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What is Relational Social Capital?

Relational social capital is a dimension of social capital that relates to the characteristics and qualities of personal relationships such as trust, obligations, respect and even friendship[1]. The key aspects of the relational dimension of social capital are trust and trustworthiness, norms and sanctions, obligations and expectations, and identity and identification[2].

Relational social capital is one of three dimensions of social capital, the others being structural and cognitive social capital. The distinction between structural, cognitive, and relational social capital was made by Janine Nahapiet and Sumantra Ghoshal[2] and forms the most widely used and accepted framework for understanding social capital. These dimensions are conceptual distinctions that are useful for analytic convenience but in practice social capital involves complex interrelations between the three dimensions.

Structural Cognitive Relational
Social structure Shared understandings Nature and quality of relationships

The relational dimension of social capital refers to the nature and quality of the relationships that have developed through a history of interaction[3] and plays out in behavioural attributes such as trustworthiness, shared group norms, obligations and identification[4].

Relational social capital is about the nature and quality of relationshipsRelational social capital is the affective part as it describes relationships in terms of interpersonal trust, existence of shared norms and identification with other individuals. The relational dimension deals with the nature or quality of networks or relationships[5].

Nahapiet and Ghoshal (1998)[2] identified that the key aspects of relational social capital are trust and trustworthiness[6][7], norms and sanctions[8][7], obligations and expectations[9][8][10], and identity and identification[11][12].

The relational dimension encourages normative behaviour based on trust, reciprocity, obligations and expectations[13]. A core facet of relational social capital is associability – the willingness to subordinate individual goals to collective goals[14].

There is overlap between cognitive and relational social capital and this can cause confusion for some people. For example, trust and trustworthiness are typically described as parts of the relational dimension. Trust can be is an attribute of a relationship, but trustworthiness remains an attribute of the actors involved[15] so may be more appropriately conceptualised as cognitive social capital. Both cognitive and relational social capital are intangible and stem from observation, perception, and opinion so are highly subjective and variable between individuals and contexts. Both forms arise from the mental rather than the material realm, so both are ultimately cognitive, leading some authors to conceptualise both dimensions together resulting in only two dimensions of social capital: structural and cognitive.


  1. Gooderham, Paul N. 2007. “Enhancing Knowledge Transfer in Multinational Corporations: A Dynamic Capabilities Driven Model.” Knowledge Management Research & Practice 5(1):34–43. ^
  2. Nahapiet, Janine and Sumantra Ghoshal. 1998. “Social Capital, Intellectual Capital, and the Organizational Advantage.” Academy of Management Review 23(2):242. ^
  3. Lefebvre, Virginie Marie, Douglas Sorenson, Maeve Henchion, and Xavier Gellynck. 2016. “Social Capital and Knowledge Sharing Performance of Learning Networks.” International Journal of Information Management 36(4):570–79. ^
  4. Davenport, Sally and Urs Daellenbach. 2011. “‘Belonging’ to a Virtual Research Centre: Exploring the Influence of Social Capital Formation Processes on Member Identification in a Virtual Organization.” British Journal of Management 22(1):54–76. ^
  5. Cabrera, Elizabeth F. and Angel Cabrera. 2005. “Fostering Knowledge Sharing through People Management Practices.” The International Journal of Human Resource Management 16(5):720–35. ^
  6. Fukuyama, Francis. 1995. Trust : The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity. London: Hamish Hamilton. ^
  7. Putnam, RD Robert D. 1995. “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital.” Journal of Democracy 6(1):65–78. ^
  8. Coleman, James S. 1990. Foundations of Social Theory. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ^
  9. Burt, Ronald. 1992. Structural Holes: The Social Structure of Competition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ^
  10. Granovetter, Mark. 1985. “Economic Action and Social Structure: The Problem of Embeddedness.” American Journal of Sociology 91(3):481–510. ^
  11. Hakansson, Hakan and Ivan Snehota. 1995. Developing Relationships in Business Networks. ^
  12. Merton, Robert King. 1968. Social Theory and Social Structure. Simon and Schuster. ^
  13. Lee, R. and O. Jones. 2008. “Networks, Communication and Learning during Business Start-up: The Creation of Cognitive Social Capital.” International Small Business Journal 26(5):559–94. ^
  14. Lazarova, Mila and Sully Taylor. 2009. “Boundaryless Careers, Social Capital, and Knowledge Management: Implications for Organizational Performance.” Journal of Organizational Behavior 30(1):119–39. ^
  15. Anderson, Alistair R. and Sarah L. Jack. 2002. “The Articulation of Social Capital in Entrepreneurial Networks: A Glue or a Lubricant?” Entrepreneurship & Regional Development 14(3):193–210. ^

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