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What is Social Capital?

Supplementary resources on social capital to complement our guide to social capital.

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Social Capital in Practice

A general guide for the practical application of social capital


Integral to social structures, roles enable individuals to collaborate more efficiently, predictably, and productively. Roles give rise to interaction patterns that provide incentives and motivation for people to engage and cooperate in pursuit of shared objectives. The allocation of roles enhances the coordination of activities, mobilisation of resources, decision-making processes, and resolution of conflicts.

Take, for instance, when a member of a club encounters a financial issue linked to the club; they would typically approach the club’s treasurer. In turn, the treasurer might find cause to engage with entities beyond the club, such as financial institutions and other individuals. These interaction patterns establish and reinforce social capital, which proves advantageous for the club, the individuals involved, and the broader community. Social interaction plays a pivotal role in cultivating social capital and bringing forth its positive outcomes. Consequently, roles that facilitate interaction, particularly among individuals who may not naturally engage, hold significance for the development of social capital.

Assigning individuals to specific roles establishes obligations and expectations, reinforcing social identity and prompting actions that align with group objectives. Roles serve as potent indicators of the expectations and responsibilities tied to them, contributing to the development of constructive social norms. People within and external to the group understand the normatively appropriate conduct and expectations associated with a given role, outlining the expected actions of someone in that capacity. This clarity facilitates efficient coordination of actions, resulting in diverse benefits for the enhancement of social capital. Roles instil various beliefs that, in turn, facilitate more effective collaborative efforts.

Take the leader of an organisation, for instance; they are often presumed to embody qualities such as honour, trustworthiness, and reliability. Holding prestigious roles can enhance an individual’s social standing and status. This elevation can be reinforced by conferring titles and other symbols associated with roles, solidifying shared understandings linked to the position and exerting a stronger influence on actions involving individuals in those roles. However, there is the risk that elevated social status associated with prestigious roles can be used for personal gain where the actor makes interactions transactional. In these situations, social capital can be eroded with detriment to the group and society.

Roles create tangible and powerful signals of social norms associated with the role. Actors both within the group and external to the group tend to have understandings of what is normatively appropriate and expected for the role – how someone in that role should act. This allows the efficient coordination of action with various benefits for social capital strengthening. Roles create various understandings that are necessary for people to work together on complex tasks. Roles can change the personal circumstances of those actors involved. Actors may feel influenced to “act” like one should act in the role. This can ascribe feelings of esteem, confidence, and empowerment.

Creating, reviewing, and changing the roles within social organisations can be an important way to apply social capital. For individuals, obtaining certain roles can significantly improve the individual properties of social capital. Roles often create bridging and linking ties that create opportunities to “get ahead”.

Roles can be formal or informal and can be paid or unpaid. Formal roles are typically assigned to an individual and are associated with a title. For example, employment roles and positions on boards or committees. Informal roles can be self-assumed where an actor takes responsibility for a certain task or function within a social grouping or acts in a way that creates habituated patterns of action that creates shared understandings related to the informal role. Actors can also informally assign roles to others over time through patterns of interaction. For example, group members may come to know that if you need travel bookings you go talk to Jane.

“Creating social capital requires more than just introducing roles, since it is the acceptance of roles that patterns people’s behavior in predictable and productive ways. A role exists when there are shared and mutual expectations about what any person in a certain role should and will do under various conditions. These expectations need to be shared by both role incumbents and those persons who interact with that role. Social organization is less costly and often more effective in cases in which cooperation is motivated by norms, values, beliefs, and attitudes that create reinforcing expectations, rather than the organizers having to gain cooperation through material incentives or coercive actions. While such incentives and actions may be involved in any complex set of social relations, if they are all that produces intended behavior, this is a very expensive way to achieve results.” (Uphoff, 1999: p228)

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