Bonding social capital is a type of social capital that describes connections within a group or community characterised by high levels of similarity in demographic characteristics, attitudes, and available information and resources. Bonding social capital exists between ‘people like us’ who are ‘in it together’ and who typically have strong close relationships. Examples include family members, close friends, and neighbours.
Bonding social capital is different from bridging social capital which is between social groups, social class, race, religion or other important sociodemographic or socioeconomic characteristics. The bonding/bridging distinction has roots in network analysis is based on methodological individualism and rational choice theory. These distinctions have been criticised for amalgamating a variety of contradictory aspects of both networks and norms into single categories. A different approach involves the distinction between structural and cognitive dimensions of social capital.
The bonding/bridging distinction can be made in relation to a range of relationship and network characteristics. The table below summarises the main features of each.
|Bonding social capital||Bridging social capital|
|Inward looking||Outward looking|
|“Getting by”||“Getting ahead”|
|Strong ties||Weak ties|
|People who are alike||People who are different|
|Thick trust||Thin trust|
|Network closure||Structural holes|
|Public-good model||Private-good model|
Bonding social capital is described as the strong relationships that develop between people of similar background and interests, usually include family and friends, provide material and emotional support, and are more inward-looking and protective. Bonding social capital refers to networks with a high density of relationships between members, where most, if not all, individuals belonging to the network are interconnected because they know each other and interact frequently with each other.
Friendships are often considered to be bonding social capital, in that they are frequently formed between people who share common characteristics or interests. Friends are people that we turn to when we are in a crisis, and with whom we feel close. However, friendships may also act as bridging relations, in that they may be between people of different cultural backgrounds, socioeconomic backgrounds, or ages, who may in turn provide access to information and other groups or individuals not previously known to the other.
Bonding social capital based on location
If we consider this spatially then bonding would be ties within a village, and bridging would be ties to a member of a different village – between villages. Within a village we can expect people to feel a sense of belonging. There would be dense networks of strong relationships stemming from daily interaction over long periods of time. The network is exclusive, requiring residence in the village, and inward looking in nature. The relationships would help to provide social support by allowing people to access favours, information, and emotional support.
Bonding social capital is good for “getting by” and bridging is crucial for “getting ahead”
In this context bridging social capital would be a relationship to someone in a different village. These relationships tend to be weaker, owing to the realities of space-time and therefore less frequent interaction. The relationship is with someone who is different, in this case they live in a different village, likely with different skills, knowledge, information, and importantly different friends. This type of relationship provides potential access to resources beyond ones’ immediate network through a friend of a friend type relationship.
This distinction led Robert Putnam to suggest that bonding social capital is good for “getting by” and bridging is crucial for “getting ahead”. Putnam described bonding social capital as inward looking, reinforcing exclusive identities and promoting homogeneity; whereas bridging social capital as outward looking, promoting links between diverse individuals  .
The bonding/bridging distinction is not necessarily geographically based and location is often not relevant, particularly in modern developed societies. In traditional societies bonding social capital tends to be tied to place or geographic space, but in more developed countries people from diverse backgrounds are more likely to live in close proximity and networks tends to be less dense – ie people in developed countries don’t tend to know their neighbours as much as traditional societies.
Bonding social capital as associations
A different example would be within and between organisations. Bonding social capital would exist within a company where employees have shared identity, shared understandings, and a sense of belonging. Within the company the relations are exclusive and inward looking, and the networks are dense with most people knowing each other. Depending on the size of the organisation this may not be true but bonding social capital can still be found strongly in teams or units within the organisation.
In this context bridging social capital would be a relationship to someone in a different organisation. Bridging networks provide access to different resources so Putnam’s description is particularly relevant: bonding allows people to ‘get by’ by encouraging reciprocity and collaboration, and bridging allows people to ‘get ahead’ by providing access to resources not otherwise available.
We can think about the bonding/bridging divide as people who typically associate together, compared to connections to those who typically do not associate together.
Benefits of bonding social capital
Bonding social capital can fulfil a useful social function by providing a vital source of support to people who suffer from socio-economic hardship or poor health. Bonding social capital tends to help people ‘get by’ and provides the norms and trust that facilitates collaborative action.
Research by Edin and Lein (1997)  found that poor mothers living in public housing developments relied on money obtained from a network of family and friends to make ends meet. While bonding social capital allowed these mothers to cobble together enough resources to survive, their lack of bridging social capital did not allow them to connect with individuals or organizations outside their network that might promote social change or identify other forms of assistance.
Negative effects of bonding social capital
There is a general claim that bonding social capital tends to have negative outcomes, a stereotype where bridging social networks are perceived as good and bonding ones as bad. However, this is not accurate.
Bonding social capital is more likely to have some negative outcomes due to its tightly structured and exclusive nature, but it is also a very important source of social support. What is more important is the balance of bonding and bridging social capital. Neither is negative per se but can be negative depending on the balance and context.
The balance of bonding and bridging social capital is important
Networks with excessive levels of bonding can breed bias and racism, sexism, ageism, elitism, or other ‘isms’ depending on their composition or characteristics. This can create outgroups and exclusion. The Ku Klux Klan is often cited as an example of a group with high levels of bonding social capital that has negative outcomes.
Several studies have found that bonding social capital has either no effect or a negative effect on economic outcomes, while bridging social capital can improve economic development, growth, and employment.
- Ramos-Pinto, Pedro. 2012. “Social Capital as a Capacity for Collective Action.” Pp. 53–69 in Assessing Social Capital: Concept, Policy and Practice. Cambridge Scholars Press. ^
- In practice bridging social capital can be horizontal or vertical. See section on linking social capital for further discussion. ^
- Putnam RD. Bowling alone : the collapse and revival of American community. New York: Simon & Schuster; 2000. ^
- Edin K, Lein L. Making ends meet: How single mothers survive welfare and low-wage work. Russell Sage Foundation; 1997. ^