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.

Contentsintroduction · 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.

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