Social Capital Theory
Social capital may be defined as those resources inherent in social
relations which facilitate collective action. Social capital resources
include trust, norms, and networks of association representing any
group which gathers consistently for a common purpose. A norm of a
culture high in social capital is reciprocity, which encourages
bargaining, compromise, and pluralistic politics. Another norm is
belief in the equality of citizens, which encourages the formation of
Key Concepts and Terms
- Correlates of high levels of social capital include
education (Smith, Beaulieu, and Seraphine, 1995; Teachman, Paasch, and
Carver, 1996), health (Smith, 1997), confidence in political
institutions (Brehm and Rahn, 1997), and satisfaction with government
and political engagement (Putnam, 1993). Mentoring, job networking, and
mutual support associated with high levels of social capital is a
partial cause of success in education (Loury, 1977; Coleman, 1988).
Such mutual support also is associated with self-reliant economic
development without need for government intervention (Putnam, 1993;
- The decline of social capital is a theme of social
capital theory. Articulated by Putnam (1993, 1995a, 1995), the argument
is made that the level of social capital has been declining in the
United States at least since the 1970's.
- Factors in the decline of social capital centrally
include television, which is seen as having a profound privatizing
impact which undercuts social capital in a society (Putnam, 1995a).
- The role of information technology is seen as
bidirectional. High levels of social capital, such as preexisting
strong non-electronic networks, is a success factor in establishment of
electronic-based networks (Fukuyama, 1995). At the same time, the
spread of information technology creates networking infrastructure
which encourages the formation of social capital (Calabrese and
Borchert, 1996). Information technology, however, can also have an
anonymizing, deindividuating effect which relaxes social norms and
erodes social capital (Kiesler, Siegel, and McGuire, 1991; Loeh and
Conger, 1996). It is a mixed empirical question which tendency of
information technology will be dominant.
- Relation to public administration/public policy.
Implementation of government programs ultimately depends less on
authority and control than on mobilizing policy stakeholders, including
policy recipients. The less the social capital, the more difficult such
mobilization becomes. At the extreme, in a society with very low social
capital, administrators are much more apt to find reliance on authority
and control necessary, with resulting low governmental effectiveness.
At the other extreme, in a society with very high social capital, many
problems are taken care of by social networking outside of government,
and when remaining problems are addressed through governmental
intervention, administrators find a rich array of implementation
Hypotheses below are illustrative and not all authors associated with this theory would subscribe to all hypotheses listed.
- The more the level of participation in voluntary associations, the greater the social capital.
- The more the networking, the greater the social capital.
- The more the mentoring and mutual support in an organization, the greater its social capital.
- The greater the prevalence of passive media (ex., television), the less the social capital.
- The greater the social capital, the more prevalent the norm of reciprocity (bargaining, compromise, pluralism).
- The greater the social capital, the higher the priority of the norm of equality.
- The greater the social capital, the greater the confidence in government (and other institutions).
- The greater the social capital, the easier to mobilize support for problem solutions.
- The greater the social capital, the higher the percentage of problem-solving outside the governmental sector.
- The less the social capital, the greater the need to rely on authoritative controls.
Frequently Asked Questions
- Is social capital theory new?
Yes and no. The terminology is new, as is the concern for recent
technologies. Social capital theory, however, has deep roots in
theorists who have emphasized the relation between pluralistic
associational life and American democracy. These theorists include
James Madison (writing in The Federalist on "factions"), Alexis de Tocqueville (the French traveler in the 1830's who wrote Democracy in America), and, indeed, many authors in the dominant, pluralist tradition in American political science (see G. David Garson, Group theories of politics).
- Brehm, J. and W. Rahn (1997). Individual-level evidence for the causes and consequences of social capital. American Journal of Political Science41(3): 999-1024.
- Calabrese, A. And M. Borchert (1996). Prospects for
electronic democracy in the United States: Rethinking communications
and social policy. Media, Culture, and Society 18: 249-268.
- Coleman, J. S. (1988). Social capital in the creation of human capital. American Journal of Sociology 94: 95-120.
- Fukuyama, F. (1995). Trust: The social virtues and the creation of prosperity. NY: Free Press.
- Jackman, Robert W. and Ross A. Miller (1998). Social capital and politics. The Annual Review of Political Science,
Volume 1, 1998. The authors evaluate recent studies of social capital
in political science and argue they have strayed considerably from the
original treatment of social capital as an endogenous variable. Rather,
they note, recent writers have recast social capital as a feature of
political culture and thereby treat it, like cultural values generally,
as exogenous variables. they argue the endogenous and exogenous models
are based on incompatible premises and have fundamentally different
implications. The authors find that empirical tests of the exogenous
social capital approach are deficient and they urge a return to the
treatment of social capital as endogenous.
- Kiesler, S., J. Siegel, and T. W. McGuire (1991). Social
psychological aspects of computer-mediated communication. Pp. 330-349
in C. Dunlop and R. Kling, eds., Computerization and controversy: Value conflicts and social choices. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
- Loch, K. D. and S. Conger (1996). Evaluating ethical decisions and computer use. Communications of the ACM 39(3): 48-60.
- Loury, G. (1977). A dynamic thgeory of racial income differences. Pp. 153-186 in P.A. Wallace and A. Le Mund, eds., Women, minorities, and employment discrimination. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.
- Putnam, R. D. (1995a). Bowling alone: America's declining social capital. Journal of Democracy 6: 65-78.
- Putnam, R. D. (1995b). Tuning in, tuning out: The strange disappearance of social capital in America. Political Science and Politics 28: 664-683.
- Putnam, R. D., with R. Leonardi and R. Y. Nanetti (1993). Making democracy work: Civic traditions in modern Italy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Smith, T. W. (1997). Factors relating to misanthropy in contemporary American society. Social Science Research 26(2): 176-197.
- Smith, M. H., L. J. Beaulieu, and Seraphine, A. (1995). Social capital, place of residence and college attendance. Rural Sociology 60(3): 363-381.
- Teachman, J. D., K. Paasch, and K. Carver (1996). Social capital and dropping out of school early. Journal of Marriage and the Family 58(9): 773-784.
Copyright 1998, 2006 by G. David Garson.