What is the concept of "social capital" and how is it related to bonding and bridging social network ties?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Social capital is what enables social networking ties to advance and develop. Social capital establishes social cohesion:

Social capital refers to the institutions, relationships, and norms that shape the quality and quantity of a society's social interactions. Increasing evidence shows that social cohesion is critical for societies to prosper economically and for development to be sustainable. 

In examining the role that social capital plays in the bonding and bridging process, one sees that its presence ensures that social relations advance.  In the former, social capital is vital because it enables people of similar backgrounds to develop connections to one another:  "...social ties that link people together with others who are primarily like them along some key dimension."  The presence of social capital is what allows people who are similar to find a common dimension in which their experience is validated.  Community is formed because of the "key dimension" that enables bonding to transpire. Social capital is vital to this process because it creates links and connections that might not necessarily have existed before.

In terms of the role of bridging, social capital plays an important role in this dynamic, as well.  Social capital's presence in the bridging process is critical to overcoming difference that might prevent a sense of connection:  "... social ties that link people together with others across a cleavage that typically divides society (like race, or class, or religion)."  In this instance, social capital enables individuals who might be stratified and divided to move past this reality and enable the forming of community.  

As early as Alexis de Tocqueville's visit to America, the presence of social capital was essential to the bridging and bonding process.  de Tocqueville understood this as a vital part of the American experience:

[Americans]  are forever forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand different types--religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very minute. . . Nothing, in my view, deserves more attention than the intellectual and moral associations in America.

It is in this experience where social capital plays an important role in social cohesion and in establishing social networking ties.  This happens on both bonding and bridging levels.  It is for this reason that the examination of social capital experiences becomes interesting.  Some scholars have suggested that there is a decrease in such experiences in American culture.  Thinkers like Robert Putnam suggest that the "forever forming associations" aspect of American social capital is decreasing:

[Data] reveals that since 1973 the number of Americans who report that "in the past year" they have "attended a public meeting on town or school affairs" has fallen by more than a third (from 22 percent in 1973 to 13 percent in 1993). Similar (or even greater) relative declines are evident in responses to questions about attending a political rally or speech, serving on a committee of some local organization, and working for a political party.

It is in this regard where examining the role of social capital in the establishment of social network ties is essential.  Social network ties in both the bridging and bonding capacity is directly impacted by social capital and its presence in American society.