Close this search box.

What is Structural Social Capital?

Structural social capital is a dimension of social capital that relates to the properties of the social system and of the network of relations as a whole[1]. The term describes the impersonal configuration of linkages between people or units. It is the configuration and pattern of connections between people and includes the roles, rules, precedents, and procedures that are expressions of this configuration[2]. Structural social capital is tangible and can be more easily observed than the other dimensions of social capital.

Structural social capital is one of three dimensions of social capital, the others being cognitive and 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.

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

Structural social capital is the network of people who an individual knows and upon whom she can draw for benefits such as information and assistance. It is typically considered the density, connectivity, hierarchy and appropriability of the network of relationships in any given context such as a group, organisation, or community[3]. Important aspects of structural social capital are the number of ties a person has, with whom and how strong the tie is[4].

Structural social capital is often studied using a network approachStructural social capital is normally studied using a network approach. In research using the network approach the frequency of contact and resulting social distance among actors in a particular firm or organizational field are plotted to form a web-like diagram illustrating actor interaction patterns[5]. It has been analysed from different perspectives  that include tie strength and centrality, network stability and size[6].

The structural dimension of social capital relates to the properties of the social system, the various forms of social organisation that make up society. It is the network relationships but not the quality of these relationships since the quality of relationships is the relational dimension.

Within the context of structural social capital many scholars have identified the distinction between bonding, bridging, and linking social capital (for example Putnam, 2000[7]; Svendsen and Svendsen, 2003[8]) to describe different types of network ties[9].

Structural social capital facilitates conditions of accessibility to various parties for exchanging and transferring knowledge, and for increasing the exchange opportunity[10]. It provides opportunities for people to gain access to relevant peers with desired sets of knowledge or expertise[11]. It makes it easier for people to engage in mutually beneficial collective action by lowering transaction costs and improving social learning[2].


  1. Nahapiet, Janine and Sumantra Ghoshal. 1998. “Social Capital, Intellectual Capital, and the Organizational Advantage.” Academy of Management Review 23(2):242. ^
  2. 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. ^
  3. 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. ^
  4. Taylor, Sully. 2007. “Creating Social Capital in MNCs: The International Human Resource Management Challenge.” Human Resource Management Journal 17(4):336–54. ^
  5. Edelman, Linda F., Mike Bresnen, Sue Newell, Harry Scarbrough, and Jacky Swan. 2002. “The Darker Side of Social Capital.” in 3rd European Conference on Organisational Knowledge, Learning and Capabilities. ^
  6. 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. ^
  7. Putnam, Robert D. 2000. Bowling Alone : The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster. ^
  8. Svendsen, Gunnar Lind Haase and Gert Tinggaard Svendsen. 2003. “On the Wealth of Nations: Bourdieuconomics and Social Capital.” Theory and Society 32(5/6):607–31. ^
  9. 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. ^
  10. Ansari, Shahzad, Kamal Munir, and Tricia Gregg. 2012. “Impact at the ‘Bottom of the Pyramid’: The Role of Social Capital in Capability Development and Community Empowerment.” Journal of Management Studies 49(4):813–42. ^
  11. Andrews, Rhys. 2010. “Organizational Social Capital, Structure and Performance.” Human Relations 63(5):583–608. ^

About the Author

More Articles

Lindon Robison

The High Cost of Cheap Social Capital

This paper briefly reviews the theory of social, negative, and cheap social capital and then explains the popularity and the high cost of cheap social capital. Next, this paper points out that our voluntary exchanges (which are enabled by prospects of mutual gain) and the high cost of involuntary exchanges (which are entered into in response to threats and defensive and destructive acts) both reflect our responses to the same physical and socio-emotional needs. Therefore, what differentiates our responses to similar needs are the relationships we have with others—whether they are social, negative, or cheap. Finally, this paper offers some suggestions for avoiding the high cost of cheap social capital.

Read More »
Lindon Robison

The Cheap Side of Social Capital

Earned, inherited, and covenant commonalities enable persons and groups of people to develop sympathy and empathy for each other. The sympathy and empathy that one person or group has for another person or group is defined here as social capital. The absence of commonalities often results in relationships of apathy and antipathy that one person or group has for another person or group, defined here as negative social capital. People and groups that share negative social capital for the same person or group can form cheap social capital relationships characterized by the couplet—the enemy of my enemy is my strange bedfellow.

Read More »
Tristan Claridge

Introduction to Social Capital for Researchers

Webinar This session provides a foundation for understanding what social capital is, where it comes from, and what it does as well as some of the challenges of reading the literature and conducting research on social capital. The session is

Read More »
Receive the latest news

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Get occasional updates about social capital related events and publications.