Blog 4: Social Capital

Social capital can be understood under the framework of a social network (Lin, 1999).   It is an “investment in social relations with expected returns.” At the same time, social capital must be measured using “embedded resources in social networks.”  Following this logic, for us to understand social capital, we must study how it is developed within a social network as a “network asset.”

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Two perspectives exist on how social capital should be measured.  The first involves a focus on the individual.  It asks what are the connections that people have and how do these connections provide an advantage, profit or return for the individual?  The second asks how connections can provide these beneficial effects at the group level in the form of “collective assets?”  In general connections within social networks provided access to greater resources and information allowing the receiver to be more fit than they would be otherwise.  We previously discussed how even weak ties can provide these advantages (Granovetter, 1973).

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However, what happens when people lack social capital and a means to obtain it?  To explore this situation, we need to consider an investigation into the lives of the “Black Urban Poor” (Smith, 2005).  It was found that for poor African-American, they lacked access to the social networks which over time could potentially increase their social capital.  Without even the possibility of the ability to obtain social capital via networking, it was extremely difficult for them to obtain the resources and information they need to find suitable employment.

Given the potential benefits of social capital, and the deleterious effects of doing without, what can be done to improve social capital within our society?  Efforts undertaken to improve social capital should be undertaken with caution.  In the past, similar efforts were attempted under different names and many have failed to produce positive results (Portes, 1998; Portes & Landolt, 1996).

Our readings point towards the potential benefit of social capital at the individual- and group-levels but does not provide a viable way to apply this to many of the problems that we see in society.  For example, in health care, there may be people with a great deal of social capital, but managers may be ineffective in leveraging this resource.  Under this context my research project will attempt to reconcile social capital, and creativity into the application of valuable, cost-effective programs within the hospital setting.

It is without question that many people on the board of trustees for hospitals have a great deal of social capital.  In many circumstances, they received these appointments after proving themselves over an extended and significant period.  However, this social capital is rarely used to push forward programs that would improve the delivery of health care.

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To help illustrate this point, consider the events that transpired after Cedar-Sinai Medical Center attempted to implement an Electronic Health Record (EHR) (Nembhard, Alexander, Hoff, & Ramanujam, 2009).  Without conferring with the hospitals staff and receiving their buy-in on how an EHR would improve efficiency and quality, an EHR was implemented.  Not surprisingly, after 1 week of use, most physicians got together and signed a petition to have the EHR removed.   What would you have done differently?  What did the implementation team fail to do?

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The initial step should have been to obtain buy-in from the board of trustees.  Clear evidence indicating the efficiencies garnered by EHR use could then cause these trustees with high social capital to influence staff further down the hierarchy.  Then as the consensus towards EHR use became evident to more staff, they should have been included into presentations that demonstrated the use and benefits of an EHR directly.  Thus, buy-in from trustees and staff physicians would have increased the social capital of the EHR over time providing more favorable conditions for success.  In addition to this, members of the board of trustees could have been connected through weaker ties to more distant physicians for their input.  This clustered group composition with the addition of weak ties allows for greater creativity to surface while maintaining the expertise of the core group.  Could this be applied to other industries?

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Consistent with the idea of social capital,  my small research project will attempt to study how the American Medical Association (AMA), and American Hospital Association (AHA)  attempt to exert their social capital by supporting politicians.  Specifically, the people that receive funds and their backgrounds will be put into context.  More so than the donation itself, knowing that the AMA and AHA place their support could have significant consequences.  Who are these people or organizations receiving support and is there wide variation in the size of donations?  How are their social networks structured?



Granovetter, M. S. (1973). The Strength of Weak Ties. American Journal of Sociology.

Lin, N. (1999). Building a Network Theory of Social Capital. Connections.

Nembhard, I. M., Alexander, J. A., Hoff, T. J., & Ramanujam, R. (2009). Why Does the Quality of Health Care Continue to Lag? Insights from Management Research. Academy of Management Perspectives.

Portes, A. (1998). Social Capital: Its Origins and Applications in Modern Sociology. Annual Review of Sociology.

Portes, A., & Landolt, P. (1996). Unsolved mysteries: The Tocqueville files II: The downside of social capital. American Prospect.

Smith, S. S. (2005). “Don’t put my name on it”: Social Capital Activation and Job‐Finding Assistance among the Black Urban Poor. American Journal of Sociology.

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