Drawing a map of social capital

Social capital is a concept that has risen in popularity and importance over the last few years. I first encountered it in the social care literature but have found it cropping up in all sorts of places, especially over the last 18 months.

For the last few weeks I’ve been making my way through David Halpern’s 2005 book on the topic, which has been quite a remarkable read for a number of reasons.

As Halpern notes, many people think of social capital as the missing variable that economists have overlooked in their rational behavior economics models.

Furthermore, a spate of articles and research studies has emerged documenting a relationship between the form and quality of people’s social networks – a type of social capital – and a range of important outcomes across policy areas such as the economy, health and wellbeing, crime, education and effective governance.

Over the course of a series of posts, I aim to share some thoughts and reflections on various issues and possibilities the book raises, across a range of potential areas.

Before doing so, it’s useful to draw a drastically simplified conceptual map of what social capital is (being one that puts to one side the very many academic debates about the concept).

But, before doing even that, the following quote is useful to know what space social capture occupies:

Societies are not composed of atomized individuals. People are connected with one another through intermediate social structures – webs of association and shared understandings of how to behave. This social fabric greatly affects with whom, and how, we interact and cooperate. It is this everyday fabric of connection and tacit cooperation that the concept of social capital is intended to capture.

Turning to the concept of social capital itself there are three basic elements, each of which can have both formal (explicit, institutionally codified) and informal (implicit, tacit) aspects:

  • A network
  • A cluster of norms, values and expectations that are shared by the group members
  • Sanctions – punishments and rewards – that help to maintain the norms and the network

Social capital can act at a variety of levels – micro (that of the individual), meso (the community / the region) and macro (national) – and there are three functional subtypes of social capital, as follows:

  • Bonding social capital is inward looking and tends to reinforce exclusive identities of homogenous groups (a kind of sociological superglue)
  • Bridging social capital is outward looking and encompasses people across diverse social cleavages (a kind of sociological WD-40)
  • Linking social capital is a special form of bridging social capital that specifically concerns power: it is a vertical bridge across asymmetrical power and resources.

Thus, all of these conceptual strands can be drawn together into one conceptual map of social capital, in which there are 3 levels – the micro, meso and macro – and for each level there is a 3×3 grid which has on each side respectively the types of social capital (bonding, bridging and linking) as well as the basic elements of social capital (networks, norms and sanctions).

Empirically, it is quite difficult to measure social capital. However, a very simple, reliable and valid measure of social capital is the extent to which most people in a given community, region or nation trust each other. (Other measures or indicators can include civic engagement and membership of associations.)

Having built a picture of what social capital is, there is a significant body of evidence that suggests social capital has a causal effect on a range of policy areas. A brief summary of some of the most interesting of these effects will follow in the next post.


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Man of letters & numbers; also occasionally of action. Husband to NTW. Dad of three. Friendly geek.

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