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What is the difference between social capital and social cohesion?

There are a lot of similarities between the concepts of social capital and social cohesion. Both are defined in vastly different ways by different authors, both are conceptually vague, and both relate to social setting and social structure.

Depending on how you define the concepts there can be considerable overlap between them, leading some authors to treat social capital and social cohesion as synonymous[1]. Others have conceptualised social cohesion as dependent on accumulated social capital[2] and others see social capital as a subset of social cohesion[3][4].

Considering the definitional variability of both social capital and social cohesion, I am reluctant to make specific comparisons. I will, however, make some observations based on the common treatments of the terms.

Social capital is commonly conceptualised as having a network component, i.e. involving social relationships between individuals[5]. Social capital is embedded in social relationships and is realised when people interact[6]. Thus, social capital tends to have an individual focus, although most authors acknowledge or include the role of wider social setting in influencing the quality and nature of social interactions.

Social cohesion typically approaches the same issue from the group or societal level[7]. It tends to focus on shared understandings such as solidarity, generalised trust, and widely help norms, values and attitudes. While social networks and social capital are a dimension of social cohesion[8], cohesion tends to focus on the importance of strong coordinating institutions which places the emphasis on society as a whole rather than existing in social relationships[9].

Considering the proliferation of definitions of both social capital and social cohesion[10] I think there are few differences between the concepts. The one take away seems to be the tendency for social capital to focus on the individual and for social cohesion to focus on either the group or societal level.

Both involve exploring the nature of social interaction and exchange in a group or society. Both involve exploring the rationale for human behaviour, particularly as it relates to social interaction. The main difference seems to be the starting point: social capital tends to start with the individual, social cohesion tends to start with society.


  1. Kawachi, I., Kennedy, B. P., & Lochner, K. (1997). Long live community: social capital as public health. American Prospect, (35), 56–59. ^
  2. Dayton-Johnson, J. (2003). Social capital, social cohesion, community: A microeconomic analysis. In J. Dayton-Johnson (Ed.), The economic implications of social cohesion (pp. 43–78). University of Toronto Press Toronto. ^
  3. Kawachi, I., & Berkman, L. (2000). Social cohesion, social capital, and health. Social Epidemiology, 174(7). ^
  4. Kearns, A., & Forrest, R. (2000). Social Cohesion and Multilevel Urban Governance. Urban Studies, 37(5–6), 995–1017. ^
  5. Uphoff, N. (1999). Understanding social capital: Learning from the analysis and experience of participation. In P. Dasgupta & I. Serageldin (Eds.), Social Capital: A multifaceted perspective (pp. 215–253). Washington, DC: World Bank ^
  6. Nahapiet, J., & Ghoshal, S. (1998). Social capital, intellectual capital, and the organizational advantage. Academy of Management Review, 23(2), 242 ^
  7. Easterly, W., Ritzen, J., & Woolcock, M. (2006). Social cohesion, institutions, and growth. Economics & Politics, 18(2), 103–120 ^
  8. Kearns, A., & Forrest, R. (2000). Social Cohesion and Multilevel Urban Governance. Urban Studies, 37(5–6), 995–1017 ^
  9. Portes, A., & Vickstrom, E. (2011). Diversity, Social Capital, and Cohesion. Annual Review of Sociology, 37(1), 461–479 ^
  10. Friedkin, N. E. (2004). Social cohesion. Annual Review of Sociology, 30, 409–434 ^

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