Social Networks: Social Capital Research Paper Starter

Social Networks: Social Capital

(Research Starters)

Social capital is a broad and somewhat elastic term that has become familiar to many disciplines and professional vocabularies. On the one hand, the concept of social capital is used to examine the resources required to build up human capital (Coleman, 1988), while on the other, it is viewed as a major mechanism of social reproduction and is used in a critical way to highlight class inequalities and unequal access to institutional and other resources and opportunities that help develop cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1985). Thus, while social capital may be used to identify negative social processes, in general it is seen as a positive effect of interaction among participants in a social network (Helliwell & Putnam, 2004). The value and function of social capital is linked to trust, social networks, and tolerance. However, many commentators agree that while it is possible to identify the function of social capital, it is harder to identify the mechanisms through which it operates and to define precisely what it is.

Keywords Cultural Reproduction; Cultural Capital; Human Capital; Networks; Physical Capital; Social Capital; Social Reproduction; Stratification

Social Networks: Social Capital

Overview

Social capital is a broad and somewhat elastic term that has become familiar to many disciplines and professional vocabularies. On the one hand, the concept of social capital is used to examine the resources required to build up human capital (Coleman, 1988), while on the other, it is viewed as a major mechanism of social reproduction and is used in a critical way to highlight class inequalities and unequal access to institutional and other resources and opportunities that help develop cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1985). Thus, while social capital may be used to identify negative social processes, in general it is seen as a positive effect of interaction among participants in a social network (Helliwell & Putnam, 2004). The value and function of social capital is linked to trust, social networks, and tolerance. However, many commentators agree that while it is possible to identify the function of social capital, it is harder to identify the mechanisms through which it operates and to define precisely what it is.

Defining Social Capital: Putnam, Coleman, Bourdieu

The founding fathers of social capital theory are Robert Putnam, James Coleman, and Pierre Bourdieu. While they have all focused on social capital as a key component of group and organizational behavior, these social scientists differ in their emphasis and approach. First, Bourdieu provided a typology of different forms of capital—economic, cultural, social, and symbolic—examined how these are accumulated, exchanged, and utilized, and explained their role in the reproduction and maintenance of class position or advantage (McGonigal et al., 2007). In particular, Bourdieu focused on how social inequalities (stratification) are perpetuated through education and the system of cultural reproduction that underpins it. Cultural reproduction—the various ways that education systems shape the values, attitudes, and habits of students through informal processes—is linked to social capital, which Bourdieu observes is "the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to a durable network of more or less institutionalised relationships of mutual acquaintance or recognition" (Bourdieu, 1986, p.51).

Where Bourdieu was interested in how elite groups use social capital to maintain social divisions, James Coleman was interested in how non-elite or marginalized groups could use social capital to their benefit (Smith, 2007). He was interested in explaining stratification and educational outcomes, and in particular the role of the relation between home, school, and local communities to the development of human capital. For Coleman, human capital refers to the development of skills and capabilities that enable people to do things that they were previously unable to do (e.g., work in certain occupations). He argued that some institutions are better at generating social capital than others (e.g., the family), and his work has contributed to understandings of how educational attainment (getting good grades, acquiring qualifications) is more likely among people who have grown up in families/households that have educational aspirations and thus have access to knowledge about educational opportunity (Schuller, 2007) through connections between families and communities. Access to community services and assistance from family members, friends, neighbors, and teachers are all forms of social capital outside families that may also contribute to good educational outcomes (Offer & Schneider, 2007). Social capital for Coleman is defined by its function and is "a variety of different entities, having two characteristics in common: they all consist of some aspect of a social structure, and they facilitate certain actions of individuals who are within the structure" (Coleman, 1988, p. 98).

Robert Putnam is probably the best-known popularizer of the concept of social capital. He focused on the civic sphere: the health and vitality of civil society as measured by aspects such as participation and voting behavior. He defined social capital as "features of social organization such as networks, norms and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit" (Putnam, 1995, p. 67). In his book Bowling Alone, he argues that social capital contributes to the development and sustainability of community by fostering connectedness, which, he notes, contributes to better health and education outcomes, lower crime, and a "good society."

Putnam observed that "the more integrated we are with our community, the less likely we are to experience colds, heart attacks, strokes, cancer, depression, and premature death of all sorts" (Putnam, 2000, p. 326), but he argued that social capital in contemporary America has been declining steadily. When social capital declines, a community experiences increased social disorder and potentially more distrust among community members. Conversely, greater social capital increases commitment to a community and the ability to mobilize collective actions. Putnam linked the decline in social capital to trends in worsening health (depression, mental illness, suicide, and general personal malaise), especially for Generation X, members of which bear an unusually high burden of these trends and are, Putnam argues, less likely to be involved in civic engagement and more likely to engage in what he refers to as sociopathic conduct, such as road rage.

Social Capital as a Resource

It would be easy to view social capital as either people's human capital (individual skills, attributes, competencies, and know-how) or their economic capacities (money and the things that money buys). However, social capital is neither of these, though it is connected to the development of human capital and can be converted into economic capital. Rather, it is generally agreed that social capital resides in the quality and structure of relationships between people and refers to resources stored in human relationships, whether casual or close. It is the knowledge that people have, how this knowledge has the potential to circulate among the relationships that connect them, and how it potentially contributes to people doing things for one another.

These resources are used by individuals to get by (by leveraging practical, emotional, and financial support from others) and to get on—that is, to achieve social mobility (by leveraging who one knows in order to gain access to employment, a social circle, or organization) (de Souza Briggs, 1997). Developing the core features of the concept, McGonigal, Doherty, Allan et al. (2007) observe that social capital is intrinsically relational, that is, built on patterns of relationships that may vary in duration, density, distance, and interconnectedness. Further, the oxygen of social capital is interpersonal conduct and its attendant affective dimensions—in other words, how we get on with others and how they make us feel. Finally, the metaphor of capital is a useful way of examining the forms of power, resource, and currency for which social capital can be traded or exchanged (p. 79).

Social capital, then, is the value that is derived from belonging to networks, based on the idea that access to resources is cultivated through connections among and between people. The social connections that develop networks are built up over time through repeated exchanges (of information, emotion, or favors) and are linked to other forms of capital. In contrast, reductions in levels of social capital may contribute to feelings of disconnectedness and loss of trust, control, autonomy, and belonging. Social capital is, at least for Coleman and Putnam, a good thing: it can be transformed into all kinds of resources, from jobs to information to better health (but not if, as Putnam believes, people "bowl alone").

Putnam provides a number of reasons to explain why social capital has a positive impact on health. First, people who are connected to others in social networks provide social and practical support that may reduce stress and suffering. Second, social networks help to reinforce social norms that are perceived to have health-inducing or -promoting effects, and therefore they minimize the potential for damaging conduct. Third, connected communities are more likely to be well organized and therefore capable of challenging issues around health-related services or issues. And finally, social capital may actually have a biochemical impact by enhancing resistance to disease and illness (Law, 2008).

Further Insights

Social Capital

Given the emphasis on relationships, it is not hard to see how social networks are important to an understanding of how social capital functions. Access to social capital is determined by opportunities to interact with others, the characteristics of the individuals who compose the social network, and the configuration of the network itself (Offer & Schneider, 2007, p. 1127). Social networks matter because they create and sustain relationships that can be cultivated into social support, itself a form of social capital (Offer...

(The entire section is 4520 words.)