Social capital


Social capital. The notion of social capital is a useful way of entering into debates about civil society – and is central to the arguments of Robert Putnam and others who want to ‘reclaim public life’. It is also used by the World Bank with regard to economic and societal development and by management experts as a way of thinking about organizational development. We examine its nature, some of the issues surrounding its use, and its significance for educators.

Contents: introduction · social capital for starters · types of social capital · the decline in social capital · some critiques of the bowling alone theses · the benefits of social capital · social capital in organizations · social capital and informal education · conclusion – some issues with social capital · further reading and references · links · acknowledgements · how to cite this article

The notion of social capital is said to have first appeared in Lyda Judson Hanifan’s discussions of rural school community centres (see, for example, Hanifan 1916, 1920). He used the term to describe ‘those tangible substances [that] count for most in the daily lives of people’ (1916: 130). Hanifan was particularly concerned with the cultivation of good will, fellowship, sympathy and social intercourse among those that ‘make up a social unit’. It took some time for the term to come into widespread usage. Contributions from Jane Jacobs (1961) in relation to urban life and neighbourliness, Pierre Bourdieu (1983) with regard to social theory, and then James S. Coleman (1988) in his discussions of the social context of education moved the idea into academic debates. However, it was the work of Robert D. Putnam (1993; 2000) that launched social capital as a popular focus for research and policy discussion. ‘Social capital’ has also been picked up by the World Bank as a useful organizing idea. They argue that ‘increasing evidence shows that social cohesion is critical for societies to prosper economically and for development to be sustainable’ (The World Bank 1999). In this piece we explore the the idea of social capital, review some of the evidence with regard to the claims made about it, and assess its significance for educators.

Social capital for starters

For John Field (2003: 1-2) 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.

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. (Beem 1999: 20)

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 (Halpern 2009b). 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.

Exhibit 1: Defining social capital

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’ (Putnam 2000: 19).

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).

The three thinkers that most commentators highlight in terms of developing a theoretical appreciation of social capital are Pierre Bourdieu, James Coleman and Robert Putnam. Bourdieu wrote from within a broadly Marxist framework. He began by distinguishing between three forms of capital: economic, cultural and social. A basic concern was to explore the processes making for unequal access to resources and differentials in power – and the ways in which these fed into class formation and the creation of elites. He understood social capital to be ‘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). The possession of social capital did not necessarily run alongside that of economic capital, but it still was, in his view, an attribute of elites, a means by particular networks held onto power and advantage. In Field’s word, he ‘presumed that social capital generally functions to mask the naked profit-seeking of its holders, and is therefore inimical with the open democratic society that he espoused in his journalism and political activism’ (2003: 19).

James Coleman’s (1988) contribution to the development of the notion of social capital was to theorize it in a way that illuminated the processes and experiences of non-elite groups. In other words, he argued that those living in marginalized communities or who were members of the working class could also benefit from its possession. Drawing upon a base of rational choice theory James Coleman (1990, 1994) looked to social capital as part of a wider exploration of the nature of social structures. He argued that social capital was 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). However, as Portes (1998), Foley and Edwards (1999) and others have pointed out, a number of problems flow from defining social capital by its function. In particular, the same ‘outcome’ could flow from very different processes. However, Coleman’s explorations were to highlight the possibility that different institutions and social structures were better suited to the cultivation of reciprocity, trust and individual action than others. Like other social investigators he highlighted the role of the family and kinship networks, and religious institutions in the creation of social capital. He believed that changes in both spheres were problematic. They were less able to socialize in appropriate ways; ties appeared to be looser and weaker (see Portes 1998).

It is interesting to compare Coleman’s and Bourdieu’s contributions to thinking about social capital. John Field brings out some interesting dimensions:

Bourdieu’s treatment of social capital is somewhat circular; in summary it boils down to the thesis that privileged individuals maintain their position by using their connections with other privileged people. Coleman’s view is more nuanced in that he discerns the value of connections for all actors, individual and collective, privileged and disadvantaged. But Coleman’s view is also naively optimistic; as a public good, social capital is almost entirely benign in its functions, providing for a set of norms and sanctions that allow individuals to cooperate for mutual advantage and with little or no ‘dark side’. Bourdieu’s usage of the concept, by contrast, virtually allows only for a dark side for the oppressed, and a bright side for the privileged. (Field 2003: 28)

It was into this situation that Robert Putnam’s work on social capital exploded. Returning to commentators such as de Tocqueville, and drawing on some of the debates around, and insights from, Coleman’s contribution, he looked to the significance of association and civic community (see Putnam 1993). He wrote from a background in political science and, as such, brought out some important dimensions. Based, initially, on a detailed study of Italian political institutions he argued for the significance of social capital and the quality of civic life in the cultivation of democratic society. He then turned his attention to social capital in the United States – first in an influential article (Putnam 1995) then in a major study: Bowling Alone. In the latter Putnam discussed social capital as follows:

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. (Putnam 2000: 19)

Robert Putnam’s ability to draw upon a wide range of theory, to synthesize and write for a wider audience, and to catch the public mood in the United States would have been enough to encourage a wider embrace of the notion of social capital. However, when this was added to the depth and range of data he and his team were able to access and analyse with regard to social capital in the United States it was not surprising that Bowling Alone became a powerful focus for debate.

Exhibit 2: Putnam – why social capital is important

First, social capital allows citizens to resolve collective problems more easily… People often might be better off if they cooperate, with each doing her share. …

Second, social capital greases the wheels that allow communities to advance smoothly. Where people are trusting and trustworthy, and where they are subject to repeated interactions with fellow citizens, everyday business and social transactions are less costly….

A third way is which social capital improves our lot is by widening our awareness of the many ways in which our fates are linked… When people lack connection to others, they are unable to test the veracity of their own views, whether in the give or take of casual conversation or in more formal deliberation. Without such an opportunity, people are more likely to be swayed by their worse impulses….

The networks that constitute social capital also serve as conduits for the flow of helpful information that facilitates achieving our goals…. Social capital also operates through psychological and biological processes to improve individual’s lives. … Community connectedness is not just about warm fuzzy tales of civic triumph. In measurable and well-documented ways, social capital makes an enormous difference to our lives.

Robert Putnam (2000) Bowling Alone: The collapse and revival of American community, New York: Simon and Schuster: 288-290

His conclusion that that the possession of social capital held great significance in terms of human wellbeing struck a chord.

Types of social capital

Those concerned with social capital have looked to the density of social networks that people are involved in; the extent to which they are engaged with others in informal, social activities; and their membership of groups and associations (see la via associative). Their big worry is that in the USA, for example, there has been a significant decline in the active membership of associations (like PTAs, football teams and community groups) and a corresponding increase in individualized leisure activities (most especially watching television). For example, there has been drop in the number of people involved in league (team) bowling and a growth in individual bowling (hence the title of Putnam’s (2000) book – Bowling Alone). The result is that social capital is weakened (see below).

Exhibit 3: Bridging, bonding and linking social capital

Michael Woolcock, a social scientist with the World Bank (and Harvard) has helpfully argued that many of the key contributions prior to Bowling Alone failed to make a proper distinction between different types of social capital. He distinguished between:

Bonding social capital which denotes ties between people in similar situations, such as immediate family, close friends and neighbours.

Bridging social capital, which encompasses more distant ties of like persons, such as loose friendships and workmates.

Linking social capital, which reaches out to unlike people in dissimilar situations, such as those who are entirely outside of the community, thus enabling members to leverage a far wider range of resources than are available in the community. (Woolcock 2001: 13-4)

The Putnam team looked to whether social capital is bonding (or exclusive) and/or bridging (or inclusive). Putnam suggested that the former may be more inward looking and have a tendency to reinforce exclusive identities and homogeneous groups. The latter may be more outward-looking and encompass people across different social divides (Putnam 2000: 22).

Bonding capital is good for under-girding specific reciprocity and mobilizing solidarity… Bridging networks, by contrast, are better for linkage to external assets and for information diffusion…. Moreover, bridging social capital can generate broader identities and reciprocity, whereas bonding social capital bolsters our narrower selves…. Bonding social capital constitutes a kind of sociological superglue, whereas bridging social capital provides a sociological WD-40. (ibid.: 22-23)

These were not seen as either-or categories to which social networks can neatly assigned – ‘but “more-or-less” dimensions along which we can compare different forms of social capital (ibid.: 23). However, Putnam did not really look at linking social capital nor did he come to grips with the implications of different forms of social capital i.e. that ‘different combinations of the three types of social capital will produce different outcomes (Field 2003: 42).

The decline of social capital in the USA

Putnam demonstrated that on a range of indicators of civic engagement including voting, political participation, newspaper readership, and participation in local associations that there were serious grounds for concern. It appeared that America’s social capital was in decline. First in the realm of civic engagement and social connectedness he was able to demonstrate that, for example, over the last three decades of the twentieth century there had been a fundamental shift in:

Political and civic engagement. Voting, political knowledge, political trust, and grassroots political activism are all down. Americans sign 30 per cent fewer petitions and are 40 per cent less likely to join a consumer boycott, as compared to just a decade or two ago. The declines are equally visible in non-political community life: membership and activity in all sorts of local clubs and civic and religious organizations have been falling at an accelerating pace. In the mid-1970s the average American attended some club meeting every month, by 1998 that rate of attendance had been cut by nearly 60 per cent.

Informal social ties. In 1975 the average American entertained friends at home 15 times per year; the equivalent figure (1998) is now barely half that. Virtually all leisure activities that involve doing something with someone else, from playing volleyball to playing chamber music, are declining.

Tolerance and trust. Although Americans are more tolerant of one another than were previous generations, they trust one another less. Survey data provide one measure of the growth of dishonesty and distrust, but there are other indicators. For example, employment opportunities for police, lawyers, and security personnel were stagnant for most of this century – indeed, America had fewer lawyers per capita in 1970 than in 1900. But in the last quarter century these occupations have boomed, as people have increasingly turned to the courts and the police. (summarized from Putnam 2000)

He went on to examine the possible reasons for this decline. Crucially, he was able to demonstrate that some favourite candidates for blame could not be regarded as significant. Residential mobility had actually been declining for the last half of the century. Time pressure, especially on two-career families, could only be a marginal candidate. Some familiar themes remained though:

  • Changes in family structure (i.e. with more and more people living alone), are a possible element as conventional avenues to civic involvement are not well-designed for single and childless people.
  • Suburban sprawl has fractured the spatial integrity of people’s. They travel much further to work, shop and enjoy leisure opportunities. As a result there is less time available (and less inclination) to become involved in groups. Suburban sprawl is a very significant contributor. (See, for example, Duany et. al. 2000)
  • Electronic entertainment, especially television, has profoundly privatized leisure time. The time we spend watching television is a direct drain upon involvement in groups and social capital building activities. It may contribute up to 40 per cent of the decline in involvement in groups

However, generational change came out as a very significant factor. A “long civic generation,” born in the first third of the twentieth century, was passing from the American scene. ‘Their children and grandchildren (baby boomers and Generation X-ers) are much less engaged in most forms of community life. For example, the growth in volunteering over the last ten years is due almost entirely to increased volunteering by retirees from the long civic generation’ (

Subsequently, there has been some evidence appearing linked to working patterns – with only one third of British workers, for example, working ‘normal hours’. Halpern (2009a) comments, ‘A consequence of our modern service economy appears to be that the majority of people now work part-time or do shift work, leading to a ‘de-synchronisation’ of our leisure and social activities’. One study, by Matt Clark and associates (forthcoming but quoted by Halpern), found that ‘even controlling for levels of working hours, those who do shift work end up spending substantially less time in social and participative activities’ (op. cit.).

Some critiques and developments of the Bowling Alone thesis

Francis Fukuyama (1999) raised some useful questions around the ‘Putnam thesis’ and the late Everett C. Ladd (1999) was very critical of the approach – disputing the interpretation much of the evidence in Putnam’s original (1995) article. Ladd’s argument was that American civic life was not so much in decline but rather ‘churning’. Some organizations had lost members, others had sprung up in their place. He believed that ‘the individualism at the heart of the country’s conception of citizenship gave Americans no alternative but to cooperate with one another’ (Lenkowsky 2000). Lenkowsky continues:

This being so, ebbs and flows in organizational membership should be seen as stemming not from any broad disaffection with civic groups or public life per se but from uncertainty about how best to work together during changing times. The very concern sparked by Putnam’s lament was itself, Ladd suggested, a sign of America’s still abundant supply of social capital.

However, Ladd was writing prior to the marshalling of evidence in Bowling Alone (Putnam 2000). In many respects, Ladd’s central thesis was undermined by the data assembled by Putnam.

Four more recent contributions have shed new light on the interpretation put on the data.

From membership to management in American civic life

First, Theda Skocpol has powerfully demonstrated that one of the most significant changes lies in the changing shape of associational life. In particular she questions the over-focus in the work of Putnam and others on the workings of local groups and associations. ‘American civic voluntarism’, she writes, ‘was never predominantly local and never flourished apart from national government and politics’ (Skocpol 2003: 12). Social capital theorists have tended to examine ‘all forms of social connectedness at once’ (ibid: 176). Rather than there being some major generational shift, she suggests, a ‘confluence of trends and events sparked a shift from membership mobilization to managerial forms of civic organizing’. She continues:

After 1960 epochal changes in racial ideals and gender relationships delegitimated old-line US membership associations and pushed male and female leaders in new directions. New political opportunities and challenges drew resources and civic activists toward centrally managed lobbying. Innovative technologies and sources of financial support enabled new, memberless models of association building to take hold. And finally, shifts in American class structure and elite careers created a broad constituency for professionally managed organizing… The most privileged Americans can now organize and contend largely among themselves, without regularly engaging the majority of citizens. (Skocpol 2003: 178)

There may well have been a decline in social capital, but these shifts are perhaps more significant and have led to ‘fraying’ of vital links in US associational life.

Community participation

A second significant contribution has come from those theorists exploring the realities and experiences of family and work life. Here, the work of Ann Bookman (2004) is of interest. She argues that we need to extend our appreciation of what constitutes community participation – especially if we are interested in what women do. Bookman has drawn attention to the informal connections formed to help with family care – and which do not register with many social capital commentators.

New forms of “social capital” – just as important as money in the bank – are developing among working families in both urban and suburban environments. These new relationships are binding us together and reshaping our communities in a literal and social sense. (Bookman 2004: 19)

Bookman charts the ways in which working families reach out to each other and to community-based programmes to address the issues they face – especially around caring for children and relatives (ibid.: 25). In addition she draws attention to the impact of what she describes as the ‘stalled gender revolution’ – and the extent to which women are still expected to shoulder disproportionate responsibilities for care, community engagement and domestic functioning.

Hybrid associations

Third, as Robert J. Sampson and his associates on the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods, have shown in their multi-cohort study, while traditional associations like close relationships with neighbours are declining, other ‘hybrid’ associations are beginning to be significant. One of these is the non-profit organization which is an important site of collective action (Sampson et. al. 2005).

Social capital and inequality

Last, there has been some significant discussion with regard to the relationship between social capital and inequality. As Wilkenson and Pickett (2009: 54) put it, ‘does inequality create low levels of trust, or does mistrust create inequality?’. Putnam (2000: 359) viewed community and inequality as ‘mutually reinforcing’, with casual arrows running in both directions. However, commentators such as Eric Uslaner (2002) along with Bo Rothstein (Rothstein and Uslaner 2005; Rothstein 2005) have argued that it is inequality that affects trust rather than the other way around. The causality lies with inequality.

While we can see that there have been some significant changes in the ways that people engage with local institutions and networks, we need, thus, to be careful of arguing for an overall decline. There may well have been a movement, as Skocpol (2003) put it, away from active membership toward professionalization and management in civic life. There may also have been a decline in involvement in local associations and groups, and in national membership organizations and fellowship groups – but whether this adds up to a significant diminution in social capital s another matter. At present, the balance of evidence as far as the USA, UK and other Anglo-Saxon countries, as well as France, are concerned is that there has been a broadly similar decline (Halpern 2009b). In other countries, such as in Scandinavia, trust levels have remained relatively high and even increased. As Bo Rothstein (1998) has argued, this can in part be explained by differing moral and political logics in societies. Thus, while in the USA and UK there has been a significant shift towards privatisation and individualism, this can be contrasted with a less egotistic and more mutual or ‘solidaristic individualism’ in some societies (ibid.: 199. See, also, Rothstein 2005).

The concrete benefits associated with social capital

While the jury may be out over aspects of the arguments around decline, Putnam’s assessment of the benefits of what he defines as social capital remains an important reference point. He is able to demonstrate that:

  • Child development is powerfully shaped by social capital. Trust, networks, and norms of reciprocity within a child’s family, school, peer group, and larger community have far reaching effects on their opportunities and choices, educational achievement, and hence on their behaviour and development (ibid.: 296-306).
  • In high social-capital areas public spaces are cleaner, people are friendlier, and the streets are safer. Traditional neighbourhood “risk factors” such as high poverty and residential mobility are not as significant as most people assume. Places have higher crime rates in large part because people don’t participate in community organizations, don’t supervise younger people, and aren’t linked through networks of friends (ibid.: 307-318). As Sampson and his associates have also shown those communities with ‘collective efficacy’ – the confidence to intervene born of higher rates of social capital – are characterized by lower crime rates.
  • A growing body of research suggests that where trust and social networks flourish, individuals, firms, neighbourhoods, and even nations prosper economically. Social capital can help to mitigate the insidious effects of socioeconomic disadvantage (ibid.: 319-325). The growing presence of non-profit organizations in some areas as one aspect of this (see Sampson et. al. 2005). Another is the quality of the networks in the ‘underground economy of the urban poor’ (Venkatesh 2006).
  • There appears to be a strong relationship between the possession of social capital and better health. ‘As a rough rule of thumb, if you belong to no groups but decide to join one, you cut your risk of dying over the next year in half. If you smoke and belong to no groups, it’s a toss-up statistically whether you should stop smoking or start joining’ (ibid.: 331). Regular club attendance, volunteering, entertaining, or church attendance is the happiness equivalent of getting a college degree or more than doubling your income. Civic connections rival marriage and affluence as predictors of life happiness (ibid.: 333). (See, also, Wilkinson and Pickett 2009).

Many of these findings have been underlined by subsequent explosion in studies around happiness and well-being (see, for example, Haidt 2006, Offer 2006).

The World Bank (1999) has also brought together a range of statistics to make the case for the social and economic benefits of social capital. For example they argue that there is evidence that schools are more effective when parents and local citizens are actively involved. ‘Teachers are more committed, students achieve higher test scores, and better use is made of school facilities in those communities where parents and citizens take an active interest in children’s educational well-being’. They also indicate some negative impacts, for example, when disgruntled local elites joined together to close health clinics in Uttar Pradesh. Child mortality rates soared as a result (The World Bank).

Social capital in organizations

The idea of looking at social capital in firms and organizations was, as Cohen and Prusak (2001: 6) said, relatively new. This may be because of the way in which the dominance of more mechanistic and system-oriented conceptions of organizational activity have ‘masked their deeply social nature (op. cit.). A number of those concerned with organizational development, like Cohen and Prusak, have become increasingly suspicious of the ‘people, processes, technology’ mantra, ‘ceaselessly intoned as a summary of the sources of organizational effectiveness’ (ibid.: 8). There has, of course, been a significant embracing of the notion of human capital – but those writing about it rarely approach the social nature of organizations – and often fall prey to a tendency to draw upon theories and metaphors that derive financial and physical notions of capital. The argument of those concerned with social capital is that when harnessed it generates economic returns. More particularly, the benefits claimed include:

Better knowledge sharing, due to established trust relationships, common frames of reference, and shared goals.

Lower transaction costs, due to a high level of trust and a cooperative spirit (both within the organization and between the organization and its customers and partners).

Low turnover rates, reducing severance costs and hiring and training expenses, avoiding discontinuities associated with frequent personnel changes, and maintaining valuable organizational knowledge.

Greater coherence of action due to organizational stability and shared understanding. (Cohen and Prusak 2001: 10)

Given the relative infancy of the application of social capital to organizational life there is little sustained or substantial research that can support attention to the notion within organizations. It certainly isn’t the key to success (ibid.: 11), but it is part of the fabric of organizational life – and the need to engage with it is, arguably, growing. The increasing complexity of organizations and the scale of informational activity; globalization; external and internal volatility; and what Cohen and Prusak (2001: 155-181) call ‘the challenge of virtuality’ (work carried out over a distance of time and space) all contribute here.

Informal education and social capital

Robert Putnam’s discussion of social capital, in particular, provides informal educators with a powerful rationale for their activities. After all the classic working environment for the informal educator is the group, club or organization. The evidence and analysis also provides a case against those who want to target work towards those who present the most significant problems and tie informal educators’ activities to the achievement of specific outcomes in individuals. Several points need underlining here.

First, from the material marshalled by Putnam and others we can see that the simple act of joining and being regularly involved in organized groups has a very significant impact on individual health and well-being. Working so that people may join groups – whether they are organized around enthusiasms and interests, social activity, or economic and political aims – can make a considerable contribution in itself. Encouraging the development of associational life can also make a significant difference to the experience of being in different communities. Here we might highlight the case of schooling. Educational achievement is likely to rise significantly, and the quality of day-to-day interaction is likely to be enhanced by a much greater emphasis on the cultivation of extra-curricula activity involving groups and teams.

Second, informal education’s longstanding concern with association and the quality of life in associations can make a direct and important contribution to the development of social networks (and the relationships of trust and tolerance that is usually involved) and the strengthening of democracy. Informal educators interest in dialogue and conversation, and the cultivation of environments in which people can work together, take them to the heart of what is required to strengthen and develop social capital and civic society. Their ethical position also demands they attend to the downsides of networks – in particular, the extent to which they are oppressive and narrowing. A focus on tolerance and the acceptance, if not the celebration, of difference is required. There is a place for bridging, bonding and linking social capital.

Third, there is a strong argument here against those who wish to concentrate the bulk of resources on groups and individuals who present the strongest social problems (currently the received thinking among many policymakers). If we follow Putnam’s analysis through then we can see that, for example, crime can be reduced, educational achievement enhanced and better health fostered through the strengthening of social capital. Significantly this entails working across communities – and in particular sustaining the commitment and capacities already involved in community organizations and enthusiast groups, and encouraging those on the cusp of being actively involved. The majority of the people we are talking about here cannot be classified as suffering from multiple disadvantage, will not be engaged in criminal activity, and will be (or have been) engaged with education systems and/or the world of work. In other words, open and generic work needs to be afforded a far higher priority – and so-called ‘issue-based’ work needs to be more closely interrogated as to the benefits it brings.

Conclusion – some issues with the notion of social capital

To conclude it is worth highlighting four key issues with regard to the notion of social capital. The way in which the notion of social capital is used by the central writers Bourdieu, Coleman and Putnam while offering some important insights, and a focus for data collection and analysis, is not as yet rich theoretically. This may simply mean that more work needs to be done, or imply that the concept itself is problematic.

First, while the notion of social capital clearly has some utility we need to be aware of the dangers of ‘capitalization’. As Cohen and Prusak (2001: 9) have commented, not everything of value should be called ‘capital’. There is a deep danger of skewing our consideration of social phenomenon and goods towards the economic. The notion of capital brings with it a whole set of discourses and inevitably links it, in the current context, to capitalism.

Second, there has been a tendency not to locate exploration properly within a historical framework. Coleman and Putnam do analyse data and material over time – but fail to fully contextualize it. Skocpol (2003), by placing her work within historical analysis, has been able to show just how some of the important assumptions made by Putnam, for example, need to be questioned.

Third, much of the main work undertaken around social capital has failed to properly address the gender dimension of social capital. As we saw in the work of Skocpol (2003), Bookman (2004) and others, the way in which women engage and create local networks, and have to manage caring often falls beneath the radar of social capital researchers and theorists. To give him his due, Putnam does address gender in terms of changing patterns of local involvement – but does not theorize it substantially, nor does he really connect with the sorts of concerns that Bookman has been subsequently voicing around the way in which we think about networks of caring, for example.

Fourth, much of the discussion of social capital has treated it as a ‘good thing’. Bourdieu, at least, was interested in the notion as a way of explaining how some were able to access resources and power, while others were not. However, the scale of local surveillance that can be involved, the possible impacts around what is deemed acceptable behaviour, and the ways in which horizons may be narrowed rather than expanded are not unambiguously ‘good things’.

In terms of developing social analysis it might well be that those theorists who have explored <href=”#individualism”> individualization and globalization within society (and most particularly Beck 1992, 1999) have something more to offer than social capital theorists. That said, though, some of the empirical work that has been done linking involvement in associational life and participation in social networks to the enhancement of educational achievement, the promotion of health and the reduction of crime is of great significance. Social capital researchers, and Robert Putnam in particular, has done us a great service. While aspects of his argument and research will continue to be disputed over the coming years, his central message is surely true. Interaction enables people to build communities, to commit themselves to each other, and to knit the social fabric.

Further reading and references

Beem, C. (1999). The Necessity of Politics. Reclaiming American public life, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 311 + xiv pages. Useful study of civil society and the essential role of political processes in the renewal of societies.

Cohen, D. and Prusak, L. (2001). In Good Company. How social capital makes organizations work, Boston, Ma.: Harvard Business School Press.214 +xiii pages.

Field, J. (2003). Social Capital, London: Routledge.166 + vi pages. One of the best overviews and introductions to social capital.

Fine, B. (2000). Social Capital Versus Social Theory: Political Economy and Social Science at the Turn of the Millennium, London: Routledge. 304 pages. Useful critical exploration of the notion of social capital and its theoretical origins and the extent to which ‘it avoids a proper confrontation with political economy and, as a result of its origins and evolution, has become chaotic’.

Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling Alone. The collapse and revival of American community, New York: Simon and Schuster. 541 pages. Brilliant setting out of analysis and evidence concerning the decline and possible reconstruction of civil life in the United States.

Putnam, R. D. (ed.) (2002). Democracies in Flux: The Evolution of Social Capital in Contemporary Society, New York: Oxford University Press. 522 pages. Further exploration of social transformations using the notion of social capital within ‘economically advanced democracies’.

Skocpol, T. (2003). Diminished Democracy. From membership to management in American civic life, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. 366 + xviii pages. Questions many of the assumptions made about declining civic participation, and highlights the role of government and of national organization in the development of local democratic life.

Wuthnow, R. (1998). Loose Connections: Joining Together in America Fragmented Communities, Harvard: Harvard University Press, 276 pages. Explores the supposedly divisive impact of the civil-rights movement, the rise of the youth culture and feminism, and the damaging impact on associational life.


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The World Bank (1999). ‘What is Social Capital?’, PovertyNet


The Social Capital Gateway maintained by Fabio Sabatini by is the best place to access resources for the study of social capital.

The World Bank PovertyNet – Social Capital Homepage: set of pages that outline the concept and the sources of social capital. Includes a library of papers and resources, plus a discussion list.

National Statistics – Social capital – useful set of resources for the UK.

Some ‘Putnam resources’ include:

Bowling Alone: set of pages linked to the book that includes downloadable datasets.

The strange disappearance of civic America – Putnam – article from the American Prospect.

Still bowling alone? – Review by Leslie Lenkowsky.

Acknowledgements: My social network is by luc legay reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic licence: Artist’s models illustration – copyright © 2005 and its licensors. All rights reserved.

How to cite this article: Smith, M. K. (2000-2009). ‘Social capital’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [ Retrieved: insert date].

© Mark K. Smith 2000, 2001, 2007, 2009