03 Oct 2020

Shared language and codes An aspect of the cognitive dimension of social capital

Shared language is commonly mentioned as one of the elements of the cognitive dimension of social capital. The other dimensions of social capital being the structural and relational dimensions. This conceptualisation, distinguishing between structural, relational, and cognitive dimensions, is one of the major approaches to social capital. This approach was systematically explored and elucidated by Nahapiet & Ghoshal (1998)[1] building on Granovetter’s (1992)[2] discussion of structural and relational embeddedness.

Shared language includes the terms, vocabulary, and jargon that are used by a social group or in a social setting

Shared language is critical for effective social interaction which is necessary for people to work together for collective action[3]. It provides a “common conceptual apparatus” that is essential for effective interaction and exchange[1]. Shared language includes the terms, vocabulary, and jargon that are used by a social group or in a social setting[4]. It can include scientific, academic, or technical terms and acronyms as well as the subtleties of language such as colloquialisms and words that carry specific meaning in that social context[5]. Social groupings develop and use language differently and are the staples of day-to-day interactions[6].

The common lexicon to ‘speak the same language’ connotes a comfort and similarity with others that is inclusive and associated with shared identity and belonging. Even the same words can have different meanings when used by people in different social settings and can create significant barriers to effective communication[7][8].

Shared language is an important part of the cognitive dimension of social capital that is vital to various other aspects of social capital. Social structures create the opportunity, the relational dimension helps to create motivation, and shared language provides the ability to create and use social capital. Social capital is built and realised by primarily by social interaction. Since shared language is required for effective interaction, it is essential to both the creation and use of social capital[9].

Shared understanding is linked to social identity and belonging, solidarity, trust, and social participation

Different actors can use different language and a lack of shared language between actors can be a significant barrier to collaboration to achieve common goals[10]. A lack of shared language can highlight power differentials and emphasise differences and divisions that can impair the reaching of common goals and sense of common purpose that is vital for collective action. It tends to weaken the sense of shared identity[7] and therefore undermines solidarity and sense of belonging that is important to the development and maintenance of trust[11][12]. It can be a barrier to participation and interaction since people can feel uncertainty and a lack of confidence or embarrassment that they may not understand what is being said and that what they say may not be understood as they mean it. In a practical sense, a lack of shared language can make communication ineffective and make it difficult to reach mutual understandings[5].

Shared language is developed by repeat contact and regular dialog between actors. This requires mechanisms and institutions to sustain such conversations and direct the nature and purpose of them. Shared language, like other shared understandings, is best developed when actors take a genuine interest in understanding the situation and perspective of others. Strong leadership can facilitate effective communication and shape a strong sense of shared purpose.

Shared language can be difficult to measure

Shared language can be difficult to measure since actors are often not fully aware of what language is shared by a social grouping. Some language may be obvious, such as the use of acronyms and technical terms, but other more subtle shared language can be difficult to observe, especially where normal words carry slightly different meaning or significance. Shared language forms part of the background context of day-to-day interactions in social grouping. It reflects the rich and deep understandings gained from prolonged experience in the social context. Much of it is prereflective, making it difficult to measure since participants cannot be fully aware of it.

  1. Nahapiet, J., & Ghoshal, S. (1998). Social capital, intellectual capital, and the organizational advantage. Academy of Management Review, 23(2), 242 ^
  2. Granovetter, M. (1992). Problems of explanation in economic sociology. In N. Nohria & R. Eccles (Eds.), Networks and organizations: Structure, form, and action (pp. 25–56). Harvard Business School Press ^
  3. Eiteneyer, N., Bendig, D., & Brettel, M. (2019). Social capital and the digital crowd: Involving backers to promote new product innovativeness. Research Policy, 48(8) ^
  4. Mohammed, N., & Kamalanabhan, T. J. (2019). Tacit knowledge seeking from teammates: unravelling the role of social capital. International Journal of Organizational Analysis, 27(3), 765–790 ^
  5. Chiu, C.-M. C., Hsu, M. M.-H., & Wang, E. E. T. G. (2006). Understanding knowledge sharing in virtual communities: An integration of social capital and social cognitive theories. Decision Support Systems, 42(3), 1872–1888 ^
  6. Sitton, J. (2003). Habermas and Contemporary Society. Palgrave MacMillan ^
  7. Davenport, S., & Daellenbach, U. (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. ^
  8. der Kroon, S. M. A. (2002). Social capital and communication. LEI ^
  9. Prusak, L., & Cohen, D. (2001). How to invest in social capital. Harvard Business Review ^
  10. Fuller, T., & Tian, Y. (2006). Social and Symbolic Capital and Responsible Entrepreneurship: An Empirical Investigation of SME Narratives. Journal of Business Ethics, 67(3), 287–304 ^
  11. Meek, S., Ogilvie, M., Lambert, C., & Ryan, M. M. (2019). Contextualising social capital in online brand communities. Journal of Brand Management, 26(4), 426–444 ^
  12. Rao, K. S., & Gebremichael, H. (2017). Social capital and innovation of firms: Evidence from the tenant firms in Ethiopia. Social Capital, 3(3) ^

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  • Ian Falk October 3, 2020

    An example of shared language and the creation of social capital is Sukarno’s selection of an archipelago language to define and bond more than 13,000 inhabited islands and hundreds of different language/cultures into the country of Indonesia.

    • Tristan Claridge October 3, 2020

      That is an excellent example at the macro level.


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