What is Social Capital?
A Brief Literature Overview
Economic and Social Research Foundation
Versions - RTF
(29Kb) PDF (31Kb)
Some Definitions of Social Capital
The concept of social capital is currently receiving a lot of attention from
development agencies and research institutions. Part of the attention has been on its
definition. The following provide a sample of some of these:
features of social organisation, such as trust, norms [or reciprocity],
and networks [of civil engagement], that can improve the efficiency of society by
facilitating co-ordinated actions."
Putnam, Leonardi and Nanetti (1993) Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions
in Modern Italy, Princeton University Press, Princeton, USA.
.the institutions, relationships, and norms that shape the quality and
quantity of a societys social interactions."
World Bank (2000) What is Social Capital? from www.worldbank.org/poverty
.the rules, norms, obligations, reciprocity and trust embedded in social
relations, social structures and societys institutional arrangements which enable
members to achieve their individual and community objectives."
Narayan (1997) Voices of the Poor: Poverty and Social Capital in Tanzania,
World Bank, Washington D.C., USA.
Many definitions define what social capital is and what it does. In fact, there seems
to be broader agreement in the literature about what social capital does, than what it is!
In particular, it is widely agreed that social capital facilitates mutually beneficial
mechanisms for how social capital affects outcomes
Narayan and Pritchett (1997) describe five mechanisms for how social capital affects
outcomes. They are:
|Improve societys ability to monitor the performance of government, either
because government officials are more embedded in the social network or because monitoring
the public provision of services is a public good:|
|Increase possibilities for co-operative action in solving problems with a local common
|Facilitate the diffusion of innovations by increasing inter-linkages among
|Reduce information imperfections and expand the range of enforcement mechanisms,
thereby increasing transactions in output, credit, land and labour markets;|
|Increase informal insurance (or informal safety nets) between households, thereby
allowing households to pursue higher returns, but more risky, activities and production
Collier (1998) differentiates between government social capital (e.g.
enforceability of societal contracts, rule of law, and the extent of civil liberties) and civil
social capital (e.g. common values, shared traditions, norms, informal
networks and associational membership). In societies where government social capital is
limited, a large proportion of contracts may depend on civil social capital and trust.
Rose (1999) in a social capital study in Russia found that individuals invoke networks
that involve informal, diffuse social co-operation to compensate for formal organisation
Social capital may produce either a positive or a negative output. For example, Olson
(1982) argues that groups may be willing to impose costs on non-members to achieve their
goals. In contrast, Putnam et al, (1993) argue that co-operation among members of a group
creates habits and attitudes towards serving the greater good that carry over to
members interactions with non-members.
If social capital is beneficial, is it possible to create more? Equally, can social
capital be destroyed? Do external agents have a role to play in creating social capital?
Putnam (1993) argues that social capital in Italy is a legacy of long periods of
historical development, and therefore it cannot be added to in the short-run. This
prognosis is challenged by a number of recent empirical studies (Schneider et al, 1997).
For example, it has been shown that changing the structure and composition of school
boards can enhance significantly the level of parental involvement in school-related
activities and in turn help build social capital. Others present similar conclusions about
the design of irrigation projects (Ostrom, 1994 and Lam, 1996). Many people would argue
that it is possible to create social capital, although the process is incremental.
Furthermore, they would argue that social capital can be eroded faster and more easily
than it can be created.
Falk and Kilpatrick (1999) argue that the accumulation of social capital is the outcome
of the process of learning interactions. Learning interactions require a learning
event (an actual occasion) and occur in a contextual dimension (the broad,
socio-cultural and political frame of reference). A precondition to building social
capital is the existence of a sufficient quantity and quality of learning interactions.
For example Falk and Kilpatrick suggest that quality learning interactions includes an
historical context, external interactions, reciprocity, trust, shared norms and values.
The planning and implementation of community projects may be one such learning
Uphoff (1999) distinguishes between structural and cognitive social
capital. Structural social capital involves various forms of social organisation,
including roles, rules, precedents and procedures as well as a variety of networks that
contribute to co-operation. Cognitive social capital includes norms, values, attitudes and
beliefs. Structural and cognitive social capital are complimentary: structures help
translate norms and beliefs into well co-ordinated goal-orientated behaviour.
Other authors (Sabel, 1994) argue that social capital builds up as a result of all
actors committing themselves to ongoing negotiations based on shared understanding of
common goals. Hechter (1987) suggest a multistage process for building group solidarity.
Having joined together members must devise rules and procedures, which get
institutionalised over time. Internalising rules and procedures, members moderate their
behaviour so that these correspond to the expectations others have. This build up of
social capital of formal rules and mutual expectations facilitates extending
group activities into previously unexplored areas.
It is argued by a number of practitioners that peoples participation rarely
happens spontaneously, but rather involves social preparation (Albee & Boyd,
1997). This is a process of supporting people to:
|Gather information about their circumstances and resources;|
|Analyse the situation;|
|Prioritise actions they wish to pursue;|
|Join together into a group or an organisation of their own choosing; and|
|Work-out the means to implement these actions|
Such social preparation necessitates a systematic pattern of action-reflection-action,
and is the fundamental core practice of participatory development (Albee & Boyd,
to Strengthen Social Capital Self-help groups
What types of intervention have been used most successfully to promote participation? A
synthesis by Oakley et al (1991) proposes the following six dimensions.
|Assisting local people stimulate their own critical
awareness, to examine and explain issues in their own words, and to realise what they can
do to bring about change.
|The development of internal cohesion and solidarity among
people, and some form of structured organisation.
|A service role which assists people to undertake specific
actions; these actions include the acquiring of particular technical and managerial
skills, gaining access to available resources or translating their own ideas into feasible
|To serve as a go-between in relation to other external
services. To establish contacts with existing services and introduce people to the
procedures and mechanisms for dealing with these services.
|To help develop links between people in similar contexts and
facing similar problems.
|A progressive redundancy of external intervention.
Participating in a group is costly for members in terms of time and labour, and
resources. Munkners (1979) literature review of self-help groups finds the
introduction of groups without prior assessment of genuine local demand for these groups
is a common policy mistake. Kabubilas (1994) evaluation for GTZ Village Programme in
two districts if Tanga (Tanzania), states that many group members did not know why the group
approach would help them. Uphoff (1999) says that the strategy, in the Gal Oya
irrigation systems in Sri Lanka, was to work first, organise later so as to
demonstrate the benefits achievable through collective action. This created a demand for
local organisation, rather than starting by creating a supply of organisation for which
there was no clearly felt need.
Some people argue that external agents should not create groups. One option is for the
external agents to support only groups with a certain history. In practice, it may be
difficult to support groups without, at least indirectly creating them. However, the mere
announcement that a donor or NGO will provide support to groups meeting certain criteria
leads to the creation of these groups. The difference between support and creation
(animated mobilisation) may be that support programmes reach the well informed and
connected (the non-poor) whereas mobilisation may be capable of reaching the marginalised
and vulnerable. One motivation for village group formation in Tanzania today is the access
this provides to donor support.
Research in Tanzania has found that the very poorest and marginalised women are
under-represented in womens organisations in one village on Mount Kilimanjaro
(Mercer, 1999). It can be argued that the use of participatory methods does not guarantee
the inclusion of the vulnerable. Hume (2000) argues that best practice open and
public meetings, regular elections, financial training for leaders, the inclusion of women
does not necessarily stop elite capture of local organisations or the creation of
new elites. He argues that stakeholder analysis is one way of exploring such issues.
Social capital is both affected by and affects social power structures. The ability to
create or destroy social capital will depend on how power structures and traditional norms
of association are engaged by field staff of external agencies. Social divisions have to
be overtly recognised, actively negotiated and represented if there is to be inclusion of
hitherto excluded individuals.
Social and power structures also emerge externally. Groups created as implementors of
community development may be perceived mainly as part of some external development
agencys system or project. Linked to this are concerns about mining social
capital: using existing stocks of social capital to achieve other (external) aims and, in
the process, depleting the initial stock.
In general, there is no one model for social capital formation or the creation or
strengthening of local groups. Albee & Boyd (1997) argue that there is no single
answer or model to promoting participation
there are only frameworks and guiding
principles. Pantoja (1999) argues that instead of one particular model of local
organisation, a wide variety of community organisations should be promoted. There needs to
be an individual, participatory approach to each intervention.
References and Further Information
Albee and Boyd (1997), Doing it Differently: Networks of Community
Development Agents, Scottish Community Education Council, Edinburgh, Scotland
Collier (1998), Social Capital and Poverty, Social Capital Initiative WP
No 4, The World Bank, Washington DC, USA
Falk and Kilpatrick (1999), What is Social Capital? A Study of Interaction in
a Rural Community, University of Tasmania, Australia
Hechter (1987), Principles of Group Solidarity, Berkeley and Los Angeles,
University of California Press, USA
Hulme (2000), Protecting and Strengthening Social Capital in Order to Produce
Desirable Development Outcomes, SD SCOPE Paper No 4, UK-DFID, London
Lam (1996), Institutional Design of Public Agencies and Co-production: A
Study of Irrigation Associations, in World Development 24 (6)
Mercer (1999), Who wants to be empowered? Participatory culture and the
discourse of maendeleo on Mount Kilimanjaro, presented at the Development Studies
Association Conference, Bath, UK
Munkner (1979), Co-operatives and Rural Poverty, Marburg, Federal
Republic of Germany
Narayan et al (1997), Voices of the Poor: Poverty and Social Capital in
Tanzania, World Bank, Washington DC, USA
Narayan and Pritchett (1997) Cents and Sociability: Household Income and
Social Capital in Rural Tanzania, World Bank, Washington DC, USA
Oakley et al (1991), Projects with People: The Practice of Participation in
Rural Development, International Labour Organisation, Geneva, Switzerland
Olson (1982), The Rise and Decline of Nations, Yale University Press, New
Ostrom (1994), Constituting Social Capital and Collective Action, Journal
of Theoretical Politics 6 (4)
Pantoja (1999), Exploring the Concept of Social Capital and its Relevance for
Community-based Development: The Case of Coal Mining Areas of in Orissa, India, Social
Capital Initiative WP No 18, World Bank, Washington DC, USA
Putnam, Leonardi and Nanetti (1993), Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions
in Modern Italy, Princeton University Press, Princeton, USA
Rose (1999), Getting Things Done in an Anti-modern Society: Social Capital
Networks in Russia, in Dasgupta and Seregeldin, Social Capital: A
Multifaceted Perspective, World Bank, Washington DC, USA
Sabel (1994), Learning by Monitoring: The Institutions of Economic
Development, in Smelser and Swedverd, Handbook of Economic Sociology,
Princeton University Press, Princeton, USA
Schneider, Teske, Marschall, Mintrom and Roch (1997), Institutional
Arrangements and the Creation of Social Capital: The Effects of Public School Choice,
American Political Science Review, 91 (1)
Uphoff (1999), Understanding Social Capital: Learning from the Analysis and
Experiences of Participation, in Dasgupta and Seregeldin, Social Capital: A
Multifaceted Perspective, World Bank, Washington DC, USA
This is a shortened and edited version of a chapter on Social Capital Formation in
Tanzania by Graham Hobbs an Assistant Research Fellow at the Economic and Social
Research Foundation in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The piece was original published in Selected
Studies of Civil Society in Tanzania: Policy, Social Capital and Networks of the
Vulnerable, edited and compiled by Waheeda Shariff Samji and Alana Albee, UK-DFID, Dar
es Salaam, September 2001. ISBN 186192 262