Social capital is the benefits derived from sociability. Social capital can be described most simply as the aspects of social context (the “social” bit) that have productive benefits (the “capital” bit). It includes the store of solidarity or goodwill between people and groups of people. The adage: “it’s not just what you know, but who you know” relates to the powerful effects that social capital can have and is an easy way to understand the concept in the context of how it impacts our everyday lives.

Social capital is an academic concept that has been applied to a very wide range of phenomenon in the social sciences over the last few decades. The appeal of social capital stems from its intriguing integration of sociology and economics.

Unfortunately, social capital is not a unified theory. Social capital has been approached from different perspectives and different disciplines, resulting in a huge variety of definitions and conceptualisations. There is disagreement about what is and is not social capital, confusion about how to measure social capital, and widespread use of different terminology.

The commonalities of most definitions of social capital are that they focus on social structures that have productive benefits. Definitions generally have some combination of role-based or rule-based (structural) and mental or attitudinal (cognitive) origins.

In addition to different theoretical approaches to social capital, there are differences between conceptualisations at different levels of analysis. At the level of the individual, social capital tends to focus on social networks and the characteristics of these relationships. At the group or organisation level, there tends to also be a focus on social norms and social structures such as roles and rules. At the community or societal level, the focus tends to be on trust, trustworthiness, civic norms, association membership, and voluntary activities.

Despite the various criticisms of social capital, the concept has great potential to transform our society and our economy.

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