 2003[1]; Lang and Hornburg 1998[2]). Bourdieu is responsible for bringing the concept and term social capital into present-day discussions. Adam and Roncevic (2003)[3] cite the release of his well-known book Distinction published in French in 1979 as the origination of the modern notion of social capital. Bourdieu is categorized as a pure sociologist by Adam and Roncevic (2003). Bourdieu’s definition of social capital could be described as egocentric as it is considered in the broader framework of symbolic capital and of critical theories of class societies (Wall et al. 1998[4]). Bourdieu defines social capital as:

the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition or in other words, to membership in a group which provides each of its members with the backing of the collectivity-owned capital, a credential which entitles them to credit, in the various senses of the word (Bourdieu 1986, web page)[5].

Bourdieu’s original work on social capital was analysed within the context of his critical theory of society. This differed from the following normative approach of Putnam (1993)[6] and Coleman (1988)[7], and the network based utilitarian approach of Burt (1998)[8] and Lin (2001)[9]. Of the three originating authors on social capital, Bourdieu’s work contains the least empirical analysis with only fragments of reference to it (Adam and Roncevic 2003)[3].

James Coleman, a sociologist with strong connections to economics through rational-choice theory (Jackman and Miller 1998[10]; Li et al. 2003[11]; Schuller et al. 2000[12]), draws together insights from both sociology and economics in his definition of social capital:

Social capital is defined by its function. It is not a single entity, but a variety of different entities having two characteristics in common: they all consist of some aspect of social structures, and they facilitate certain actions of actors whether persons or corporate actors within the structure (Coleman 1988, p. S98)[13].

Coleman’s work represents an important shift from Bourdieu’s individual outcomes (as well as in network-based approaches) to outcomes for groups, organizations, institutions or societies which represents a tentative shift from egocentric to sociocentric (refer to table 1) (Adam and Roncevic 2003[3]; Cusack 1999[14]; McClenaghan 2000[15]). Coleman also added that like other forms of capital, social capital is productive, making possible the achievement of certain ends that would not be attainable in its absence (Coleman 1988). Most authors agree that social capital is dealing with certain aspects of social structure that enable social action (Adam and Roncevic 2003). Unlike Bourdieu, Coleman was extensively involved in empirical research and formulation of indicators. Schuller, Baron et al. (2000)[12] described the explanation of his findings as post hoc and that his key contribution to the social capital debate lay in the relatively straightforward way he outlines the concept. Coleman explores how the productive nature of social capital might offset deficiencies in other capital such as human and cultural capital (Teachman et al. 1997)[16]. Coleman extended the scope of the concept from Bourdieu’s analysis of the elite to encompass the social relationships of non-elite groups (Schuller et al. 2000).

Contemporary authors level of study of social capital
Table 1. Contemporary authors level of study of social capital

Robert Putnam, a political scientist was responsible for popularizing the concept of social capital through the study of civic engagement in Italy (Boggs 2001[17]; Schuller et al. 2000[12]). Such was Coleman’s influence over the scholarly debate, Putnam cited Coleman’s Foundations of Social Theory as a central source (Routledge and Amsberg 2003)[18]. Putnam gave the following definition:

Social capital here refers to features of social organization, such as trust, norms, and networks, that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated actions (Putnam et al. 1993, web page)[19].

In Making Democracy Work (Putnam et al. 1993)[19] the authors explore the differences between regional governance in the north and south of Italy, the explanatory variable being civic community. The next of Putnam’s work focused on the decline in civic engagement in the United States (Schuller et al. 2000)[12]. In Bowling Alone (Putnam 1995)[20] Putnam identified a general secular decline in levels of social capital as indicated by membership in voluntary organizations (Schuller et al. 2000)[12]. This paper used the example of bowling as an activity which used to be highly associational, representing not only recreational channels but also a source of social interaction, a component of social capital (Putnam 1999[21]; Putnam 2000[22]). Like Coleman, Putnam was extensively involved in empirical research and formulation of indicators and was responsible for the development of the widely applied measure so-called ‘Putnam instrument’ (Adam and Roncevic 2003; Paldam and Svendsen 2000[23]). This instrument is the best known and most widely applied measure that is an overly simplified version of his elaborate index of civicness that includes four indicators: trust in people and institutions, norms of reciprocity, networks, and membership in voluntary associations (Adam and Roncevic 2003). Putnam’s arguments have been criticized as circular and tautological simultaneously a cause and effect (Pope 2003[24]; Portes 1998[25]).

The authors discussed above; Bourdieu, Coleman and Putnam; are most commonly cited for the basis of contemporary discussions on social capital. They represent early attempts to identify and conceptualize this complex theory. Grootaert and Van Bastelaer (2002a)[26] suggested that the social capital model may currently be at the same early stage that human capital theory was thirty or forty years ago. Many authors have since progressed our understanding, and particularly the suitable operationalization, of social capital (refer to figure 4).

Contemporary Authors on Social Capital
Figure 4. Contemporary Authors on Social Capital

Building on work by Bourdieu, Loury and Coleman among others, Alejandro Portes (1996[27], 1998[25], 2000[28]) defines social capital as ‘… the ability of actors to secure benefits through membership in networks and other social structures (Portes 1998, p. 6). Portes and Landolt (1996) identified the downsides of social capital and illustrate that earlier authors had focused on the positive, beneficial effects of social interaction without taking into account the less attractive features. Portes in later work also made contributions to the understanding of the role of social capital in development (Portes and Landolt 2000).

Ronald Burt’s research approach is based on Bourdieu’s and Coleman’s work and focuses on variables indicating the position of the individual inside social networks (Adam and Roncevic 2003). Burt focused on accessibility to embedded resources by measuring social capital in terms of network constraint (Lin et al. 2001b)[29]. More constraint means fewer structural holes and because structural holes are the source of social capital, fewer structural holes result in poorer social capital (Burt 1997[30]; Burt 1998[8]). This research approach is commonly known as the network approach as it looks at network variables. Nan Lin, often working with Burt, has contributed to the development of network measurements of social capital, namely position generator and name generator (Lin et al. 2001a)[9]. Lin described three different research programs: focus on the documentation of the distribution of resource in a social structure, with the purpose of describing the relative distribution of resources as a collective asset in the structure (Lin 1976[31]; Lin 2001a; Lin 2001b).

Michael Foley and Bob Edwards (1997[32], 1999[33]) produced some revealing findings from studying the work of authors who undertook empirical research on social capital. Their findings included context-dependent conceptualization of social capital, as access plus resources, and that work on generalized social trust are irrelevant. Francis Fukuyama used an approach derived from Putnam that focuses mainly on behavioral variables and attitudes (for example, trust, norms, values) as measured in various surveys (Adam and Roncevic 2003). Fukuyama practically equated social capital with trust. Other authors have criticized the use of a single indicator as a measure of social capital (Paxton 1999)[34]. Stephen Knack and Paul Keefer (1997) adopted two measures of social capital; the mean value of expressed general trust and the second is a composite index of norms of civic cooperation. Pamela Paxton (1999, p. 93) conceptualized social capital differently from preceding authors stating social capital consists of two measurable components: objective associations between individuals and a subjective type of tie, which must be reciprocal, trusting, and involving positive emotions. The first is measured by three variables and the second by trust in individuals and trust in institutions (Paxton 1999).

In an attempt to alleviate the problems of source/form distinctions, Michael Woolcock developed a comprehensive, multilevel model of social capital while taking into account the well-known distinction between bridging and bonding social capital (Woolcock 1998[35]; Woolcock 2001a[36]; Woolcock 2001b[37]; Woolcock 2002b[38]). Famous for his work with the World Bank, Woolcock (1998)[35] asserted that without bridging social capital, communities do not have what is needed to get ahead (Guenther and Falk 1999)[39]. Janine Nahapiet and Sumantra Ghosal (1998)[40] developed a robust definition of social capital with the distinction between three dimensions: structural, relational and cognitive, and discuss the highly interrelated nature of the features they discuss.

By the late 1990’s the number of contributing authors grew significantly based on the work of the contemporary authors discussed above. It could be generalized that much of this work lacked rigor and did not take into account the multi-dimensional nature of social capital. Much of the work was piece-meal in nature, simply applying an approach to a discipline or area of interest. The role of Putnam’s research in this process was significant. Putnam’s work, while popularizing the concept, led to a significant weakening of the conceptualization and operationalization of the concept. Coleman’s earlier work provided a more thorough path towards conceptualization and operationalization. Putnam however, applied a single proxy analysis of social capital and applied it to good governance. Seen as the foremost expert on social capital at the time, many authors followed in his footsteps, and Putnam’s lack of rigor was replicated in piece-meal works across a variety of disciplines. Putnam is not solely to blame for this situation, which is due mostly to the complexity and attractiveness of the concept of social capital. The result was a plethora of definitions and operationalization of the concept that led to the theory itself being questioned. From this work many recent authors have synthesized a more rigorous framework for the conceptualization and operationalization of the concept, but much work is left to be done if social capital theory is to provide a meaningful contribution in all its facets.

Citing this article

This article is part of a thesis submitted to the University of Queensland, Australia. You should reference this work as:

Claridge, T., 2004. Social Capital and Natural Resource Management: An important role for social capital? Unpublished Thesis, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia.

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14 thoughts on “Contemporary Authors on Social Capital”

  1. Avatar

    Glad I refound this site.
    Thanks, Tristan.
    I am doing research about social capital and educational innovation.
    Do you know other researchers on this theme last 5 years?

    1. Avatar

      Thanks for your comment Corry. I have had contact with other researchers in similar areas to educational innovation. It is also a topic very close to my own interests. I’d be happy to share information and contacts with you if you would like to contact me by email (see my contact page).

  2. Avatar

    Tristian, I agree with Corry your synthesis of Social Capital theorist is enlightening. I am working on a literature review regarding social class and degree attainment. The table you use to describe the authors would be perfect for my review. Please let me if I can use Table 1. Contemporary authors level of study of social capital. If so I will cite you accordingly.

  3. Avatar

    Tristan, this is amazing work. I’m about to follow in Putnam’s footsteps, but your really, really well-informed narrative is giving me pause. Just one problem, that whole last paragraph is unreferenced. Who do you consider more rigorous? Do you have anything on more recent research?

    FYI I’m writing my graduate thesis on social capital (specifically that with “public-regarding purposes” as defined by Putnam 2000 p. 21) in New Urbanist developments. Truly I find Putnam’s approach attractive because of his focus on community, his approach as a political scientist, and yes – his rather broad application of the term and his “inclusive” approach to data.

    1. Avatar
      Tristan Claridge

      Thanks for your kind comments Christina. The last para is unreferenced because it is my own conclusions drawn from the review of over 1000 peer reviewed publications on social capital as at c. 2004.

      I recently wrote this post on the measurement that discusses the current state of quantitative and qualitative measurement of social capital. Generally qualitative methodologies tend to be more rigorous however researchers still tend to formulate their own definition of social capital that informs their research context specifically.

      Putnam’s approach has its positives. If the scale of interest is whole society then there are few better ways of studying social capital, at least without administering an instrument specifically designed for societal level social capital research to millions of people – clearly not an affordable proposition.

      I wish you all the best with your project. It would be great if you could return to this site to post updates.

  4. Avatar

    Hi Tristan,
    This is really an amazing work. You definitely saved me time in my research about social capital. If you don’t mind sharing that research you may have provided to Corry, I would be very grateful! Also, if it’s okay, can I reference this to my work as well?

  5. Avatar
    eustoquio R. Garceia G.

    It is rather curious that Hanifan, the creator of the concept around 1916 is not mentioned in this review.

  6. Avatar

    Thanks Tristan for this wonderful information. I’m doing an investigative summary on social capital theory and this was really helpful.

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