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Definitions of Social Capital

The commonalities of most definitions of social capital are that they focus on social relations that have productive benefits. The variety of definitions identified in the literature stem from the highly context specific nature of social capital and the complexity of its conceptualization and operationalization.

Social capital does not have a clear, undisputed meaning, for substantive and ideological reasons (Dolfsma and Dannreuther 2003[1]; Foley and Edwards 1997[2]). For this reason there is no set and commonly agreed upon definition of social capital and the particular definition adopted by a study will depend on the discipline and level of investigation (Robison et al. 2002)[3]. Not surprisingly considering the different frameworks for looking at social capital there is considerable disagreement and even contradiction in the definitions of social capital (Adler and Kwon 2002)[4]. Because of the difficulties in defining social capital, authors tend to discuss the concept, its intellectual origin, its diversity of applications and some of its unresolved issues before adopting a school of thought and adding their own definition (Adam and Roncevic 2003)[5]. It has been suggested that a cross disciplinary definition would be less important if scholars were to redefine and appreciate other discipline’s definitions (SCIG 2000)[6]. SCIG (2000) further identified that all studies must discuss social capital in relation to the particular discipline, study level and context and that a set definition for such is not required, only an identification of operationalization or conceptualization (SCIG 2000).  Other authors have identified that definitions vary depending on whether they focus on the substance, the sources, or the effects of social capital (Adler and Kwon 2002; Field et al. 2000[7]; Robison et al. 2002[3]). Grootaert and Van Bastelaer (2002b)[8] supported this view identifying that the main cause of variance in definitions is caused by focusing on the form, source or consequence of social capital. Social capital is multidimensional and must be conceptualized as such to have any explanatory value (Eastis 1998)[9]. Some authors see social capital as an economic term and do not adequately take account of its multi – dimensional and multi – disciplinary nature, for example Day (2002)[10].

Social capital is about the value of social networks, bonding similar people and bridging between diverse people, with norms of reciprocity (Dekker and Uslaner 2001[11]; Uslaner 2001[12]). Sander (2002, p. 213)[13] stated that ‘the folk wisdom that more people get their jobs from whom they know, rather than what they know, turns out to be true’. Adler and Kwon (2002)[4] identified that the core intuition guiding social capital research is that the goodwill that others have toward us is a valuable resource. As such they define social capital as ‘the goodwill available to individuals or groups. Its source lies in the structure and content of the actor’s social relations. Its effects flow from the information, influence, and solidarity it makes available to the actor’ (Adler and Kwon 2002, p. 23)[4]. Dekker and Uslaner (2001)[11] posited that social capital is fundamentally about how people interact with each other.

There are therefore numerous definitions of social capital found in the literature. A considerable number of definitions have been listed in the table below (adapted from Adler and Kwon 2002). They vary depending on whether their focus is primarily on (1) the relations an actor maintains with other actors, (2) the structure of relations among actors within a collectivity, or (3) both types of linkages (Adler and Kwon 2002). A focus on external relations have also been called ‘bridging’ (Woolcock 1998)[14] or ‘communal’ (Oh et al. 1999)[15] and a focus on internal relations ‘bonding’ or ‘linking’. Similar categorization could be done according to other criteria such as strong or weak ties, horizontal or vertical, open or closed, structural or cognitive, geographically dispersed or circumscribed, and instrumental or principled (further discussion of these types and categorizations can be found in the types of social capital section). In table 2 below the external definitions are those that focus primarily on the relations as actors maintain with other actors the internal are those that focus on the structure of relations among actors within a collectivity and both types of linkages (Adler and Kwon 2002).

External versus Internal
Authors Definitions of Social Capital
External/ Bridging/ Communal Baker ‘a resource that actors derive from specific social structures and then use to pursue their interests; it is created by changes in the relationship among actors’; (Baker 1990, p. 619)[16].
Belliveau, O’Reilly, Wade ‘an individual’s personal network and elite institutional affiliations’ (Belliveau et al. 1996, p. 1572)[17].
Bourdieu ‘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 or recognition’ (Bourdieu 1986, p. 248)[18].’made up of social obligations (‘connections’), which is convertible, in certain conditions, into economic capital and may be institutionalized in the form of a title of nobility’ (Bourdieu 1986, p. 243)[18].
Bourdieu Wacquant ‘the sum of the resources, actual or virtual, that accrue to an individual or a group by virtue of possessing a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition’ (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992, p. 119)[19].
Boxman, De Graai. Flap ‘the number of people who can be expected to provide support and the resources those people have at their disposal’ (Boxman et al. 1991, p. 52)[20].
Burt ‘friends, colleagues, and more general contacts through whom you receive opportunities to use your financial and human capital’ (Burt 1992, p. 9)[21].’the brokerage opportunities in a network’ (Burt 1997, p. 355)[21].
Knoke ‘the process by which social actors create and mobilize their network connections within and between organizations to gain access to other social actors’ resources’ (Knoke 1999, p. 18)[22].
Portes ‘the ability of actors to secure benefits by virtue of membership in social networks or other social structures’ (Portes 1998, p. 6)[23].
Internal/ Bonding/ Linking
Brehm Rahn ‘the web of cooperative relationships between citizens that facilitate resolution of collective action problems’ (Brehm and Rahn 1997, p. 999)[24].
Coleman ‘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 structure, and they facilitate certain actions of individuals who are within the structure’ (Coleman 1990, p. 302)[25].
Fukuyama ‘the ability of people to work together for common purposes in groups and organizations’ (Fukuyama 1995, p. 10)[26].’Social capital can be defined simply as the existence of a certain set of informal values or norms shared among members of a group that permit cooperation among them’ (Fukuyama 1997)[26].
Inglehart ‘a culture of trust and tolerance, in which extensive networks of voluntary associations emerge’ (Inglehart 1997, p. 188)[27].
Portes Sensenbrenner ‘those expectations for action within a collectivity that affect the economic goals and goal’ seeking behavior of its members, even if these expectations are not oriented toward the economic sphere’ (Portes and Sensenbrenner 1993, p. 1323)[28].
Putnam ‘features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit’ (Putnam 1995, p. 67)[29].
Thomas ‘those voluntary means and processes developed within civil society which promote development for the collective whole’ (Thomas 1996, p. 11)[30].
Both types
Loury ‘naturally occurring social relationships among persons which promote or assist the acquisition of skills and traits valued in the marketplace. . . an asset which may be as significant as financial bequests in accounting for the maintenance of inequality in our society’ (Loury 1992, p. 100)[31].
Nahapiet and Ghoshal ‘the sum of the actual and potential resources embedded within, available through, and derived from the network of relationships possessed by an individual or social unit. Social capital thus comprises both the network and the assets that may be mobilized through that network’ (Nahapiet and Ghoshal 1998, p. 243)[32].
Pennar ‘the web of social relationships that influences individual behavior and thereby affects economic growth’ (Pennar 1997, p. 154)[33].
Schiff ‘the set of elements of the social structure that affects relations among people and are inputs or arguments of the production and/or utility function’ (Schiff 1992, p. 160)[34].
Woolcock ‘the information, trust, and norms of reciprocity inhering in one’s social networks’ (Woolcock 1998, p. 153)[14].

As previously identified, all studies must discuss social capital in relation to the particular discipline, study level, and context and that a set definition for such is not required, only an identification of operationalization or conceptualization. Therefore this study will not create a new definition of social capital and will not select an existing definition from the literature as doing so limits the application and understanding of the concept. This study will identify an appropriate operationalization and conceptualization for social capital in following sections. The above discussion of definitions should provide ample understanding of the social capital concept.

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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  1. Dolfsma, Wilfred, and Charlie Dannreuther. 2003. ‘Subjects and boundaries: Contesting social capital-based policies.’ Journal of Economic Issues 37: 405-413. ^
  2. Foley, Michael W, and Bob Edwards. 1997. ‘Escape from politics? Social theory and the social capital debate.’ American Behavioral Scientist 40: 550. ^
  3. Robison, Lindon J., A. Allan Schmid, and Marcelo E. Siles. 2002. “Is social capital really capital?” Review of Social Economy 60: 1-24. ^
  4. Adler, Paul S, and Seok-Woo Kwon. 2002. ‘Social Capital: Prospects For a New Concept.’ Academy of Management. The Academy of Management Review 27: 17-40. ^
  5. Adam, Frane, and Borut Roncevic. 2003. ‘Social Capital: Recent Debates and Research Trends.’ Social Science Information 42: 155-183. ^
  6. SCIG. 2000. “Short papers from the April, 1998 Social Capital Conference at Michigan State University.” The Journal of Socio-Economics 29: 579. ^
  7. Field, John, Tom Schuller, and Stephen Baron. 2000. ‘Social capital and human capital revisited.’ Pp. 243-264 in Social Capital: Critical Perspectives, edited by Tom Schuller. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ^
  8. Grootaert, Christiaan, and Thierry Van Bastelaer. 2002b. ‘Introduction and Overview.’ Pp. 1-7 in The Role of Social Capital in Development, edited by Thierry Van Bastelaer. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press. ^
  9. Eastis, Carla M. 1998. ‘Organisational diversity and the production of social capital.’ American Behavioural Scientist 42: 66-77. ^
  10. Day, Ronald E. 2002. ‘Social capital, value, and measure: Antonio Negri’s challenge to capitalism.’ Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 53: 1074-1082. ^
  11. Dekker, Paul, and Eric M. Uslaner. 2001. ‘Introduction.’ Pp. 1 – 8 in Social Capital and Participation in Everyday Life, edited by Eric M. Uslaner. London: Routledge. ^
  12. Uslaner, Eric M. 2001. “Volunteering and social capital: how trust and religion shape civic participation in the United States.” Pp. 104 – 117 in Social Capital and Participation in Everyday Life, edited by Eric M. Uslaner. London: Routledge. ^
  13. Sander, Thomas H. 2002. “Social capital and new urbanism: leading a civic horse to water.” National Civic Review 91: 213-221. ^
  14. Woolcock, Michael. 1998. “Social capital and economic development: Towards a theoretical synthesis and policy framework.” Theory and Society 27: 151-208. ^
  15. Oh, H., M. Kilduff, and D.J. Brass. 1999. “Communal social capital, linking social capital, and economic outcomes.” in Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management. Chicago. ^
  16. Baker, W. 1990. ‘Market Networks and Corporate Behaviour.’ American Journal of Sociology 96: 589 – 625. ^
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  18. Bourdieu, P. 1986. ‘The Forms of Capital.’ Pp. 241-58 in Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education, edited by John G Richardson. New York: Greenwood Press. ^
  19. Bourdieu, P., and L. P. D. Wacquant. 1992. An Invitation to Reflexive sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ^
  20. Boxman, E. A. W, P. M De Grant, and H. D Flap. 1991. ‘The Impact of Social and Human Capital on the Income Attainment of Dutch Managers.” Social Networks 13: 51 – 73. ^
  21. Burt, Ronald. 1992. Structural Holes: The Social Structure of Competition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ^
  22. Knoke, D. 1999. ‘Organizational networks and corporate social capital.’ Pp. 17 – 42 in Corporate Social Capital and Liability, edited by S. M. Gabbay. Boston: Kluwer. ^
  23. Portes, Alejandro. 1998. “Social capital: its origins and applications in modern sociology.” Annual Review of Sociology 24: 1-25. ^
  24. Brehm, John, and W Rahn. 1997. ‘Individual-Level Evidence for the Causes and Consequences of Social Capital.’ American Journal of Political Science 41: 999 – 1023. ^
  25. Coleman, James S. 1990. Foundations of social theory. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ^
  26. Fukuyama, Francis. 1995. Trust : the social virtues and the creation of prosperity. London: Hamish Hamilton. ^
  27. Inglehart, R. 1997. Modernization and post-modernization: cultural, economic and political change in 43 societies. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ^
  28. Portes, Alejandro, and Julia Sensenbrenner. 1993. “Embeddedness and immigration: Notes on the social determinants of economic action.” American Journal of Sociology 98: 1320 – 1350. ^
  29. Putnam, Robert D. 1995. “Bowling alone: America’s declining social capital.” Journal of Democracy 6: 65-78. ^
  30. Thomas, C. Y. 1996. “Capital markets, financial markets and social capital.” Social and Economic Studies 45: 1 – 23. ^
  31. Loury, G. 1992. ‘The economics of discrimination: Getting to the core of the problem.’ Harvard Journal for African American Public Policy 1: 91 – 110. ^
  32. Nahapiet, Janine, and Sumantra Ghoshal. 1998. “Social capital, intellectual capital, and the organizational advantage.” Academy of Management Review 23: 242. ^
  33. Pennar, K. 1997. “The tie that leads to prosperity: The economic value of social bonds is only beginning to be measured.” Business Weekly: 153 – 155. ^
  34. Schiff, M. 1992. “Social capital, labour mobility, and welfare: The impact of uniting states.” Rationailty and Society 4. ^

77 Responses

  1. This page has given me some good ideas to conceptualise social capital in relation to studying indigenous health this semester. Thanks!

  2. Thanks Tristan, this article helped me to get a good intro into the subject and list several future readings.
    best regards

  3. great works!! I am an undergrad and really hard to find literature about social capital in my univ. this help me a lot. however, if I’d like to cite the table of definition from Adler n Kwon above, do I have to write it as it is?(the definitions that I don’t cite directly, should I write the end note and add it on my reference?
    thanks a lot for your help

  4. Thanks for the good definitions but there is need for more elaboration on the categorization of these definitions as external/internal categories.

  5. I should have read your web earlier…..I am now doing thesis on sc.thanks for yr sharing. the literature quality is quite good

  6. Very interesting. It’s broadened my appreciation of social capital. We need to look into how social capital is created and sustained for economic benefits.

  7. I work for Cancer Council NSW .I have had trouble differentiating between ‘social capital’ and capacity building
    Does this make sense?
    For the purposes of this paper Cancer Council social capital will be defined as the cumulative, cooperative, action of capacity building that results in an outcome of successful community engagement. When social capital reaches ‘tipping point’ positive change in cancer control will follow because we have been able to build social capital

    Community Engagement (relationship) > Capacity Building (process) > Social Capital (outcome)

    1. Thanks for your comment Patty.

      I would describe capacity building as improving human capital rather than changing social capital although capacity building could be argued to be the building of any productive assets of a person which would include some aspects of social capital.

      Community Engagement (process) > Capacity Building (outcome) > Social Capital (outcome)

      The process of successful community engagement results in human capital benefits (in terms of capacity building – eg knowledge, skills, processes) and social capital benefits (in terms of bridging networks – eg trust, belonging, information flows, etc).

      Please feel free to email me. I’d be happy to discuss further.

  8. In a world in which people everywhere are enjoying higher levels of education and an increasing consciousness of their social and other rights, there is no escaping the need to ensure that financial-industrial systems are designed primarily to serve majority needs. If these are ignored then civil chaos on a global scale will inevitably follow.
    The British industrial publicist and prolific writer, Robert Corfe, is a leading authority in pointing the way ahead in his major 3-volume work, Social Capitalism in Theory & Practice, published by Arena Books. In this book he politicises issues which hitherto have been beyond the radar screen of political life, e.g., through his in-depth differentiation between Social and Unsocial Wealth Creation; benign Productive capitalism versus malign Rentier capitalism; Productive profitability versus Rentier profitability; and desirable and undesirable modes for the financing of industrial investment.
    In addition, he describes how financial markets may be made to work for home-based industry; how industrial associations are failing in their proper purpose; how workers and bosses may combine in the struggle against de-industrialisation; the need for re-defining the meaning of free trade; reforming the company for greater fairness and efficiency; an analysis of those self-proclaimed “industrialists” amongst the super-rich who are destroying rather than contributing to the cause of Social Wealth Creation; and a 50-page declaration of Social Capitalist values – amongst many other topics touching on the material well-being of the majority.
    Robert Corfe has spent a lifetime in senior management in industry as well as involvement in politics and other spheres of public life. In 1987 he established the Campaign for Industry, supported by leading industrialists, an association for which he wrote many incisive pamphlets on the problems of commercially viable productivity. His biography is available on Amazon and other websites – and his books are also available on Kindle as well as print. He may be contacted on .

  9. Excellent synthesis of existing literature; very helpful to a person new to the term. I especially liked that the author of this article did not select one definition as ‘better’ than others, but left it to the reader to apply it themselves.

  10. Thank you for this article I learnt more from this article.God bless you.[malawi]

  11. Wow, all last night I was spinning my head on the definitions of Social Capital. This is amazing!! And to give a reference list is a BONUS!!! Thank you so much! This will help so much with my essay! 🙂

  12. I notice that all of these have to do with the social interactions between individuals, and are therefore different from human capital, such as education or health care and prevention, which focus on individuals.
    Political discussions in this election year often mention human capital, but social capital is different. Nonetheless, the World Bank has taken notice. Here’s what WB says, “Social capital refers to the institutions, relationships, and norms that shape the quality and quantity of a society’s social interactions. Increasing evidence shows that social cohesion is critical for societies to prosper economically and for development to be sustainable. Social capital is not just the sum of the institutions which underpin a society – it is the glue that holds them together.”

  13. I appreciate the social capital concept, I don’t know if the concept is seen for the very important properties it possess that can shape the outcome of one’s interest. Very informative article, thanks.

  14. Hi all,
    very comprehensive definition.I was wondering does social capital also encompass support from government network. I have read from paper, it being used to be inclusive of government network (eg the social welfare service, etc).

    1. Thanks for your comment Guru Kong. Social capital certainly does include the role of government and the important influence that can have on social capital at all levels.

  15. Social Capital a unique concept with varied definations, at first i was thinking human capital, but it is so different, i have grasp the concept brilliant!

  16. The best definition I have seen of “Social Capital” is from Johathon Porritt”, pages 112 & 113 from the book “Capitalism as if the World Matters.
    “Capital is a stock of anything that has the capacity to generate a flow of benefis which are valued by humans. Social Capital takes the form of structures, institutions, networks and relationships which enable individals to maintain and develop their human capital in partnership with others, and to be more productive when working together than in isolation. It includes families, communities, businesses, trade unions, voluntary organizations, legal/political systems and educational and health bodies.”

  17. You, my friend, are a rock star. This page is brilliantly written and organized– it’s a brilliant capture of an elusive topic. Kudos.
    (How have I not come across this website until now? This would have been immensely helpful in my postgrad research. Better late than never, though.)

  18. I have learned some of the aspects of social capital , but would like to add on saying that social capital has economic value in it like other forms of capital . Its ecomomic value is that it increases the competitive advantage of indivuduals and organisations through netwoking. Also in a much deeper sense it is also necessary to understand that social capital cannot be depleted but increases with use and is avasilable in the fom of infomartion, knowlegde skills and so forth

  19. I had quite some problems understanding what social capital is for writing my Bachelor thesis in economics, thanks for clearing some stuff up! 🙂

  20. Pingback: Growing Social Capital - Earthscape Art & Design
    1. Social capital is often said to have lubricating properties because it can facilitate processes such as information sharing, innovation, creativity, etc. The gluing nature of social capital relates to the sense of belonging which is a component.

  21. there any relationship between capabilities (According to capability approach and social capital? How is the interactions?

  22. I am actually grateful to the hоlder οf this site who has shared thіs wonderful piece of wгitіng at this time.

  23. Is the term “mutual benefits” here means “mutual benefits of people in that particular network”, – because benefits to particular networked people may be harmful for others (who are outside this particular network)?

    1. This is something that Putnam’s conceptualization of social capital has been widely criticized for – it treats social capital as universally positive.

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