At one level, social capital is a very easy concept to understand. Essentially it comes down to who you know, not what you know. It’s a bit like community. Everybody knows what we mean, but it might mean slightly different things to different people so when we try to provide a precise definition or to measure social capital and community, it becomes quite difficult.
According to Boxman, De Grant and Flap (1991)
Social capital is the number of people who can be expected to provide support and the resources those people have at their disposal. It is a means of production, that produces better conditions of life (p. 52).
Putnam (1995) suggests that social capital refers to
Features of social organisation such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit (p. 67).
He also compares social capital to physical and human capital:
“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 (Putnam, 2000, p. 19 ).
The World Bank (1999 cited in Smith, 2009) describes it as:
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.
At a very basic level, I understand social capital as being an important reason why I am unlikely to end up living on the streets. If Cathy and I were to run into problems (e.g., lose our jobs, lose our money or our house burnt down) we have strong social networks we could rely on to help. We are close to our families and they would be willing to help us out. In the past our families have lent each other money, have helped each other buy a house (e.g., my parents bought our house with us and have a separate dwelling in the backyard) and generally support each other. We also have friends who I suspect would be willing to help us out with accommodation for a while if we were desperate. More broadly we have a strong network of work colleagues who could help us find work (and we wouldn’t think some jobs were “below” us) or be able to put us in touch with people or services who could help address our immediate needs. We would also do the same to people in our social network. I think this is an example of how social capital can be important, particularly in times of crises.
This is certainly not meant to suggest it is an individual’s fault if they are homeless, or that if they just had better networks they would be alright. There are lots of other factors in play as well (e.g., we are financially secure, we live in a country where there are social benefits, we have had the opportunity to receive a good education, we were born into loving families). While social networks can and do play an important role in providing support, it is important to recognise broader issues as well. (As an aside, without a commitment to social justice, social capital can be a means to exclude people and to reinforce social privilege.)
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Boxman, E., De Grant, P., & Flap, H. (1991). The Impact of Social and Human Capital on the Income Attainment of Dutch Managers. Social Networks, 13, 51-73.
Putnam, R. D. (1995). Bowling alone: America’s declining social capital. Journal of Democracy 6(1), 65-78.
Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Smith, M.K. (2009). Social capital. Retrieved 3 April 2011, from http://infed.org/mobi/social-capital/