Social capital

Social capital serves as the connecting glue between individuals and groups within a network. It has been characterized as support given to others or participation in activities. Kadushin (2012) describes “social capital” as an amorphous concept because its execution and form has wide variation depending on context. He states: “Social networks have value because they allow access to resources and valued social attributes such as trust, reciprocity, and community values.” For example, an individual might borrow a cup of sugar from their neighbor or an entire neighborhood might participate in a trick or treating event for local children. The ideal situation is that our neighbor will help us today and we might help them with something else later. If everyone around us also acts similarly, then we have a lovely community to live in. The following chart shows the various interrelated aspects of social capital in one model for a successful community:

However, what happens if only a few neighbors refuse to participate in trick or treating? What is the point that the network breaks and the neighborhood does not have a sense of community (or civic virtue)? What does the following chart suggest?

The chart compares three examples of community engagement (church attendance, league bowling, and parent-teacher association attendance) with one potentially solitary activity (watching television). This does not actually indicate doom for communities or even a sharp decline in community engagement–the statistic for owning a television (or other digital devices) is different than a detailed usage statistic. A single individual might watch television rather than engaging in the activities (also an assumption). Or perhaps the individual is an avid sports fan that has friends and family visiting frequently to watch events together. I find the chart ultimately misleading because a simple assumption cannot be made that community engagement declined as television ownership increased.  Along these lines, I would argue that it is difficult to measure online participation with social capital. An individual might use digital devices to play Solitaire. Alternatively, the individual might be heavily involved in moderating a Dancing with the Stars community forum or enjoy playing a massively multiplayer online game that requires group coordination. This online “neighbor” might be very far away and the social capital generated require an online form (rather than a cup of sugar).

Social capital seems like a net positive in both local and online communities. However, if individuals or groups decide to be exclusionary, then this could lead to inequity based on the selective exchange of social capital. For example, a church group volunteers to assist homeless individuals in their community. However, if they screen for individuals matching their beliefs to help, then it would be harder to judge this situation as a net positive. Using social network analysis, would be be possible to discover discriminatory practices related to social capital or view gaps resulting in underserved groups? What size of network might this involve? Would a large network make this example easier or more difficult to detect?


One thought on “Social capital”

  1. The concept of a network is at the heart of social capital. Social capital resides in a network. What is interesting is that the digital world is also completely network based as well. New research in SNA and social capital should begin to explore how digital social capital is created, maintained and what outcomes it provides. Is digital capital different in some way than corporeal social capital?

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