Social Capital

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Social Capital = refers to connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them


Social capital is strongly related to P2P since it is the value derived from interactions.


Short Definitions

the effectiveness of actively-exercised, mutually beneficial relationships in the network that forms a community

- Regenerosity [1]

the information, trust, and norms of reciprocity inhering in one’s social networks

- Michael Woodcock [2]

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)

Social capital consists of the stock of active connections among people: the trust, mutual understanding, and shared values and behaviors that bind the members of human networks and communities and make cooperative action possible. (Cohen and Prusak 2001: 4)"

- Infed [3]

Long Definitions

From the Social Capital Gateway at

"Social capital is generally referred to as the set of trust, institutions, social norms, social networks, and organizations that shape the interactions of actors within a society and are an asset for the individual and collective production of well-being. At the macro level, social capital can affect the economic performance and the processes of economic growth and development. These webpages contain useful resources for researchers, teachers, students, and practitioners interested in social interactions and social capital, in their role in the well-being of communities, and in their relationship with human, social and economic development." (

From the Infed Encyclopedia at

"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)

From the Wikipedia at

"Social capital is a core concept in business, economics, organizational behaviour, political science, and sociology, defined as the advantage created by a person’s location in a structure of relationships. “By analogy with physical capital and human capital - tools and training that enhance human productivity - the core idea of social capital theory is that social networks have value. Just as a screwdriver (physical capital) or a college education (human capital) can increase productivity (both individual and collective), so too social contacts affect the productivity of individuals and groups”. It explains how some people gain more success in a particular setting through their superior connections to other people."

From Francis Fukuyama, at

"While social capital has been given a number of different definitions, many of them refer to manifestations of social capital rather than to social capital itself. The definition I will use in this paper is: social capital is an instantiated informal norm that promotes cooperation between two or more individuals. The norms that constitute social capital can range from a norm of reciprocity between two friends, all the way up to complex and elaborately articulated doctrines like Christianity or Confucianism. They must be instantiated in an actual human relationship: the norm of reciprocity exists in potentia in my dealings with all people, but is actualized only in my dealings with my friends. By this definition, trust, networks, civil society, and the like which have been associated with social capital are all epiphenominal, arising as a result of social capital but not constituting social capital itself."

List of definitions at


By Kaitlyn Rathwell:

"Four components highlighted as key for building and maintaining social capital:

1. Trust - Actors trust that others will also follow rules and contribute

2. Reciprocity - Actors give and take, starting with simple exchanges, for example, gifts or information of equal value

3. Rules and Norms (enforced) - Actors have confidence that if another actor breaks a rule or norm, he/she/it will be punished in accordance with the community rules

4. Social Networks - Bonds between individuals that create community cohesion. Information, advice exchange or collaborative ties. Networks are supportive and can cross many scales, such as local to national to global." (


Charles Leadbeater:

"The term ‘cultural capital’ was coined by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in his 1985 book Distinction: a social critique of the judgement of taste.19 Bourdieu argued that people have four different kinds of ‘capital’ at their disposal: financial, human (knowledge and skills), social (connections and relationships) and cultural. By cultural capital he meant: the ability to take part in cultural activities, not just highbrow culture but everything from sports and hobbies, attending evening courses or visiting an exhibition, going to a museum or seeing a play. These activities signal what is important to you and so what kind of person you are. Bourdieu argued that people assemble these four kinds of capital in different ways to create a distinctive lifestyle and identity." (


Why Social Capital is Important

By Robert Putnam at

"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. But each individual benefits more by shirking their responsibility, hoping that others will do the work for her…. [Resolving this dilemma is] best served by an institutional mechanism with the power to ensure compliance with the collectively desirable behavior. Social norms and the networks that enforce them provide such a mechanism.

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. People who have active and trusting connections to others – whether family members, friends, or fellow bowlers – develop or maintain character traits that are good for the rest of society. Joiners become more tolerant, less cynical, and more empathetic to the misfortunes of others. 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. Mounting evidence suggests that people whose lives are rich in social capital cope better with traumas and fight illness more effectively. … 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" (

Successful Global Commons need Social Capital on a global scale

By Kaitlyn Rathwell:

"We can start now building trust, reciprocity, shared and enforced rules and norms and social networks that can cross scales (e.g. local, regional, National, global) as necessary. Doing this could help maintain community cohesion and create transparency and accountability for managing shared resources.

In an era of globalization, there are many resources that we share with the entire globe. For example, air quality and fish in the oceans. Increasing the scale of the common resource issue to the global scale also increases the complexity of the issue (Ostrom 1999). The management of resources necessarily occurs at the local scale, but in some cases (e.g. climate change) this accumulates to create a global impact. Therefore we must poor energy into building both our social capital at the community scale and at the global scale.

We need to build social capital at the global scale (difficult to do with our colonial history and ongoing international power differentials). Reciprocity and trust can be fostered by commitment to and enforcement of treaties and international agreements. At the same time we need transparent and elaborate social networks so information can be exchanged from the local to the global scale and back again. We need to ask important questions like who will be in charge of enforcing rules are followed at the global scale? What kind of social networks can we create to maintain transparency and accountability for enforcing global rules? What are the rules and norms that we want for management of the global commons?

This is of course an incredible challenge! So how can you be an agent of social capital in your communities and our global community? Lets take it back to my water example and the freshwater from the Aberfoyle Aquifer that I love to drink. I have to take action to build the social capital of the community that manages my water. I will have to be an active participate in decision-making and actions on the ground to build trust and reciprocity through action with others influencing water. And I will have to put pressure on institutions above me to be supportive of our attempts as community water management.

I have started doing this, and so can you! I am a volunteer for the local WellingtonWaterWatchers NGO here in Canada, I have sent a letter to the government here with my concerns about Nestle’s request, and I am building a network and communicating the issue by writing about it here and sharing it with you. Thus, I continue my pursuit as a ‘shameless optimist’ with the belief that we can dodge Hardin’s famous tragedy by working together to build social capital in our communities and for our globe." (

More Information

  1. The Social Capital Gateway,
  2. Smith, M. K. (2001) 'Social capital', the encyclopedia of informal education,
  3. Putnam, R. D. (1995) 'Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital', Journal of Democracy 6:1, Jan, 65-78.
  4. Sirianni, C. and Friedland, L. (undated) 'Social capital', Civic Practices Network,
  5. The World Bank (1999) 'What is Social Capital?', PovertyNet
  6. Social Capital: Prospects for a new Concept, by Paul S. Adler and Seok-Woo Kwon
  7. Rebuilding the Stock of Social Capital, by Thomas H. Sander and Robert D. Putnam
  8. SIZING UP SOCIAL CAPITAL, by Engeström, Y. (ed.) Activity Theory and Social Capital. Technical Reports 5, Center for Activity theory and Developmental Work Research, University of Helsinki 2001.

Tara Hunt has introduced the notion of a Social Capitalist.

Key Books to Read

Cohen, D. and Prusak, L. (2001) In Good Company. How social capital makes organizations work, Boston, Ma.: Harvard Business School Press.214 +xiii pages.

Fine, B. (2000) Social Capital Versus Social Theory: Political Economy and Social Science at the Turn of the Millennium, London: Routledge. 304 pages. Useful critical exploration of the notion of social capital and its theoretical origins and the extent to which 'it avoids a proper confrontation with political economy and, as a result of its origins and evolution, has become chaotic'.

Robert Putnam (2000) Bowling Alone: The collapse and revival of American community, New York: Simon and Schuster