Social Capital Essay

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The concept of social capital refers to the ways people connect through social networks, and the common values, trust and reciprocity that constitute resources for members of the network and society more generally. Different theorists emphasize slightly different features within this broad definition.

Putnam’s work (2000) poses social capital as a “distinct form of public good,” embodied in civic engagement and having knock-on effects for democracy and economic prosperity. He highlights self-sustaining voluntary associations as generating the bridging” form of social capital that enables people to get ahead” – horizontal trust and reciprocal connections between people from different walks of life – as opposed to the bonding” social capital among homogeneous people that allows them only to ”get by.” Woolcock (1998) has also added the notion of vertical linking” social capital with formal organizations, with the state facilitating new local partnership networks. Coleman (1990) argues that the family is where children have their human capital (notably, educational success) developed and are socialized into the norms, values, and sanctions of society.

For these theorists, social capital is undermined, variously, by lone mother and dual earner families, youth culture and television, and migration and ethnic diversity. Bourdieu (1986), however, highlights social capital as intertwined with other capital assets: economic, cultural, and symbolic, which are transmitted and reproduced over time, sustaining class privilege and power. Dominant social capital understandings and processes are seen also as marginalizing or confining people on the basis of their ethnicity, gender, and age.

There is concern that both theoretical and policy engagement with social capital is suffused with liberal economic rationality. Other criticisms include its definitional and methodological shortcomings.


  1. Bourdieu, P. (1986) The forms of capital. In: Richardson, J. E. (ed.), Handbook of Theory for Research in the Sociology of Education. Greenwood Press, Westport, CT.
  2. Coleman, J. S. (1990) Foundations of Social Theory. Harvard University Press, London.
  3. Putnam, R. D. (2000) Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Simon & Schuster, New York.
  4. Woolcock, M. (1998) Social capital and economic development: towards a theoretical synthesis and policy framework. S 27 (2): 151-208.

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