A Crash Course in Social Capital

So, what is social capital? Jeremy Shearmur describes social capital as loosely as situations where people choose to voluntarily associate with each other and where membership in that group serves as a free resource to those members. Why is it important ? I feel that social capital is important because it helps to express aspects of community and belonging. I suppose that it is because we are social creatures and I suggest we are social creatures because of the greater benefits of being part of a community than of being solitary.

Social Capital
Social Capital


Social capital is a phrase being explored and studied across the world. Vivid importance has been attached to there being social capital in culture and it has been suggested that it is vital for stable growth economies, happy communities, healthy communities, efficient administrations, and effective learning environments.


Pierre Bourdieu, James Coleman and Robert Putnam are three major names who have done famous research on this area. Similarly the concept is not necessarily new but can be found expressed in Aristotle, Alexis de Tocqueville, and many other thinkers. As an exercise in understanding, it is good to think about what value trust has.


The Economist equates social capital to trust, and Partha Das Gupta explores trust in context with economics. This is a rich area of study which warrants being looked at and brought into everyone’s lives and conversations. Some basic descriptions follow:


Bourdieu: ‘Social capital is the ‘the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition’ (Bourdieu 1983: 249).


Coleman: ‘Social capital is defined by its function. It is not a single entity, but a variety of different entities, having two characteristics in common: they all consist of some aspect of a social structure, and they facilitate certain actions of individuals who are within the structure’ (Coleman 1994: 302).


Putnam: ‘Whereas physical capital refers to physical objects and human capital refers to the properties of individuals, social capital refers to connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them. In that sense social capital is closely related to what some have called civic virtue. The difference is that social capital calls attention to the fact that civic virtue is most powerful when embedded in a sense network of reciprocal social relations. A society of many virtuous but isolated individuals is not necessarily rich in social capital’.


The World Bank: ‘Social capital refers to the institutions, relationships, and norms that shape the quality and quantity of a society’s social interactions… Social capital is not just the sum of the institutions which underpin a society – it is the glue that holds them together’ (The World Bank 1999).


Social Capital and Trust For John Field the central thesis of social capital theory is that ‘relationships matter’. The central idea is that ‘social networks are a valuable asset’. Interaction enables people to build communities, to commit themselves to each other, and to knit the social fabric. A sense of belonging and the concrete experience of social networks (and the relationships of trust and tolerance that can be involved) can, it is argued, bring great benefits to people.


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Trust between individuals thus becomes trust between strangers and trust of a broad fabric of social institutions; ultimately, it becomes a shared set of values, virtues, and expectations within society as a whole. Without this interaction, on the other hand, trust decays; at a certain point, this decay begins to manifest itself in serious social problems.


The concept of social capital contends that building or rebuilding community and trust requires face-to-face encounters. There is now a range of evidence that communities with a good ‘stock’ of such ‘social capital’ are more likely to benefit from lower crime figures, better health, higher educational achievement, and better economic growth.


However, there can also be a significant downside. Groups and organizations with high social capital have the means (and sometimes the motive) to work to exclude and subordinate others. Furthermore, the experience of living in close knit communities can be stultifying – especially to those who feel they are ‘different’ in some important way.


Measuring networks and shared values is not a simple black and white thing to do. People and cultures are organic, dynamic, interdependent, flowing. With this borne in mind we can make rough attempts to measure the impact, as have done the Office for National Statistics:


Social capital describes the pattern and intensity of networks among people and the shared values which arise from those networks. Greater interaction between people generates a greater sense of community spirit. Definitions of social capital vary, but the main aspects include citizenship, ‘neighbourliness’,social networks and civic participation.


The definition used by Office for National Statistics, taken from the Office for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), is “networks together with shared norms, values and understandings that facilitate co-operation within or among groups”. Why does social capital matter? Research has shown that higher levels of social capital are associated with better health, higher educational achievement, better employment outcomes, and lower crime rates.


In other words, those with extensive networks are more likely to be “housed, healthy, hired and happy”. All of these areas are of concern to both policy makers and community members alike. How do we measure social capital? There are a number of different aspects to social capital and measuring the level of social capital in communities can be complex. In many surveys respondents are asked a range of questions that cover a variety of issues.


They commonly focus on:- Levels of trust – for example, whether individuals trust their neighbours and whether they consider their neighbourhood a place where people help each other.- Membership – for example, to how many clubs, societies or social groups individuals belong.- Networks and how much social contact individuals have in their lives – for example, how often individuals see family and friends. What are networks? Formal and informal networks are central to the concept of social capital.


They are defined as the personal relationships which are accumulated when people interact with each other in families, workplaces, neighbourhoods, local associations and a range of informal and formal meeting places. Different types of social capital can be described in terms of different types of networks:


  • Bonding social capital – describes closer connections between people and is characterised by strong bonds e.g. among family members or among members of the same ethnic group; it is good for ‘getting by’ in life.
  • Bridging social capital – describes more distant connections between people and is characterised by weaker, but more cross-cutting ties e.g. with business associates, acquaintances, friends from different ethnic groups, friends of friends, etc; it is good for ‘getting ahead’ in life.
  • Linking social capital – describes connections with people in positions of power and is characterised by relations between those within a hierarchy where there are differing levels of power; it is good for accessing support from formal institutions. It is different from bonding and bridging in that it is concerned with relations between people who are not on an equal footing.


All of this has led me to bring together Ragged University as an inclusive social capital project. We as individuals are all Ragged Universities – we are all unique and distinct bodies of knowledge. By coming together to realise each others work and creative endeavours everyone prospers. The fundamental premise of this is having trust in each other and working together through mutual respect.


The body of writing and thinking which refers to social capital is of great value to the Ragged project, as it is another part of language which can be used to discuss what it aims to understand and achieve.

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