Sociology Social Capital
Benjamin Cornwell, Alicia Eads
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 October 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0076


The concept of “social capital” is unique in the social sciences in that there is both general interest in its various forms and consequences for social actors and, at the same time, serious disagreement as to its theoretical and empirical utility. This is partly due to the incredible popularity the concept has gained throughout the social sciences since the late 1980s. It has inspired a vast literature that is nearly impossible to survey in its entirety. For example, a simple Google Scholar search for “social capital” yields over one million results. Our goal here is not to promote a particular definition of social capital or to advocate a particular research agenda, but to suggest starting points for researchers who are interested in (or otherwise compelled to study) social capital. Social capital, for most scholars, includes a social relationship element (e.g., concrete social network ties) and a resource or benefit component (e.g., trust) at either the individual actor or collective level. The entries in this article address the theoretical history of the general concept of social capital, foundational theoretical and empirical work, different approaches to conceptualizing and measuring social capital, theoretical critiques, and recent applications of the concept in sociology, political science, economics, organizational research, health research, and public policy, among others. We present particularly influential pieces that have motivated research on social capital, those that attempt to review the corpus of work on this topic, and, to a lesser extent, recent work that offers innovative or promising approaches to social capital. We begin with foundational statements about social capital. We then cover reviews and critiques and then address substantive research focusing on important individual-level topics as well as larger social constructs like organizations and neighborhoods.

Foundational Works

Social capital has been conceptualized in numerous ways—as both a social-structural and a psychological construct, as both a micro- and a macro-level phenomenon, and as both a metaphor and a set of concrete resources. This diversity may be traced back to the fact that the highly prominent scholars who first developed this concept introduced it using what are now seen as ambiguous terms and underscored its inherently multidimensional nature. This section presents the foundational and the most highly cited works that introduced the concept in various social science disciplines, including Bourdieu 1986, Coleman 1988, and Putnam 1993, as well as works that are noted for their profound influence on subsequent thinking about social capital (Burt 2000, Fukuyama 1995, Lin 2001).

  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1986. The forms of capital. In Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education. Edited by J. G Richardson, 241–248. New York: Greenwood.

    This is the first influential statement on the concept of “social capital.” Bourdieu contrasts social capital with other types of capital (e.g., cultural capital) and explores their relationships to each other. He defines social capital in terms of the “durable network” of relationships actors maintain and the resources that are available to them as a result of maintaining those relationships.

  • Burt, Ronald S. 2000. The network structure of social capital. Research in Organizational Behavior 22:345–423.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0191-3085(00)22009-1

    Burt develops a network-structural definition of social capital. In contrast to scholars who emphasize strong ties and triadic closure, Burt argues that gaps, or “structural holes,” in networks present opportunities for actors to bridge or broker between unconnected groups. The value added to a network by brokers is social capital, although network closure is also important. Burt discusses empirical evidence and provides a detailed discussion of network mechanisms.

  • Coleman, James S. 1988. Social capital in the creation of human capital. American Journal of Sociology 94:S95–S120.

    Coleman highlights the functionality of social capital as a resource for social actors. He defines it as a structural property of relationships and describes how strong ties and triadic closure shape social norms, expectations, trust, and informal social control. Coleman illustrates the importance of social capital by linking it to the development of human capital and illustrates its relevance in markets and other contexts.

  • Fukuyama, F. 1995. Trust: The social virtues and the creation of prosperity. New York: Free Press.

    This influential book made the bold claim that social capital—conceptualized primarily in terms of trust—is crucial for national economic prosperity. Fukuyama argues that the type of social capital that predominates in a given society affects its economic institutions. Societies in which there is generalized trust among strangers are better able to support the development of large corporations and markets.

  • Lin, Nan. 2001. Social capital: A theory of social structure and action. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511815447

    This book defines social capital in terms of the instrumental resources that are available to social actors through the social network ties they maintain. Lin sees social capital as an investment made by rational actors. The book discusses the importance of social capital for individual outcomes and thereby reveals the pivotal role social capital plays in social mobility and stratification processes.

  • Putnam, Robert D. 1993. Making democracy work: Civic traditions in modern Italy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Making Democracy Work is perhaps the foundational empirical analysis of social capital in the social sciences. Putnam demonstrates that levels of associational activity and trust in the community—as opposed to policies or budgets—were the key factors that determined the effectiveness of regional governments in Italy in the late 20th century. This book suggests that social capital is crucial for building strong societal institutions

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