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Social Capital

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by Claire Oppenheim

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.


Social capital has been defined in various ways from different theoretical perspectives; however, the common crux is that social networks have value. Most descriptions of social capital include elements of civic engagement, community involvement and trust (1). The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defines social capital as, “networks together with shared norms, values and understandings that facilitate co-operation within or among groups” (2). Political scientist Robert Putnam defines social capital as, “the collective value of all ‘social networks’ and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other [“norms of reciprocity”]” (3). Social capital exists in town hall meetings, churches, schools, friendship groups, neighborhood watches. It can be found, for example, when intimate communities of Hassidic Jews trade diamonds without testing the stones for purity (4).


Social capital is typically conceptualized as a mechanism through which desired outcomes are achieved, such as economic prosperity, community efficacy and cohesion. It supports sustainable progress by enhancing the community’s capacity to collectively solve problems and address their own needs (1). However, increasing social capital could also be viewed as an important outcome in itself. In an effort to transform social capital from a theoretical to a more practical construct, the World Bank developed the Social Capital Implementation Framework (SCIF), used to incorporate social capital into diverse global projects, as well as two measurement tools: the mixed-methods (quantitative/qualitative) Social Capital Assessment Tool (SOCAT) and the developing countries-focused Social Capital Integrated Questionnaire (SOCAP IQ) (5).


Conceptual Model:

Because of the variation in definition and key components of social capital, there are also various conceptual models. The following model (6), used by the OECD, represents one common conceptualization of social capital comprised of three key elements: 1) bonds: close connections between those sharing a common identity, 2) bridges: connections to others of different social identities, and 3) linkages: connections between those on different rungs of the social or economic ladder (2, 6).

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Figure 1. Community Social Capital Model (6).


Origin of Social Capital:

The first use and definition of social capital is attributed to Lyda Hannifan, a state supervisor of rural schools in West Virginia. In his 1916 article, “The rural school community center,” he distinguishes social capital from other more tangible forms of capital, such as personal property or cash, as “that in life which tends to make these tangible substances count for most in the daily lives of people, namely, goodwill, fellowship, mutual sympathy and social intercourse among a group of individuals and families who make up a social unit" (7). Some argue that in 1835, French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville indirectly described social capital in his observations in “Democracy in America,” as the American penchant for social participation in numerous and diverse social and community events (8, 9).


Social capital experienced a revival of interest at the end of the 20th century, as various definitions were proffered by sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and James Coleman, and economist Glen Loury (10-12). However, among these numerous, sometimes esoteric conceptualizations, no consistent definition arose. Social capital became more widely popularized following Putnam’s bestseller in 2000, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” in which he argues that the widespread community engagement observed by Tocqueville in the 1830s has steadily declined (2).


Applications to global health planning and practice

Social capital exists and can be studied in virtually any social context because it is a form of capital powered solely by networks of people and involving, but not requiring, other physical resources. Given its multifaceted nature, it must be studied through a combination of methodologies including quantitative and qualitative research (1). One example of social capital research is Narayan and Pritchett’s 1999 study of the relationship between social capital and household income in rural Tanzania using the Social Capital and Poverty Survey (SCPC), which evaluated the characteristics and extent of community members’ associational activity and trust in other community members and institutions. They found that higher village-level social capital was significantly correlated with higher household incomes (13).



Because social capital is a complex, multifarious phenomenon, there is no consistent measurement tool. Social capital is frequently measured through multiple proxy indicators of civic engagement, community involvement and trust, but this variety can hinder comparability and generalizability (14). A second limitation of social capital is not in its definition and measurement, but in its potential negative consequences. When communities form tightly knit bonds, such as occurs within many ethnic and immigrant groups, the lack of social bridges to those beyond the immediate group can be isolating, often hindering economic involvement and progress (2).


Works Cited:

(1) The World Bank. Overview: Social Capital. [Internet]. 2015 [cited 2015 Mar 8]. Available from: http://go.worldbank.org/C0QTRW4QF0


(2) Keeley B. Human Capital: How what you know shapes your life. A Bigger Picture [Internet]. Paris: OECD Publishing; 2007. Chapter 6, A Bigger Picture. [cited 2015 Mar 8]. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264029095-7-en


(3) Harvard University Kennedy School of Government Saguaro Seminar on Civic Engagement in America. What is social capital? [Internet]. 2015 [cited 2015 Mar 8]. Available from: http://www.bettertogether.org/socialcapital.htm


(4) Harvard University Kennedy School of Government Saguaro Seminar on Civic Engagement in America. About Social Capital. [Internet]. 2015 [cited 2015 Mar 8]. Available from: http://www.hks.harvard.edu/programs/saguaro/about-social-capital


(5) The World Bank. Social Capital Implementation Framework [Internet]. 2015 [cited 2015 Mar 8]. Available from: http://go.worldbank.org/YUKNPQ4MY0


(6) The Whole Picture of Social Capital (Social Capital and Our Community: A Publication of the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vitality) [image on the Internet]. 2008 [cited 2015 Mar 13]. Available from: http://www.extension.umn.edu/community/civic-engagement/docs/social-capital-community.pdf


(7) Hanifan LJ. The Rural School Community Center. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 1916 Sept;67:130-138.


(8) Ferragina E. Social Capital and Equality: Tocqueville’s Legacy, rethinking social capital in relation with income inequalities. The Tocqueville Review/La Revue Tocqueville. 2010 Jul 1;31(1):73-98.


(9) Tocqueville A. Democracy in America [monograph online]. London: Saunders and Otley; 1835-1840 [cited 2014 Mar 8]. Available from: eBooks@Adelaide: https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/tocqueville/alexis/democracy/complete.html


(10) Bourdieu P. The forms of capital. In: Richardson J, editor. Handbook of Theory and Research for Sociology of Education. New York. Greenwood; 1986. Available from: http://eppl751su2012.wmwikis.net/file/view/Bourdieu.ch6.Forms.of.Capital.pdf/...


(11) Coleman JS. Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital. American Journal of Sociology. 1988;94:95-120.


(12) Portes A. Social Capital: Its Origins and Applications in Modern Sociology. Annual Review of Sociology. 1998;24:1-24.


(13) Narayan D, Pritchett L. Cents and Sociability: Household Income and Social Capital in Rural Tanzania. Economic Development and Social Change. 1999 July; 47(4):871-897.


(14) The World Bank. What is Social Capital? [Internet]. 2015 [cited 2015 March 8]. Available from: http://go.worldbank.org/K4LUMW43B0


Useful Resources:

Putnam R. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Touchstone Books by Simon & Schuster; 2001.


Putnam R, Feldstein L. Better Together: Restoring the American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster; 2003.


Harvard Kennedy School of Government. The Saguaro Seminar on Civic Engagement. http://www.hks.harvard.edu/programs/saguaro/


Better Together: An initiative of the Saguaro Seminar on Civic Engagement in America at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. www.bettertogether.org


The World Bank. Overview: Social Capital. Available from: http://go.worldbank.org/C0QTRW4QF0


Keeley B. OECD Insights: Human Capital [monograph online]. Paris: OECD Publishing; 2007 Feb 20. Available from: www.oecd.org/insights/humancapital

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.