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Social Capital
Nourishing Ideas > Philia in the Community > Social Capital

by Poonam Sharma

Whereas physical capital refers to physical objects and human capital refers to the properties of individuals, social capital refers to connections among individuals - social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them. 
- Robert Putnam

In a world where isolation, loneliness and individualistic tendencies have increased, social capital is a neglected but vital component of society. As the name suggests, social capital is a form of collective wealth. But social capital is not measured in dollars or material possessions. Its wealth lies in the strength of a society's social networks, and the inclinations that arise from these networks for people to do things for each other.

"In that sense," says Robert Putnam, one of the leading thinkers on the subject,"social capital is closely related to what some have called 'civic virtue.' The difference is that 'social capital' calls attention to the fact that civic virtue is most powerful when embedded in a sense network of reciprocal social relations. A society of many virtuous but isolated individuals is not necessarily rich in social capital."

We see social capital at work in our everyday lives, but often we don't recognize it for what it is, or realize its potential. When a group of neighbours informally keep an eye on each other's homes, that's social capital in action. When survivors of an illness band together to form a support group, that's social capital in action. Social capital can be found in a book club, a cultural organization, a civic association, a sports league, or even an internet forum or chat room.

What all these examples have in common is that they build connections among people - connections that often go beyond the original purpose of the network. These formal and informal networks provide a platform to reach out to others and increase interaction. They bridge the gaps that exist in society and establish a bond of cooperation and reciprocity. Someone who has been helped by another will be more likely to turn around and assist someone else.

By bringing people together in formal and informal networks, social capital builds confidence and leads to increased awareness, knowledge and trust. It enables people to build communities, to commit themselves to each other, to feel a greater sense of belonging, and to knit the social fabric. According to Putnam and his followers, social capital is also a key component in building and maintaining democracy.

Whatever its form is, social capital has the potential to create a welcoming and nurturing environment. It encourages and strengthens involvement in society in a positive manner. It can make everyone feel connected, included and involved. It instills hope, and provides options and opportunities. This in turn empowers people to make significant contributions toward a healthy and vibrant society.

An investment in social capital does not cost much, but it yields rich returns and increases with use.

Poonam Sharma is an internationally travelled journalist with over 9 years of experience in writing for electronic, print and online media. She is currently based in Vancouver.

Resources relating to social capital:

Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, by Robert Putnam. Read an excerpt
Social Capital Gateway
The Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey
The Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America
Social Capital (Wikipedia)
Social Capital (The Encyclopedia of Informal Education)

Some initiatives that are working to build social capital:

The Canadian Index for Well Being
Action for Neighbourhood Change
Involving All Neighbors

Have Your Say

Related Items
The Prosperous Community: Social Capital and Public Life

Social capital is closely related to two other concepts discussed on this website: neighbourliness and reciprocity 
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