Structural, cognitive, relational social capital

The distinction between structural, cognitive, and relational social capital was made by Janine Nahapiet and Sumantra Ghoshal[1] 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.

Level of interconnectedness, quality and nature of these connections, and extent of common shared vision

Structural social capital refers to the presence of a network of access to people and resources, while relational and cognitive social capital relate to the capability for resource exchange[2]. Cognitive and relational social capital may seem similar however cognitive relates to the subjective interpretations of shared understandings whereas relational includes feelings of trust that are shared by the many actors within the social context (group, organisation, community). Thus, a simplified view of high levels of social capital would be strong connections, high levels of trust and a shared sense of mission. Or put another way we can understand social capital by the level of interconnectedness, quality and nature of these connections, and extent of common shared vision[3]. This relates to social capital as structural (connections among actors), relational (trust between actors) and cognitive (shared goals and values among actors) dimensions.

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

The structural/cognitive/relational distinction builds on Granovetter’s (1992)[4] discussion of structural and relational embeddedness. It conforms to the prevailing view that social capital constitutes aspects of social structure, and the nature of social relationships, especially norms. Thus ‘structural’ and ‘relational’ social capital.

Building on the concepts of structural and relational embeddedness

Structural social capital is tangible and can be readily observed by the existence of network ties (ie who knows who) as well as roles, rules, precedents, and procedures. The relational dimension however is intangible since it is what and how people think and feel. It is therefore ‘cognitive’ since it is a function of people’s cognition and has regularly been termed as such. It is common in the literature to find reference to two dimensions: structural and cognitive, for example van Bastelaer 2001[5]; Chou, Yuan 2006[6]; Grootaert et al. 2003[7]; Krishna and Shrader 1999[8]; Uphoff 1999[9]. Since approximately 2004 it has become much more common to find reference to the three dimensions, structural, cognitive, and relational, and this is now the mostly widely used and accepted framework.

Structural and Cognitive two-way distinction

If using a two-way distinction structural social capital is much the same as authors who use three dimensions but cognitive social capital is typically described as values, beliefs, attitudes, behaviour and social norms as well as trust, solidarity and reciprocity[8]. This represents the aspects of both cognitive and relational social capital as conceptualised under a three-way distinction. There are other variations in the literature, for example Krishna (2000)[8] terms the structural social capital as ‘institutional capital’ and the cognitive social capital as ‘relational capital’.

Interrelationships and causality between structural, cognitive, relational

Previous studies have suggested that the three dimensions of social capital and their different facets are highly interrelated[10][11]. The investigation of the links between them is essential for understanding social capital as a whole and the effects it can have in a given context[12]. In practice, the dimensions of social capital may be so intertwined that it is hard to dissect them. The dimensions are connected and mutually reinforcing[13].

It is clear that the structural dimension is an antecedent to both cognitive and relational dimensions[11] since social relationships and structures are essential for social exchange. Network ties facilitate social interaction, which in turn stimulates the development of the cognitive and relational dimensions of social capital. Thus a precondition for the development and maintenance of relational and cognitive dimensions of social capital is that of sustained social interaction[14].

It is likely that cognitive and relational dimensions reinforce and encourage the development of structural social capital by providing the inclination to interact and form new relationships, roles, rules, and procedures. Thus, there is likely two-way causality resulting in a mutually reinforcing cycle.

In terms of the relationship between cognitive and relational dimensions some authors have found that the cognitive dimension is an antecedent of the relational dimension of social capital. The reason is that shared goals and narratives may lead to shared norms and obligations, as well as to enhance feelings of trust and identity[15]. The same trust and identity can lead to increased interaction and sharing that can build cognitive social capital. The two are very closely linked and many authors, for example[16][17] to find that there is two-way causality.

It seems improbably that one dimension of social capital could exist without presence of the other forms as well, such is the interconnected nature of the dimensions. This supports Nahapiet and Ghoshal’s (1998)[1] observation that social capital involves complex interrelations between the three dimensions.

Does the level of investigation change how we conceptualise structural, cognitive, and relational social capital?

Researchers would be remiss to ignore the other dimensions

Some authors may place more emphasis on one or more dimension depending on their discipline and level of investigation. Investigators interested in social capital at the individual level may be more interested in the structural dimension, especially if they conceptualise social capital as a private good that is generated and owned by the individual. This is because an individual can have control over their investment in their social relationships but have limited control over the wider social environment within which their relationships are grounded. Even if this were the case researchers would be remiss to ignore the other dimensions since the dimensions of social capital are so highly interconnected.

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  1. Nahapiet, Janine and Sumantra Ghoshal. 1998. “Social Capital, Intellectual Capital, and the Organizational Advantage.” Academy of Management Review 23(2):242. ^
  2. Andrews, Rhys. 2010. “Organizational Social Capital, Structure and Performance.” Human Relations 63(5):583–608. ^
  3. Akram, Tayyaba, Shen Lei, Syed Talib Hussain, Muhammad Jamal Haider, and Muhammad Waqar Akram. 2016. “Does Relational Leadership Generate Organizational Social Capital? A Case of Exploring the Effect of Relational Leadership on Organizational Social Capital in China.” Future Business Journal 2(2):116–26. ^
  4. Granovetter, Mark. 1985. “Economic Action and Social Structure: The Problem of Embeddedness.” American Journal of Sociology 91(3):481–510. ^
  5. van Bastelaer, Thierry. 2001. “Imperfect Information, Social Capital and the Poor’s Access to Credit.” IRIS Center Working Paper No. 234. ^
  6. Chou, Yuan, K. 2006. “Three Simple Models of Social Capital and Economic Growth.” The Journal of Socio-Economics 35(5):889–912. ^
  7. Grootaert, Christiaan, Deepa Narayan, Veronica Nyhan Jones, and Michael Woolcock. 2003. Measuring Social Capital: An Integrated Questionnaire. ^
  8. Krishna, Anirudh and Elizabeth Shrader. 1999. “Social Capital Assessment Tool.” in Conference on Social Capital and Poverty Reduction. Washington, D.C. ^
  9. Uphoff, Norman. 1999. “Understanding Social Capital: Learning from the Analysis and Experience of Participation.” Pp. 215–53 in Social Capital: A multifaceted perspective, edited by P. Dasgupta and I. Serageldin. Washington, DC: World Bank. ^
  10. Bond III, Edward U., Mark B. Houston, and Yihui (Elina) Tang. 2008. “Establishing a High-Technology Knowledge Transfer Network: The Practical and Symbolic Roles of Identification.” Industrial Marketing Management 37(6):641–52. ^
  11. Tsai, W. and S. Ghoshal. 1998. “Social Capital and Value Creation: The Role of Intrafirm Networks.” Academy of Management Journal 41(4):464–76. ^
  12. 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. ^
  13. Uphoff, Norman and C. M. Wijayaratna. 2000. “Demonstrated Benefits from Social Capital: The Productivity of Farmer Organizations in Gal Oya, Sri Lanka.” World Development 28(11):1875–90. ^
  14. Gooderham, Paul N. 2007. “Enhancing Knowledge Transfer in Multinational Corporations: A Dynamic Capabilities Driven Model.” Knowledge Management Research & Practice 5(1):34–43. ^
  15. Rao, K.Sambasiva and Hailemariam Gebremichael. 2017. “Social Capital and Innovation of Firms: Evidence from the Tenant Firms in Ethiopia.” Social Capital 3(3). ^
  16. Leana, C. R. and H. J. Van Buren. 1999. “Organizational Social Capital and Employment Practices.” Academy of Management Review 24(3):538–55. ^
  17. Uhlaner, Lorraine M., Ilse A. Matser, Marta M. Berent-Braun, and Roberto H. Flören. 2015. “Linking Bonding and Bridging Ownership Social Capital in Private Firms.” Family Business Review. ^
cognitivedimensionsrelationalsocial capitalsocial capital theorystructural
Comments ( 4 )
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  • Reza

    I have never seen such an organized and detailed and dedicated account of social capital as I have seen in this website. I am in the middle of a project and have been overwhelmed with the complexity and controversy in the social capital literature; I was literally lost when I found this incredible website which for was a page turner.

    I really appreciate what you have done and are doing.

    • Tristan Claridge

      Thanks for your comments Reza. I’m glad you found the website useful. All the best for your project

  • judi aubel

    This is an excellent site with great info on social capital.
    We are currently doing a small study on social capital in the context of our community work in Southern Senegal. In discussing the dimensions of SC as a precursor to developing participatory data collection tools we identified two aspects of SC that do not seem to be included in your work and that of others:
    First, leadership, both formal and informal leadership. As we see it, within social network and in the wider community local leadership is a key ingredient for supporting social capital.
    Second, cultural identity and values. As we see it, shared cultural identity and values are part of the glue that brings people together and that contributes to strengthening the ties between them.
    How do you see these two dimensions of SC, or factors that contribute to building social capital.
    We would love to hear from you………..judi

    Cheers from Senegal

    • Tristan Claridge

      Leadership certainly plays a very important role in determining the nature of social capital. There is some debate about whether leadership is a source of social capital or is social capital. Within the dimensions typology, leadership (both formal and informal) is a role. However, this does not capture the importance of leadership in influencing the nature of various aspects of social capital such as norms, sanctions, trustworthiness, rules, precedents, etc.

      Cultural identity and values relate to two different aspects in the typology – identity and belonging, and shared understandings.