Evolution of Social Capital

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Evolution of Social Capital - Insights

Income inequality, rapid urbanization and social exclusion of migrants are some examples of gaps related to social capital.

Gaps and opportunities in education

  • Students' success depends on their social class. This has been brought up in several studies and articles (examples can be found here, here and here). Income differences seem to affect student's educational opportunities the most, as school systems often provide less funding to higher-poverty school districts.
  • Poor quality of education in schools and universities causes students to lack desired soft skills when entering the job market. There appears to be a misunderstanding between employers and education systems surrounding skills they need and skills that are taught in schools. Education systems can address these gaps by implementing work-based learning and relationships.
  • Some studies have also found that student performance takes root in early childhood, in that children who achieve poor results in the earliest years often have trouble achieving better results later in education. These effects can be mitigated by greater investments in pre-K education systems, as well as by engaging parents in the education process.
  • Social capital is a set of values that enables a community to achieve a common purpose. This issue is a gap in social capital because it creates positive consequences for a part of the community, but at the same time, it creates negative effects for another part of the community. Addressing this issue creates an opportunity for development of social capital.

Health and poverty

  • Economic inequality is linked to disparities in health and life expectancy. One study found that high-income individuals live almost 6 years longer than low-income individuals.
  • Individuals living in low-income households are four times more likely to feel nervous and 5 times more likely to feel sad compared to high-income individuals. Children living in poverty face adverse consequences related to nutrition, chronic illnesses and environmental exposures.
  • Another study found that low-income middle-aged men are around three times more susceptible to dying and becoming disabled, compared to high-income individuals in the US (17% and 48% for low-income individuals, versus 5% and 15% for those with high income).
  • Among other causes, factors for these inequalities are lower access to healthcare among those living in poverty, higher prevalence of risk factors such as smoking, obesity and substance use in poorer communities, as well as lack of access to basic means for living such as water and electricity. Addressing these issues, particularly in childhood, can reduce poverty and thus mitigate the health inequality across communities.
  • Social capital is a set of values that enables a community to achieve a common purpose. In this case, access to health and health in general differ across income groups, meaning the community isn't achieving a common purpose. Addressing this gap is an opportunity to improve health across all members of a community, meaning social capital is improved.

Social exclusion of migrants in Europe

  • In Europe, children with migrant backgrounds are at high risk of growing up and living in poverty, not succeeding in school and being socially excluded. These issues can be mitigated in the following ways: [1] providing proper education, [2] building students' workforce skills, and [3] inclusion of migrants and fighting discrimination.
  • In Europe, however, there isn't enough research on how to effectively provide support and education to migrants. Many existing intervention programs don't target migrants directly, making them less effective specifically for migrants. Many international migrant inclusion programs, such as Job Corps in the United States, haven't yet been tested in Europe.
  • This insight is not only an opportunity, but also a need and a gap in social capital. Implementation of the identified ways would address the need for social inclusion of migrants in Europe, which would improve social capital. At the same time, there is a gap in understanding how to approach these issues.

Income inequality in some countries

  • South Africa is the world's most unequal country in terms of income. The 40% of the wealthiest South Africans own 93% of the country's assets. This negatively impacts the rest of the population, who live in poverty.
  • Apart from income disparities, high unemployment is also affecting the country. 27% of South Africans are unemployed, compared to 4% of the US population.
  • Among countries with the biggest income disparities are also Brazil, Mexico and China. In the US, the income gap is growing, meaning that those living in poverty keep earning less, while high-income individuals keep earning more money.
  • These disparities are creating gaps in social capital as individuals who earn less money have access to fewer opportunities and are at higher risk of entering poverty.

Rapid urbanization

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Evolution of Social Capital - Current Trends

Three current trends around social capital include the use of the internet as a social capital tool, the decline of traditional forms of social capital, and increasing attempts to measure social capital.

The Web as a Powerful Social Capital Tool

  • The widespread use of the internet has "revolutionized" social capital, according to experts.
  • For example, some forms of traditional social capital have now been transferred to, and even expanded by, the internet, including participation in national politics.
  • Additionally, studies have found positive correlations between high internet subscription rates and high social capital.
  • The internet also allows some businesses to be held even more accountable to the reviews of their customers, since customers can leave a review on the internet for all others to see.
  • Additionally, social media now allows us to connect with others with similar interests, even if we don't know people with similar interests personally (i.e. off the internet). Social media also allow us to maintain connections over great distances.
  • However, the impact that the internet is having, and will have, on social capital is unclear. Experts state that some forms of social capital will be bolstered by the internet and others will be decreased. The impact will be mixed.

Traditional Forms of Social Capital Declining

  • Most social capital experts agree that traditional forms of social capital are on the decline, and have been since the 1960s.
  • These traditional forms include traditional ways of connecting with others in-person, like going to church, being members of local organizations like Lodge Halls and Boy Scouts, and participating in sports like bowling.
  • Some experts feel that this is causing a decline in civic and social aspects of the American society, with "serious negative consequences."
  • Some of these consequences include people feeling more isolated and disconnected, declining trust in government and an overall sense of fear.
  • Other experts feel that these traditional forms of social capital are simply being replaced by new forms of social capital, like a shift from church groups to secular groups.

Increasing Attempts to Measure Social Capital

  • There have been increasing attempts to measure social capital, both from researchers and academics as well as from government.
  • On May 2017, there was a hearing about social capital at the Joint Economic Committee of the US Congress. In this hearing, experts testified that there was a lack of local measures of social capital. The hearing resulted in a government sponsored country-wide measure of social capital, down to the county level.
  • Increasingly precise measures of social capital will eventually allow policymakers to create targeted legislation aimed at helping increase social capital in areas where it is lacking.
  • For example, policymakers may use the new social capital index to craft legislation to decrease violent crime, and increase things like voting rates.

Research Strategy

Trends were determined based on their inclusion in multiple credible sources and/or data illustrating the trend.

Additionally, since changes to social capital and the affects of those changes tend to happen over longer periods of time, we have included as current trends that started previously but continue to have an affect today, rather than specifically new things that are happening just this year.
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Evolution of Social Capital - Future Trends

Information on the future trends around social capital and how it is expected to impact society in terms of economics and politics is unavailable in the public domain. Nonetheless, social capital could drive the future for government officials, as politicians will become rather dependent on social capital and will need to become populists for long-term survival.

How Social Capital Will Drive the Future


  • The most prosperous businesses in the future will take advantage of an extremely "relational model of leadership" that is primarily based on partnership, confidence, and collaboration.

Marketing to the Customer

  • Next-generation marketing will involve utilizing various informal networks' social capital to acquire crucial intelligence, attract new individuals, and strengthen corporate messages.


Understanding the impact of social capital:

Research Strategy:

Our research began by checking through reports focused on social capital to find any trends that will impact the future, and if they are specified to society in terms of economics and politics. However, after scanning reports from Bain, Mckinsey, Deloitte, among others, we were unable to find anything on social capital. We used these portals because they provide credible reports on any subject, and no other sources offered publications on social impact. At most, we found a report from Deloitte on human capital and social enterprise, but it was not relevant to the subject.

Afterward, we searched for articles, blogs, journals, and news discussing social impact, covering trends influencing society regarding economics and politics. The idea here was to find regularly covered trends, and then present those as future trends based on repetition in various articles. After checking through articles from Social Capital Research, HR Technologist, SoPact, Christensen Institute, among others, we could not find any articles addressing future trends. However, we did find some information on the future and current impact of social capital.
We then searched for case studies and research done on social capital to determine if any factors could impact society in the future based on their current impact. We were looking for factors such as whether social media plays a role in economics and politics or if social networking is making a mark in society. However, after checking through sources like Researchgate, Research Leap, Environics Institute, among others, we noticed that the case studies covered other subjects concerning social impact, such as its role in happiness and well-being, the development of it, and how it is understood by the public today. Nonetheless, we could not find a case study on factors that would enable us to satisfy the request.

Due to the lack of relevant information, we were unable to present 2-3 future trends around social capital and how it is expected to impact society in terms of economics and politics. A probable reason for the absence of data is that social capital is still in its early stages, and future trends involving social capital have not been studied extensively.
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Evolution of Social Capital - Historical Timeline

The concept of social capital has evolved and has meant different things to individuals and groups that belong to a different school of thought and time. Scholars/experts who fronted various definitions of social capital include Lyda Hanifan (1916), Coleman (1988), Snijders (1999), Taylor (1999), and Freeland Fisher (2019). Other insights on how social capital has evolved are below. Based on their school of thoughts, the "three families of social capital concepts" or definitions that have changed or evolved base on (1) trust, (2) ease of cooperation, and (3) network. The theories fronted by Coleman's work (1988) or Bourdieu's (1986) on social capital are widely accepted changes in the definitions of social capital.

Three School of Thoughts, Five Definitions

  • At least, "five seemingly different definitions" exist in terms of social capital. These definitions all belong to three families. It has been argued by scholars that the definitions have a familiar or central area and that the most substantial or most profound definition of social capital bases on trust.

Scholars with Inferred Definitions of Social Capital Since 1800

  • In a book titled Homo Oeconomicus by Manfred J. Holler, insight reveals that Alexis De Tocqueville is one of the earliest persons to reference social capital. Alexis De Tocqueville's work on observation about American life in the "first half of the 19th century" seemed to give an outline and definition of social capital. The 19th century refers to the period between 1800 to 1899.
  • Without offering a definition, John Dewey was the first scholar to make reference to social capital in a mainstream study titled "The School and Society" in 1899.

Lyda Hanifan's Concept of Social Capital (1916)

  • Lyda Hanifan was one of the first scholars to define the concept known as social capital way back in 1916. Lyda Hanifan viewed social capital as the goodwill, fellowship, mutual sympathy as well as social intercourse among a group of individuals. These people make up a social unit, and tangible substances (such as real estate, personal property, or cold cash) count the most in the daily lives of an individual due to the social capital benefits derived from the group.
  • An article by the University of A Coruña reveals that Lyda J. Hanifan (1920) is the first person to define social capital in a manner that is widely understood today. Lyda J. Hanifan was a rural educator that lived in the early twentieth century.
  • Lyda Hanifan understood that "the community as a whole will benefit from the cooperation" of all of its parts. Individuals, on the other hand, will find in their "associations the advantages of the help, sympathy, and" fellowship of their neighbors. These beneficial advantages get referred to as social capital.

Robert David Putnam's Definition of Social Capital (1941)

  • Putnam defined "social capital as a public good." He viewed it as the amount of participatory potential, civic orientation, as well as trust in people available to cities, states, or nations (Putnam 1993, 2000). This definition contrasts with the definition of Bourdieu's theory of social capital.
  • Robert David Putnam puts Coleman's definition "somewhere in the middle." In Putnam's concept, social capital gets raised/altered from depending on the feature of individuals to the characteristic features of larger populations. In his view, social capital is a common/collective trait that functions at the aggregate level.
  • Putnam puts forward the argument that social capital is the "amount" of "trust" available. It is the primary or main stock that characterizes the political culture of modern societies. The work of Putnam (1993 p. 35; 1993) reveals that social capital refers to "features of social organizations, such as networks, norms, and trust that facilitate action and cooperation for mutual benefit."

Pierre Bourdieu (1986)

  • Pierre Bourdieu has a slightly different view from the above perspective of Lyda J. Hanifan. In 1986, Pierre Bourdieu conceptualized social capital differently. He argued that capital is not only about economic benefits and that social exchanges are not entirely about self-interests (personal or individual interests) and need to encompass "capital and profit in all their forms."
  • Bourdieu's work made emphasis on structural constraints as well as unequal access to institutional resources, which were "based on class, gender, and race."
  • Bourdieu considered social capital as the property of an individual rather than a collective group. In his view, social capital enabled an individual to exert power over the group or individual who does mobilize the resources. For Bourdieu, social capital isn't uniformly available to every member of a group or a collective group but only available to a few who provide efforts to obtain it by attaining "positions of power and status" and by acquiring goodwill (Bourdieu 1986).

Bourdieu (1986) Vs. Coleman (1988)

  • The trust-cooperation complex is one of the three families/schools of thought that define social capital. Two scholars that based their definitions of social capital on trust and ease of cooperation include Bourdieu (1986) and Coleman (1988).
  • Research on social capital most frequently fronts the definitions of Coleman's or Bourdieu's theories of capital. Several studies on social capital often reference the social capital theories of Coleman's (1988) or Bourdieu's (1986). These two theories are related to "different paradigms of social theory."
  • One significant definition of social capital was fronted by Coleman (1988), who defined social capital as the ability of people to work voluntarily together. Later on, other writers like Fukuyama (1995) and Dasgupta (1999) also ascribed the ability to cooperate and to trust in their definitions of social capital.
  • Bourdieu (1986) defined social capital as the aggregate of available or potential resources in relation to "existing, permanent networks." These networks can be based, to a larger or lesser extent, on institutionalized relationships of acceptance and interpersonal respect. Bourdieu's view of social capital, as well as its influence on "educational achievements, cannot be understood" if his broader theory of capitals (which includes cultural and economic capital) and the concept of field and habitus get ignored.
  • Scholars see a difference between Bourdieu's concept and Coleman's conceptualization of social capital. Coleman's definition/view of social capital encompasses the quality of relationships/associations within a family and beyond a family. In contrast to Coleman, Bourdieu considers quality relationships within a family (such as the participation and support of parents in regular activities with their children and students) as cultural capital as such, does not consider them as social capital.

Snijders (1999)

  • Snijders' (1999) definition of social capital is based on network and is known as the "basic network payoff definition."
  • In 1999, Snijders gave a basic definition of social capital by reformulating other descriptions or definitions. He defined social capital as a "measure of the amount of networks" a person has built. In his definition, social capital refers to the total amount of benefits an individual can access, needing neither collateral nor high interest-rates on his/her network(s) when necessary.
  • A fundamental point noted when reviewing these definitions is that "there is a close connection" between the definition of network payoff and the definition of trust payoff.

Julia Freeland Fisher's Definition of Social Capital (2019)

  • Freeland Fisher defines social capital as people's access to human connections and their ability to mobilize these connections to "help them further their potential and their goals," mainly/especially when those goals have emerged and inevitably shifted over time. She believes that networks have real value, and connections shape how individuals "get by and get ahead."

Networks and the Trust-Cooperation-Complex in the Definitions of Social Capital

  • Networks are among the most notable alternatives to the trust-cooperation-complex when scholars define social capital. Different links exist among these definitions that can be very weak, such as including cooperation from passing acquaintances in the concept of social capital or strong ties/links such as cooperation from old friends in the conceptualization of social capital. Good introductions that disclose the various links/relationships considered in the definition of social capital are found in the "original article on social capital by Coleman (1988)," in Snijders (1999), Taylor (1999), and Dijk (1999).

Measuring Social Capital

  • Putnam's instrument defines the most essential/most widely recognized tool used to measure social capital (Putnam, 1993). Scholars argue that Putnam's text should get considered as a proxy definition for social capital.

Research Strategy

The study has investigated how social capital has evolved. It included the scholars/experts who fronted such definitions. The study gives preference to articles published within the past 24 months. However, to get a comprehensive view of all definitions, which are over a century old, selected credible, academic, scholarly, and informative articles older than the usual 24-month credibility range are in the study.

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Evolution of Social Capital - Key Movements/Activities

The research team was unable to determine the major movements or activities that have shaped the concept of social capital. Search found that the 'Mass Society Theory', which emerged in the 1950s, influenced the development of social capital as it is today.


  • According to one social capital study, works on the topic of the 'Mass Society Theory' in the 1950s and 1960s, particularly works of Bell, Nisbet, Stein and Whyte, considerably influenced the development of the social capital concept in the following decades. The 'Mass Society Theory' focused on proposing themes for the development of society.
  • In 1993, Robert Putnam studied the connections between social capital and the declining political participation, focusing his research on Italy.
  • In 1997, authors Stephen Knack and Philip Keefer studied the correlations between confidence and civic cooperation in a group of countries.
  • Two years later, Deepa Narayan and Lant Pritchett found that rural families with higher incomes participate in collective organizations more and thus improve social capital.
  • In 2012, Lin, Peng, Kim, Kim and LaRose studied how social media platforms serve as an opportunity for increased social capital for immigrants in the United States.
  • The World Social Capital Monitor, which launched in 2016, measures social goods worldwide using surveys.


Key movements that have shaped social capital couldn't be identified. Studies describe how social capital was addressed over time, that is, what was done to improve socio-economic welfare in specific communities, but it remains unclear whether or how these events shaped the concept of social capital. As helpful findings, we listed examples of social capital that were studied by researchers in a chronological order.

We started our search by directly searching for blogs, studies, reports and lists of movements and events that have shaped the concept of social capital. OECD, Infed and Social Capital Research and Training were among the sources searched. What we found this way were numerous studies that describe the concept and study the instances of social capital improvement in the past, as well as how the definitions of social capital evolved over the years, but no studies focused on the things that shaped the concept as it is today.

We decided to examine studies and reports on the topic of social capital, aiming to locate mentions of events, movements or other things that affected the development of the concept. We examined studies by experts in the field of social capital, such as Robert Putnam and Emanuele Ferragina, as well as other blogs and reports on the topic of social capital. One study mentioned how the 'Mass Society Theory' discussions and studies contributed to the development of social capital concept, but didn't describe how these discussions shaped the concept specifically. We also found that L. J. Hanifan, an expert in the topic of social capital, was inspired to start writing on this topic by the "social center" movement, but movements that majorly influenced the development of social capital in general were not mentioned.

Ultimately, we resorted to examining expert conferences that focus on the topic of social capital. We reviewed TEDx social capital conference videos and audio transcripts, as well as interviews with experts in the field. This way, we aimed to find direct statements from professionals that describe how and what majorly shaped the concept of social capital as it is today, but we found that the conferences, interviews and presentations predominantly focused on the concept as it is today and didn't go in sufficient depth on the history of social capital.