About Social Capital

The central premise of social capital is that social networks have value. Social capital refers to the collective value of all "social networks" [who people know] and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other ["norms of reciprocity"].

How does social capital work?
The term social capital emphasizes not just warm and cuddly feelings, but a wide variety of quite specific benefits that flow from the trust, reciprocity, information, and cooperation associated with social networks. Social capital creates value for the people who are connected and, at least sometimes, for bystanders as well.

Social capital works through multiple channels:

  • Information flows (e.g. learning about jobs, learning about candidates running for office, exchanging ideas at college, etc.) depend on social capital.
  • Norms of reciprocity (mutual aid) rely on social networks. Bonding networks that connect folks who are similar sustain particularized (in-group) reciprocity. Bridging networks that connect individuals who are diverse sustain generalized reciprocity.
  • Collective action depends upon social networks (e.g., the role that the black church played in the Civil Rights movement), although collective action also can foster new networks.
  • Broader identities and solidarity are encouraged by social networks that help translate an "I" mentality into a "we" mentality.

What are some examples of social capital?
When a group of neighbors informally keep an eye on one another's homes, that's social capital in action. When a tightly knit community of Hassidic Jews trade diamonds without having to test each gem for purity, that's social capital in action. Barn-raising on the frontier was social capital in action, and so too are e-mail exchanges among members of a cancer support group. Social capital can be found in friendship networks, neighborhoods, churches, schools, bridge clubs, civic associations, and even bars. The motto in Cheers "where everybody knows your name" captures one important aspect of social capital.

 

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Factoids

Joining and participating in one group cuts in half your odds of dying next year.

Every ten minutes of commuting reduces all forms of social capital by 10 percent.

For information on how to increase social capital in your own community, see the final report of the Saguaro Seminar at www.BetterTogether.org.

Robert Putnam explains social capital jargon in this interview with the OECD Observer. What does "social capital" mean?