Social capital and social networks

Social capital refers to the resources available through relationships and social networks.  It can be built, invested, transferred, and spent.  

Social capital diagram
(c) Coact 2015

One of the most well-known discussions of social capital is in Robert Putnam’s article (1995) and subsequent book (2000), Bowling Alone.  In the book, Putnam explores what he saw as the decline of social capital in the U.S., and the subsequent negative impacts on communities and individuals.  Note the timing of the article and the book – while the internet already existed when Putnam wrote them, it was not as ever-present as it is today.  Cell phones were still used primarily for emergencies and dial up modems were the primary way most people accessed the internet.  The chart below shows the growth in internet and mobile technology usage since 2000.

It is unlikely that Putnam, and other social scientists, could have even imagined the role that the internet and internet-related technology would play in the building and transmission of social capital today.  Current research has tried to tease out that relationship.  While the question of whether the internet increases or decreases people’s social capital has not been definitively answered (see here and here for examples), many researchers agree that its prevalence in our lives has changed how social capital is built and valued.  As Charles Steinfield said, we are not bowling alone, we are bowling online.

Social capital impacts all facets of our lives, from community resilience to health outcomes. Individual social capital is an important, but not often discussed, part of gender-based violence prevention.  Bystander behavior is very much embedded in people’s social networks – network norms shape people’s attitudes and behaviors in ways that can support and/or oppose violence and abuse.  In networks where social norms are tolerant of abuse, individuals who speak out against it pay a price in social capital.  Members of the network who have more social capital (from status, prestige, or other valuable characteristics) can afford to take risks and lose social capital in ways that members with less social capital cannot.  This makes the decision making process of whether or not to intervene, and in what way to intervene, different for those with high versus low social capital.

People who occupy prominent roles in the network and have high social capital are also more effective at changing the group norms around bystander intervention than those with low social capital.  This is why prevention programs such as Green Dot and Huddle Up target high status individuals.  To my knowledge, social network analysis has never been a part of the evaluation of these types of programs.  Although methodologically challenging, it would be helpful to see how bystander intervention information actually spreads through sample networks.  Were the individuals and groups who were identified as high status by the program organizers (usually administrators or professional staff) the ones who 1) had high social capital and 2) were willing to activate their social capital for this issue?  

Social capital is also an important area of research around institutions’ response to gender-based violence. Research that answers the following questions would provide critical information to improve institutional response to survivors.  Does social capital impact survivors’ choices report assaults or participate in institutional or criminal hearings? If so, how?  What do response systems look like at institutions where advocates have high social capital versus where they have low social capital? How does social capital impact collaborations between departments, and what impact does that have on institutional response?

One thought on “Social capital and social networks

  • September 29, 2017 at 11:29 am

    Bystander intervention is a network based concept. People need to break normative boundaries enforced in the moment to intervene. The idea of training is to change normative boundaries and to make intervention more likely. What type of networks make breaking normative boundaries easier? Are there pivotal people to target in intervention training? Say hubs? Or high betweenness? Closeness? How can you begin to marry the SNA concepts with what you know about bystander intervention?


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