Social capital represents all of the social relationships, interactions, friendships, and people you know. You are said to have high social capital if you have a lot of relationships and connections.
When we interact with others in society, goodwill and trust are generated. Individuals ( or entire communities) can, in turn, call upon this goodwill and trust in their time of need in acts of reciprocity.
Having high social capital can help you to get a job, for example, if you can be vouched for by a lot of people in positions of authority.
Social capital is one of three types of capital defined by Pierre Bourdieu:
- Cultural Capital: Cultural aptitudes and culturally conferred statuses (such as university degrees) that you can leverage for personal gain. There are three types of cultural capital.
- Economic Capital: Money and tangible assets that you can leverage for personal gain.
- Social Capital: Social networks that you can leverage for personal gain. There are three types of social capital.
Social Capital Examples
1. Old Boys’ Networks
Old boys’ networks are associations of alumni of an organization or institution that stay in touch even after its members have stopped being a part of the organization or institution.
The most common examples are alumni associations of elite universities such as Harvard or Stanford.
Old boys’ networks act as sites where their members can socialize and get to know other members.
The fact of belonging to the network acts as a currency, establishing trust among other members which can lead to opportunities for personal and professional growth.
Members see each other as belonging to the same in-group, which lowers the cost of social transactions.
It is fairly common for business deals, political negotiations, and even international diplomacy to be channeled through old boys’ networks.
Historically, churches, mosques, and synagogues acted as sites for the congregation of like-minded people. Through your religious affiliation, you can develop deep and lasting social contacts.
If social capital is defined as voluntary association among people for maximizing the common good, religion is one of the most prominent sites for generating social capital.
Religion is usually the most common form of voluntary association in most societies.
Almost all major religions of the world share certain common practices that include communal gatherings and congregations, volunteering for community service, and charity.
Further, religious sites such as churches, temples, mosques act as spaces where people from different socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds come together.
All these practices act as sites for the generation of social capital (Smidt, 2003).
Freemasons are fraternal organizations that come together specifically to develop social interactions, relationships, and networks.
Freemasonry has its origins in the stonemasonry guilds of the 13th Century. These were groups of stonemasons who gathered to promote, protect, and improve their profession.
Today, it is known for its internal secrecy and rituals. Few people who are not within the group are privy to its practices. In the 20th Century, it was also known for excluding women.
Many people in positions of power are known to be within the secretive fraternal organization and support one another through business and internal promotion of one another’s interests.
4. Sporting Clubs
Through sporting clubs, people develop social contacts that they can leverage for support and personal gain.
This is particularly true of group sports such as football and basketball. By joining a team, you are gaining access to a group of people who you can get to know and learn to rely upon as your bonds grow over time.
The effects of successfully joining and participating in youth sporting clubs carry on into adulthood. People can leverage their fond shared memories of their sporting groups to help one another get jobs and make social connections well into adulthood.
A primary place where we develop social capital is our workplaces. We get to know people within our profession who can help us in a variety of ways.
When we get to know people in our workplace, they can help us get better at our jobs. But they can also help us to get to know people who might be able to help us secure a promotion later in life, which will lead to greater economic capital.
Similarly, people in our workplaces also generally live close to us, so they can become reliable people in our communities who can help us outside of the workplace when needed.
At university, students are often encouraged to undertake internships in order to develop both skills and social contacts.
Many people secure their first job out of university through the social interactions they make during their internship. The organization that they work for will get to know the person, which may lead to a job opening, or at the very least, a positive reference when it comes to time for job applications.
7. Disaster Recovery
When natural or man-made disasters strike societies, the usual, state-run systems of governance and support break down.
In such situations, individuals and communities are left with no recourse but to rely on each other to rebuild their community.
Daniel P. Aldrich (2012) shows in his book Building resilience: Social Capital in post-disaster recovery that social capital plays a vital role in determining how soon a community manages to get back on its feet following a catastrophe.
Language has all the attributes of social capital – it is capable of being accumulated (through learning), is valuable in itself and can be exchanged for things valuable, and invites reciprocity.
However, above and beyond these characteristics, language has one other feature that makes it a good example of social capital – its centrality to all social relations.
As the primary medium of communication, language enables the interactions between individuals and communities that take the form of social capital (Clark, 2006).
Language is an example of how social and cultural capital overlap. People who can speak with the right vernacular and accent have high cultural capital because they can embody the cultural attributes of a people.
9. Neighborhood Watch
Neighborhood watches are associations of civilian residents of a locality. They act as an interface between the community and the law enforcement agencies.
Neighborhood watches are a good example of “linking”, which is one of three types of social capital. They facilitate better communication between residents and law enforcement agencies that benefits both sides.
Trust is established between the police and citizens, and each helps the other in a relation of reciprocity.
10. Value Interjection
Value interjection is living life in accordance with society’s norms and fulfilling the obligations that are one’s due.
When we are meticulous about paying our bills on time, following rules, and being punctual and regular wherever we are expected, we build trust in our actions that take the form of social capital.
In our time of need, we can exchange this social capital for some other tangible or intangible commodity, as other members of society know us to be trustworthy (Portes, 1998).
To take an example, people who regularly pay their credit card bills or loan installments on time have better credit scores with their banks. This in turn allows them easier and greater access to the bank’s financial resources.
This is a perfect example of how social capital can be converted into economic capital.
On the other hand, someone who often misses their credit card payments will be deemed a credit risk by the bank, and shall consequently have limited access to the bank’s resources.
Solidarity is people, or groups of people, coming together for a common cause. It generally refers to a situation that involves resisting some form of power and control.
It can be seen then, that solidarity is one of the most common forms of social capital.
In coming together to fight for a common cause, the two (or more) parties not only build mutual trust, but also become stronger.
Similarly, people are more likely to demonstrate solidarity with you if you have strong relationships and connections with them.
12. Social Networking Sites
In the 21st century, people’s lives are increasingly moving online, and it stands to reason that an increasingly large number of social transactions occur online.
People use the internet, and especially social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook to not just interact with each other but to raise awareness for political and philanthropic causes.
As people help each other and display solidarity with particular causes, they accumulate social capital online.
The professional networking site LinkedIn is another great example of social capital and one in which generating social capital can lead to direct tangible benefits.
Having a large number of connections on LinkedIn, even though one might not be personally acquainted with all of them, can positively impact one’s chances of landing a job or moving up professionally.
13. Criminal Gangs
Not all social capital is positive and/or constructive. Sometimes it can be negative and destructive as well.
Criminal gangs are a case in point. Sociological theories such as the cultural deviance theory and the social disorganization theory have shown that delinquent behavior is not ingrained but rather acquired through socialization with others.
New research has linked social capital and civil society activism to the rise of fascism and nazism as well (Satyanath, et. al., 2017).
Social capital refers to the network of people who are your friends, acquaintances, and colleagues who you can leverage for personal gain. You can develop high social capital through regular and ongoing interaction with people in your community as well as through effective networking.
While introverts might find it hard to develop social capital, extroverts tend to have it in abundance. While we might often hope that our intellect or skills can get us a long way in life, often it’s “who you know not what you know” that will determine your success or failure in what you do.
Aldrich, D.P. (2012) Building resilience: Social Capital in post-disaster recovery. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Bourdieu, Pierre. (1983). “Economic capital, social capital, cultural capital” in Social Inequalities (Kreckel, R. ed). Goettingen: Otto Schartz & Co.
Clark, T. (2006) Language as social capital Applied Semiotics 8 (18), 29-41.
Fukuyama, F. (2001) Social capital, civil society and development Third World Quarterly. 22(1), 7-20, DOI: 10.1080/713701144
Gittell, R. & Vidal, A. (1998). Community Organizing: Building Social Capital as a Development Strategy. London: SAGE.
Hanifan, L. J. (1916) The rural school community center. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 67,130–138. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1177%2F000271621606700118
Portes, A.(1998). Social Capital: Its origins and applications in modern sociology. Annual Review of Sociology. 24, 1–24. doi:10.1146/annurev.soc.24.1.1. S2CID 145736021
Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and revival of American community. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Satyanath, S.; Voigtländer, N.,Hans-Joachim, V. (2017). Bowling for Fascism: Social capital and the rise of the Nazi party. Journal of Political Economy. 125 (2), 478–526. doi:10.1086/690949. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1086/690949
Smidt, C.E. (2003). Religion as social capital: Producing the common good. United States of America: Baylor University Press.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.