The Evolving Concept of Social Capital: a Three-Stage Process Part of 2014 article "One Hundred Years of ‘Social Capital’"

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Over the last 100 years, scholars have developed Social Capital as a multifaceted concept, emphasizing constituting elements for different purposes in a variety of fields. This section discusses the development of Social Capital theory during three distinct periods. Table 1 gives a condensed summary.

Table 1.  Overview of the evolution of Social Capital theory

SocialCapitalSocial and Capital
 Period 1915–1990 1990–2000 2000–2015
 Educational domain Domain of origin; Attention to social relations and educational improvementAttention disappeared; emphasis on achievements of students in different social layersGrowing attention; emphasis on student achievements and institutional innovation
 Theme What is Social Capital?What is the impact of Social Capital?How does ‘social’ create ‘capital’?
 Important domains Education, minoritiesCommunity, society, politics, economics, public health, educationCommunity, society, politics, economics, public health, organizational development, education
 Definition Quality of the relations as resource for common action and goodsVariety of definitions, fragmentary aspectsFrom definition to redefined models, tested theory, growing evidence
 Scholars Hanifan, Bourdieu, ColemanPutnam, Portes, Lin, Woolcock, Burt, Granovetter Putname, Portes, Lin, Nahapiet, and Ghoshal, Paldam, Adler
 Research Metaphorical and prescriptiveQuantitative evidence, mostly on economic innovation and societal improvementsQualitative, mixed, multidisciplinary
 Dissemination Some articlesA myriad of articles in journals in many domainsMainstream books and handbooks

Social Capital theory has its origins in the educational domain.  Hanifan, Bourdieu and Coleman are regarded as the pioneers who utilized Social Capital theory for improving education. Hanifan, a reformer of rural schools in West Virginia, proposed the  concept  for  the  first  time  in  the  context  of  educating  minority populations,

stressing the importance of community involvement. His account of Social Capital emphasized the value of social relations in a community ‘as capital’ for their members. Social Capital refers

‘… not to real estate, or to personal property or to cold cash, but rather to that in life which tends to make this tangible substances count for most in the daily lives of people, namely, goodwill, fellowship, mutual sympathy and social intercourse among a group of individuals who make up a social unit…’ (Hanifan, 1916)[1].

Hanifan’s introduction of the concept, however, did not attract noticeable attention. Scientific recognition came six decades later when the French scholar Bourdieu used the concept to demonstrate the inequality of the Social Capital of groups in society. At the same time, the American scholar Coleman promoted Social Capital  as  a means of socialization, ‘creating human capital’. Bourdieu’s sociological definition of Social Capital includes

‘… the aggregate of actual or potential resources linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance or recognition…’ ‘This group membership  provides  members with the backing of the collectively owned capital’ (Bourdieu, 1986)[2].

He emphasized the ‘resources’ of the membership of a network as a collective possession, which defines one’s social position and possibilities, as well as the availability of ‘institutional resources’, such as education.

Contrary to Bourdieu, Coleman (1990)[3] welcomed the reproduction of upper-class values and norms by means of forming the right Social Capital. Family and school have to contribute significantly to this process of reproduction. Coleman proposed three forms of Social Capital: level of trust (as evidenced by obligations and expectations), information channels, and norms and sanctions that promote the common good over self-interest. This Social Capital facilitates certain actions (Coleman,  1990)[3]. His definition emphasizes, like Hanifan’s, the value of social relations and the quality of these relations, as well as the channels, promoting the common good.

Despite their differences, Hanifan, Bourdieu and Coleman share the emphasis on  the usability of the concept as an explanation for educational achievement. However, they did not further develop the concept into an empirically sound theory.

Between 1990 and 2000, the concept of Social Capital became recognized across different fields. Especially Coleman’s interpretation was frequently adopted mostly  by scholars in political sciences and economics in attempts to ‘capitalize’ social relations. Key questions included the economic pay-off of Social Capital (Knack & Keefer, 1997[4]), and how to measure Social Capital (Paldam, 2000[5]; Stone, 2001[6]). Scholars pointed at Social Capital as a powerful factor at macro, meso and  micro  levels (Isham, Kelly & Ramaswamy, 2002)[7] that positively influences the development in settings as developing countries, communities, health, education, democracy and government, and economic development (Jackman & Miller, 1996[8]; Portes & Sensenbrenner, 1993[9]). In the USA, Social Capital theory continued to attract attention in education circles since it was used to investigate the achievements of pupils and students (Dika & Singh, 2002[10]). The rise of Social Capital theory was encouraged by publications in well-established journals, such as the Academy of Management Journal and Harvard Educational Review, which contributed to its scientific status.

The enhancement of the status of Social Capital theory was accompanied by indepth elaboration on its various components, such as networks, trust, norms, values and collaboration. This pursuit of making the concept of Social Capital better measurable was also criticized as it encouraged researchers to focus on separate variables, ignoring the concept of Social Capital as a whole. As Lin (1999, p.33[11]) stated,  ‘the concept of Social Capital has been de-contextualized and  divorced  from its roots in individual interactions and networking’. Most research studies in this stage are quantitative and non-contextual (Cooke & Wills, 1999[12]; Gabbay & Zuckerman, 1998[13]; Tsai & Ghoshal, 1998[14]). The concept became accepted in fields as economics and political sciences, but as a consequence the ‘capital’ aspect was placed in the foreground and the ‘social’ gradually faded into the background.

The fact that Social Capital research focused more on particular fragments, raised concerns. The need for an overarching theory outlining the essence of Social Capital was signalled by Nahapiet and Ghoshal (1998)[15], who proposed a three-dimensional model that became widely adopted by many scholars in different fields. During the last decades, multidisciplinary research has grown, theoretically refined  models  have emerged and increasing attention has been paid to the contextual embedding of Social Capital. The use of qualitative research and mixed methods has become common.

The growing body of research encouraged the production of reviews, books and handbooks, such as the often cited review by Portes (2000)[16]. Dika and Singh (2002)[16] reviewed the state of the art in the educational domain, while Robert Putnam ‘s book ‘Bowling Alone’ (2000)[17] attracted a broad readership. A year later, the first

‘Social Capital’ handbook was published, ‘Social Capital, a theory of social structure and action’ (Lin, 2001)[18], presenting empirical research and providing a research agenda on the instrumental aspects of Social Capital. More handbooks are those by Castiglione, van Deth and Wolleb (2008)[19], and Svendsen and Svendsen (2009)[20], ‘The Troika of Sociology, Political Science and Economics’. It seems as if through these handbooks partly the work of the early pioneers mirror. Lin’s work is influenced by Bourdieu and presents Social Capital as phenomenon of networks and action. Castigilione, van Deth and Wolleb focus on the effects of Social Capital, whereas Svendsen and Svendsen emphasize the need for interdisciplinarity. None of the handbooks pays any attention to Social Capital in the educational domain.

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Citing this article

This article is part of a thesis:

Corry.G.J.M. Ehlen. 2015. Co-creation of Innovation: Investment with and in Social Capital. Open University. Heerlen. The Netherlands. ISBN 97894 91825 77 4.

You should reference this work as:

Ehlen, C.G., Van der Klink, M., Boshuizen, H.P.A. (2014). One Hundred Years of ‘Social Capital’: Historical Development and Contribution to Collective Knowledge Creation in Organizational Innovation. Open University. Heerlen. The Netherlands.

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