Social Capital is a concept spanning a plethora of social sciences that is as elusive as it is salient. At its most basic, it is the idea that individuals engage in social interactions in the hopes that it will be beneficial for them (Lin, 1999). We believe that being embedded in a network or group will net us a certain amount of resources; whether information, influence, or a sense of identity; that we could not achieve on our own. It is operationally similar to Gronvetter’s “Strength of Weak Ties” theory in network analysis; by virtue of developing these new connections and abiding by the norms and expectations of the group, we might expect the social capital we accumulate in these networks to help us land a new job because we “know a guy”, or mobilize our place as a part of the whole to influence legislation. We may even be able to level the playing field against powerful elites in the political arena.
For most interested in the subject (if the literature is any indication), social capital is a phenomenon that is a keystone of civil society. Pieces like Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (1995) lament the decline in social capital, citing dropping PTA participation and unionization rates as signs of declining civic engagement. Some network analyses lend creedance to this sentiment, citing instances of social capital working as a harbinger of more balanced class relations and better governance. Others purport that federalist government structures are ideal because they encourage the production of social capital. In all these cases, it is the ability of community members to have a dense, far reaching social capital network that benefits the greater good.
Despite these findings, not all analyses of social capital can end in stories of David conquering Goliath. The same unifying principles help explain these idealistic stories of collective action can just as easily explain the seedier side of social organization. The insular nature of dense social networks could cause them to become exclusive and unwilling to accept outsiders. Uneven distribution of capital may cause individuals at the center of these networks to impose group norms and form elitist, or even criminal, power structures (Tores, 2002). Take, for example, the presence of alt-right supporters on twitter; according to network and textual analysis performed by New Knowledge, this online network is densely connected and encompasses at least 9 identified sub-groups. Members at the center of this network can act as bridges between their group and the larger alt-right circle, which textual analysis suggests is causing the network as a whole to become more radicalized.
Social capital, as fraught and divided as the literature may be, is ultimately just a concept; and a relatively underdeveloped one, at that. It is neither benevolent nor vengeful, and perhaps what the literature describes as social capital activation says more about the theoretical dispositions of the researchers than the concept itself.