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Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 41:3


The Facets of Social Capital





The study of social relationships and social integration has roots that go far
back in sociology (Durkheim, 1897/1997; Tnnies, 1887/1957). However, it was
the (re)introduction of the concept social capital by some sociologists (Bourdieu,
1986; Coleman, 1988) and the ensuing work by the political scientist Robert
Putnam on the subject (1993; 2000) that contributed to a dramatically increased
interest in social capital within a wide variety of other scientific disciplines.
Accordingly, the concept might be considered one of the most successful exports
from sociology to other scientific disciplines (Portes, 2000).
Nevertheless, social capital might also be considered one of the most criticized
concepts in the social sciences (Portes, 1998). The major controversy surrounding
it deals chiefly with its conceptual vagueness, which is reflected in major problems
of operationalization. Some researchers, for instance, adhere to the perspective
that social capital is more than the aggregated characteristics of individuals
and that it is chiefly a feature of social structures rather than of individual actors
within the social structure (Putnam, 1993; 2000; Lochner et al., 1999; Kawachi
and Berkman, 2000). Still, the concept was originally considered and defined as
an individual good within sociology (Bourdieu, 1986; Coleman, 1988; Portes,
1998; Lin, 2000; 2001). The consequence of these differences in opinion is the
emergence of the two facets of social capitalthe individual and the collective
(Portes, 1998). Yet, the former notion has so far dominated sociological theories
on social capital.
Furthermore, others suggest that social capital has a multidimensional nature
(see for example van Oorschot and Arts, 2005; Rostila, 2007). Consequently, a
number of aspects of social relationssuch as social contacts with relatives, family
and friends; exchange of social resources in networks (Bourdieu, 1986; Lin, 2001;
Vlker and Flap, 2004); general trust and solidarity between citizens in society;
participation in voluntary associations (e.g. Putnam, 2000); and trust in the state
and its institutions (Rothstein, 2003)have been considered as parts or the core
of the concept in earlier studies. Nevertheless, it seems crucial to settle on the most
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The Facets of Social Capital


important dimensions of the concept and to separate the core of social capital
from other structural and cognitive dimensions of social relationships.
Moreover, another limitation of most theories on social capital is that they
exclusively accentuate the positive features of social capital while ignoring its
possible downsides. Nonetheless, some scholars have suggested that social capital
might have negative externalities (Gambetta, 1993; Portes, 1998; Trigilia, 2001;
Browning et al., 2004; Rostila, 2008). Henceforth, theories on social capital
should increasingly consider its possible dark sides.
The overall objective of this article is to elaborate on a theoretical model
which aims to clarify some of the bridges between the facets and dimensions of
social capital. Another aim is to theoretically highlight the specific circumstance
in which negative externalities by social capital arise. The article is disposed as
follows: First, I will account for some of the most important existing theoretical
definitions of social capital at the individual and collective levels.1 Second, I will
discuss the shortcomings of both individual and collective approaches to social
capital. With this theoretical background as a point of departure, I will present
a theoretical model that results in a conceptual definition of social capital. This
definition separates the core of social capital from other important dimensions
of the concept. Furthermore, it may bridge some of the antagonism between
individual and collective notions of the concept and emphasize the downsides of
social capital.


One of the early theorists influencing the individual-level notion of social capital
is the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. He claims that social capital is the
aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possessions of durable network
of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognitionor in
other words membership in a groupwhich provides each of its members with backing of the
collectively-owned capital, a credential which entitles them to credit, in various senses of the
world (Bourdieu 1986: 248249). Hence, Bourdieus definition of social capital
suggests that the concept has two elements: Firstly, the relationship itself that
allows individuals to claim access to resources possessed by other members of the
network, and secondly the amount and quality of those resources.
Further, Coleman also chiefly has an individual approach, albeit with some
collective fragments, as he defines social capital as a variety of entities with two
elements in common: They all consist of some aspect of social structures, and they facilitate certain
action of actorswhether persons or corporate actorswithin the structure. Like other forms of
capital, social capital is productive, making possible the achievement of certain ends that in the
absence would not be possible . . . Unlike other forms of capital, social capital inheres in the
structure of relations between actors and among actors. It is not lodged either in the actors
themselves or in physical implements of production (Coleman, 1988: 98). Coleman
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Mikael Rostila

further suggests that there are three types of useful resources embedded in social
relations. The first, called obligations, expectations and trustworthiness, refers
to credit slips that arise when an individual does something for another and
trusts him/her to reciprocate this in future. A second form of social capital is the
potential for information that inheres in social relations. Finally, norms are a third
form of social capital and do not only facilitate certain actions but also constrain
others. However, Coleman also emphasizes the dark sides of the concept as he
suggests that a given form of social capital that is valuable in facilitating certain
actions may be useless or even harmful for others (1990).
Lin claims that social capital is defined as resources embedded in ones social networks,
resources that can be accessed or mobilized through ties in networks (Lin, 2001: 73). Lin
(2000) further suggests that social capital is conceptualized as 1) the quantity
and/or quality of resources an actor (individual, group or a community) can
access or use through 2) its location in a social network. The first conceptualization emphasizes the resources embedded in social relationssocial resources
and also indicates that social structures might possess stocks of social capital. The
second conceptualization stresses locations in a network, or network characteristics. Hence, social capital is more than mere social relations and networks; it
evokes the resources embedded and accessed (Lin, 1999).
Portes, finally, suggests that there is a consensus that social capital is the ability
of actors to secure benefits by virtue of membership in networks and other social structures
(Portes, 1998: 8).
To conclude, it seems as the most important individual-oriented approaches
that have influenced sociological thinking chiefly suggest that social capital is to
be regarded as social resources accessible through participation in various types
of social networks, making possible the achievement of certain ends, returns or
benefits that in its absence would not be possible (e.g. Bourdieu, Coleman, Portes,
Lin). Thus, individual social capital is in fact ordinary resources (money, information, material resources, knowledge, favours etc.) that are originally owned
by an individual but become available to another individual through the social
relationship between these two. These ordinary resources transform into social
capital at the same time that they are transmitted through the relationship
and then become available to another individual and form his/her social capital.
Nevertheless, in some circumstances, resources may constitute social capital even
though they are not transmitted through the network. Hence, accessible resources
embedded in a persons network are also social capital. This, however, assumes
that an individual can use these embedded resources whenever needed. Accordingly, both actual and potential resources embedded in networks constitute social
capital. Even though individual definitions chiefly suggest that individual actors
can use social capital for specific ends, it should be stressed that social capital is
not owned by the individual. As Coleman (1988) suggests, social capital, unlike
other forms of capital, is inherent in the structure of relations between individuals.
It is lodged neither in individuals nor in physical implements of production.
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The Facets of Social Capital


Hence, the possibility to use the social resources that emerges in a relationship
between actors vanishes at the same moment that the relationship(s) is/are dissolved. Accordingly, two or more actors are always needed for social capital to be
utilized. Hence, the label individual social capital is in fact somewhat misleading, as social capital is always relational and inherent in the social structure. In
reality, the label refers to the fact that social capital has an exclusive character and
that it can be used to achieve individual ends.
Nevertheless, in the exportation process from sociology to other scientific
disciplines the concept was transformed from an individual good to a collective
and non-exclusive feature. This transformation process was chiefly led by Putnam
(1993; 2000) and followers. Putnam (1993) treats social capital as a mutual
resource in society and defines the concept as features of the social organizations such
as trust, norms, and networks that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated
actions (Putnam, 1993: 167). Putnam claims that social capital is created through
citizens active participation in organizations and groups. Trust is central in
Putnams notion of social capital and he claims that a group whose members
manifest trustworthiness and place trust in one another will be able to accomplish
much more than a comparable group lacking trust.
Moreover, Lochner et al. suggest that social capital is a feature of the social structure,
not of the individual actors within the social structure: it is an ecologic characteristic. In this way
social capital can be distinguished from the concepts of social networks and social support, which
are attributes of individuals (Lochner et al., 1999: 260). In a similar vein, Kawachi
and Berkman (2000) suggest that social capital inheres in the structure of social
relationships; in other words, it is an ecological characteristic. Further, it is
suggested that social capital is a collective good and that it is non-exclusive in
consumption, in contrast to other forms of capital.
Woolcock (2001) claims that social capital is merely the structure of networks and
social relations that lead way to mutual benefit through cooperation, but not the adjoining
behavioural dispositions that often accompany these, such as trust, reciprocity, honesty and
institutional quality measures (Woolcock, 2001: 12).
Furthermore, Fukuyama (2000) has an extremely broad notion of the concept
and claims that social capital is an instantiated informal norm that promotes cooperation
between two or more individuals. The norms that constitute social capital can range from a norm
of reciprocity between two friends, all the way up to complex and elaborately articulated doctrines
like Christianity or Confucianism. They must be instantiated in an actual human relationship:
the norm of reciprocity exists in potential in my dealings with all people, but is actualized only
in my dealings with my friends (Fukuyama, 2000, p. 1). He further suggests that trust,
networks, civil society and the like that have been associated with social capital are
all epiphenomenal, that is, arising as a result of social capital but not constituting
social capital itself.
Hence, collective and non-exclusive approaches to social capital emphasize
that the concept merely refers to a feature of larger social structures or organizations rather than individuals within the structure which contradicts much of the
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Mikael Rostila

theoretical thinking within sociology. Furthermore, coordinated activities and

collective action seem to be central parts of the concept according to this notion.
Nevertheless, the definitions have hitherto not specified the outcome of such
action (i.e. the core of the concept). This contributes to the vagueness of theoretical definitions at the collective level as well as problems of operationalization.
With the collective notions as a starting point, social capital has remained as
a vague and somewhat obscure feature of social structures. I would suggest,
however, that the outcome of cooperation and coordinated actions is collective
social resources of varying forms, although the features of collective resources
differ from those at the individual level. It is these collective resources rather than
coordinated action and/or its determinants (i.e. trust, norms, social engagement
etc.) that constitute the core of collective social capital. Hence, by stressing social
resources as the core of social capital also at the level of the collective may provide
a greater understanding for the content of social capital as a multidimensional


The difficulties in finding a uniform theoretical definition of social capital have

further contributed to numerous classifications of the concept into dimensions or
sub-types of social capital. Many of these classifications have, further, guided both
individual and contextual-level operationalization of the concept.
Some researchers suggest that social capital has two dimensions (Krishna and
Shrader, 1999; Harpham et al., 2002). Its structural component is the extent and
intensity of participation in associations and other forms of social activity (i.e. the
density of civic associations, measures of informal social participation), whereas
its cognitive component relates to peoples perceptions of interpersonal trust, solidarity
and reciprocity. The structural component consequently appears to have quantitative characteristics whereas the cognitive dimension is more qualitative in
nature (see also Rothstein, 2003).
Several classifications of the structural dimension of social capital have been
suggested in order to distinguish between different forms of social relationships.
For instance, Putnam (2000) claims that some forms of social capital are, by choice
or necessity, inward-looking and tend to reinforce exclusive identities and homogeneous groups. This form, which he calls bonding social capital, is good for
underpinning specific reciprocity and mobilizing solidarity. Bonding social capital
further describes co-operative and trusting relations between members of a
network who see themselves as similar in terms of their shared social identity.
Other networks are, however, outward-looking and encompass people across
diverse social clefts. These bridging social networks are good links to external assets,
enable information diffusion and are characterized by respect and mutuality
between people who know that they are not alike in some socio-demographic
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The Facets of Social Capital


sense (differing by age, ethnic group, class etc.). These bridging social ties are
probably more valuable for the creation of collective resources as they facilitate
cooperation between dissimilar people in a given social structure. However,
Szreter and Woolcock (2004) also add a third type of social capital to bonding and
bridging social capital: Linking social capital refers to norms of respect and networks of trusting relationships between people who are interacting across explicit,
formal or institutionalized power or authority gradients in society. Hence, linking
social capital actually refers to relationships that would otherwise be grouped
together in the bridging category as they also bridge people to dissimilar
individuals. The importance of the distinction between bridging and linking social
capital is that studies have shown that it is the nature and extent of respectful
and trusting ties to representatives of formal institutionse.g. bankers, law
enforcement officers, social workers, health care providers (i.e., various authority
figures)that has a major impact on peoples welfare.
Another distinction of social contacts, that between strong and weak ties,
has been widely influential since Granovetters (1973) influential article The
Strength of Weak Ties. Granovetter suggests that the strength of a tie is a
combination of the time, emotional intensity, intimacy, and reciprocal services
that characterize it. Strong ties seem to refer to intimate ties with immediate
family and close friends and tend to be multi-stranded and regularly maintained.
Weak ties are non-intimate ones, such as social contacts with acquaintances. Such
ties tend to be single-stranded and infrequently maintained. Granovetters main
hypothesis is that the latter type of ties form bridges that link individuals to other
social circles for information not likely to be available within their own social
circles, and that such information is important for individuals job outcomes. He
also argues that all bridges are weak ties and that strong and non-bridging ties
tend to be found among people who not only know one another, but who also
have few contacts not tied to ego (the focal individual in the network) as well.
Bridging, weak ties are characterized by contacts not tied to one another and tied
to individuals not tied to ego.
Furthermore, social trust has often been regarded as a crucial cognitive component of social capital and even, in some instances, as the core of social capital.
Some classifications of social trust have also been suggested in the social capital
literature. Putnam (2000) mentions two forms of trust as a property of social
relationships: Thick trust, which refers to trust embedded in personal relations that
are strong, frequent and nested in wider networks, and thin trust, which refers to a
general trust in people with whom you are not necessarily acquainted.
To summarize, the literature suggests that the concepts of bonding social
capital and strong ties seem to have similarities as such ties denote relations
that are intimate and frequent, and involve people with a shared social identity,
whereas bridging social capital and weak ties describe outward-looking social
contacts maintained infrequently between people who are not alike in any sociodemographic sense. The former types of social contacts seem to facilitate thick
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Mikael Rostila

or particularized trust, whereas the latter seem to promote thin or generalized



As mentioned, the conceptual vagueness surrounding social capital has resulted in

a great deal of criticism which indicates the need of its refinement. It is, however,
chiefly the advocates of the collective notion who have received most of this
Portes (1998; 2000), for instance, claims that the transition of social capital from
an individual asset into a feature of social structures was never explicitly theorized,
giving rise to much of the confusion around the meaning of the concept. As the
concept has been stretched, modified and extrapolated to cover numerous types
of relationships, there is a risk that social capital will become synonymous with
each and every thing that is positive in social life. Second, there is almost an
antagonistic relationship between individual and collective-level social capital
(Portes, 1998; 2000). The confusion is not sensational, however, given that there
are oppositions between the two views. While social capital at the individual level
can be used to obtain personal advantage, this is the exact opposite of collective
social capital, which cannot be possessed or used by single individuals. Moreover,
Portes suggests that causes and effects of collective social capital have never been
specified, giving rise to much of the circular reasoning. While individual-level
theories clearly separate the sources of social capital from its effects, collective
social capital often lacks this distinct separation. Finally, the collective definition
of social capital leaves little space for other possible causes. The assertion that
civicness promotes better political results obscures the possibility that extraneous causes account for both altruistic behaviour of the population and the effective
character of its government. Hence, this relationship might be spurious (Portes,
1998; 2000) and other factors, for example religious beliefs, economic performance or political ideology, comprehensive welfare programs etc., may account
for both social capital and high-quality governance. I would suggest, however,
that Portes critique chiefly originates from the fact that the objectives and consequences of coordinated action are not disentangled in collective definitions of
social capital because they do not stress the core of the concept. Such a limitation
may have resulted in both circular reasoning and the fact that the concept has
become synonymous with each and every thing that is positive in social life.
Further, the uncertainties regarding the core of social capital in collective definitions may also contribute to the antagonism between the two facets of social
On the other hand, Kawachi and Berkman (2000) criticize the individual
notion of social capital and draw a distinction between social capital and social
networks, suggesting that social networks can be measured at the individual level
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The Facets of Social Capital


whereas social capital should be properly considered a feature of the collective to

which the individual belongs. According to Kawachi and Berkman it makes no
sense to consider the social capital of individuals, as well connected individuals
could experience different life chances and outcomes depending on whether they
live in an environment that is rich or poor in social capital.
I believe that the individual approach has a great theoretical advantage, as
definitions are distinct and clearly defined, whereas most collective definitions, to
a greater extent, suffer from conceptual vagueness, impreciseness and circular
reasoning. While individual definitions clearly stress the core of social capital
theoretically (social resources), the collective definitions have hitherto not been
able to specify the capital that is derived from networks, trust and coordinated
action. The lack of consensus on the core of social capital is the most severe
limitation of collective notions of the concept.
Yet, the shortcomings of the individual definitions are related to the difficulty of
determining what social resources are comprised of and deciding which types of
resources should be considered social. Theories have hitherto been vague concerning the specific resources that may be regarded as being embedded in social
networks. While most theories and empirical studies have chiefly regarded job
information and job opportunities as social resources (see for example Granovetter, 1973; Marsden and Hurlbert, 1988), relatively few have theoretically discussed and empirically examined the broader range of resources embedded in
networks. Obviously, an important and challenging task for researchers interested
in the individual notion is to theoretically and empirically determine what social
resources are compromised of and when ordinary resources transform into
social ones. Later in this article I will hence give examples of categories of social
Furthermore, a shortcoming of both approaches to social capital is that they
usually do not acknowledge the existence of one another; that is, collective
definitions of social capital do not pay much attention to the fact that individuals
may possess and benefit from their social capital while individual notions often
disregard the fact that coordinated actions by individuals in a social structure may,
just like human or economic capital, produce (social) resources over and above
individuals social capital, which then may be considered collective resources. I
would argue, however, that both notions seem reasonable and should not necessarily exclude one another. Finally, and as mentioned previously, a weakness of
both individual and collective theories of social capital is that they do not often
include the possible downsides of social capital but foremost accentuate its positive
features. Nevertheless, it seems obvious that individual and collective social capital
occasionally have negative consequences for individuals as well as social structures
(see further below). It may, for instance, promote negative externalities such as
unhealthy norms and behaviours (Christakis, 2004; Christakis and Fowler, 2007),
relational strain (Rook, 1984; Due et al., 1999), criminality (Gambetta, 1993;
Putnam, 2000; Browning et al., 2004), free riding, preservation of social exclusion
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Mikael Rostila

(Portes, 1998), and inequality of resources between social groups (Lin, 2000;
Rostila, 2007). Hence, it seems important that theories on social capital pay
attention to the specific circumstances in which social capital has negative


Figure I is an attempt to organise dimensions and levels of social capital and

thereby solve some of the conceptual confusion surrounding social capital. In its
use of influences from both the individual and collective schools of thought, the
multi-level model aims at clarifying what unites and separates individual and
collective notions of social capital. The multi-level character implies that the same
dimensions of social capital may be active on different levels of aggregation (i.e.
individual and collective). Further, the model emphasizes the possible dark sides
of social capital and forms the basis for a theoretical definition of the concept.
Figure I suggests that social capital has both a structural (quantitative) and a
cognitive (qualitative) dimension (Krishna and Shrader, 1999; Harpham et al.,
2002; Rothstein, 2003), and both these dimensions are suggested to constitute
preconditions for social capital. The structural dimension indicates that the concept
has something to do with social networks, more specifically the prevalence of
different types of social relations, the structure of social networks, or the time spent
on various types of social contacts. This might also be considered the social
side of the concept. Hence, without a social network an individual cannot possess
social capital and it is hence interacting members who make its maintenance
and reproduction possible through their relations with one another. This certainly
makes social contacts and networks highly important ingredients in social capital,
but it also links the concept with network theory.
Social networks

The quality of contacts

Capital or benefit

Structural dimension

Cognitive dimension

Collective and/or

Collective and/or



Informal social

Thick (dis)trust


Social resources

Formal social

Expressive returns

Thin (dis)trust

Coordinated action

Figure I. A multi-level conceptual framework linking dimensions of social capital.

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The Facets of Social Capital


The model further suggests that there are two different types of structural
preconditions for social capital. Informal social networks concern relations with,
for example, friends and relatives that are strong, frequent and nested in wider
networks (Putnam, 2000). Informal social networks hence partly overlap with
bonding and strong ties (Putnam, 2000; Lin, 2001; Uslaner, 2002; Granovetter,
1973). The other structural component in the model, formal social networks, first
and foremost concerns social relations created in voluntary associations, work life
and other formal institutions (see also Granovetter, 1973). Hence, formal social
contacts have similarities with bridging or weak ties (Granovetter, 1973; Putnam,
2000). However, the boundaries between the two types of social networks are not
entirely distinct as social relationships have a changeable and complex character.
For instance, it is likely that formal social ties sometimes transform into informal
contacts over time and vice versa. Some types of social relationships might also
have both an informal and formal character depending on the specific social
context. A person might, for instance, have a formal relationship with his/her boss
at the working place which, however, turns into a informal relationship when they
meet as close friends after working hours. Later on I will also discuss how network
closure in informal and formal social networks might contribute to bad social
capital with negative externalities for individuals or social structures.
The cognitive dimension of social capital in the model relates to the degree
of social trust that emerges in social relations and represents the qualitative
precondition for social capital. In the model thick trust refers to trust embedded in
relationships that are strong, frequent and nested in wider networks while thin trust
refers to general trust in people with whom you are not necessarily acquainted.
Informal social contacts mainly help to build thick between individuals (Putnam,
2000) whereas formal social contacts promote thin trust (Putnam, 2000). However,
there might also be a reciprocal relationship between the structural and cognitive
dimensions of social capital. It is reasonable to assume that individuals with high
levels of both thick and thin trust are more likely to socialize with other people in
both informal and formal networks. This probably leads to even higher trust levels
among these people. In line with this, several studies show that participation
in voluntary associations leads to increased trust levels, but that there is also a
selection bias, in that trust encourages people to join associations (Stolle, 2001).
Nevertheless, social resources in Figure I are considered the core component of
social capital, hence representing the capital embedded in social networks and
social structures and possibly further providing both individual and collective
returns. However, it is the cognitive dimension of the concept, the type and degree
of social trust, that facilitates a reciprocal exchange of social resources as shown
in Figure I. A social relation based on trust (either thick or thin) might hence be
considered the foundation for the exchange of social resources in social networks
(both informal and formal). Hence, if individual A trusts individual B and B trusts
A, thus each individual considers the other trustworthy, the likelihood of a reciprocal exchange of various social resources between the two actors is much higher
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Mikael Rostila

than would be the case if the relationship lacked social trust or were characterized
by distrust. If the latter condition prevails, the exchange of social resources is
restricted or entirely absent. Social trust in relationships, however, also contributes
to the understanding of why the exchange of social resources between individuals
often diverges from rational game theoretical considerations (von Neumann and
Morgenstern, 1944; Nash, 1951). It is important, however, to emphasize that the
relationship between trust and the formation of social resources is somewhat
different when it comes to collective social capital. As shown in Figure I, social trust
facilitates the formation of social resources through coordinated action. Accordingly, a necessary precondition in the formation of mutual social resources is that
people unite and cooperate with one another. Nevertheless, in such ways social
trust plays an intermediary role between membership in networks and social
structures and the generation of both individual and collective social capital.
Social resources might, further, be specified as network resources (access to)
and/or contact resources (use of) (Lin 1999, 2001; Lai et al., 1998). Network
resources refer to resources embedded in the routine social networks to which
an individual belongs, whereas contact resources refer to those embedded in
contacts used as helpers in instrumental action, such as job searches. Hence,
network resources represent actual resources while contact resources represent
potential resources that are mobilized in instrumental action.
There are numerous social resources that might be embedded in or transmitted
through individuals social networks. The typical example is job-related information that might be useful for job outcomes (Granovetter, 1973). Nevertheless,
various kinds of social support might also be considered forms of social resources,
with four broad types traditionally being suggested: emotional, instrumental,
appraisal and informational support (House, 1981; Berkman and Glass, 2000).
Emotional support is most often provided by a confidant or intimate other. This type
of support fosters feelings of comfort and leads an individual to believe that he/
she is respected, admired and loved, and that others are available to provide love,
caring and security. Instrumental support includes help, aid or assistance with tangible needs. House (1981) refers to instrumental support as aid in labour, money
or kind. Further, appraisal support refers to help in decision-making, giving appropriate feedback and deciding which course of action to take. Informational support
refers to the various types of information, knowledge and advice that are embedded in an individuals network. It should be mentioned, however, that there are
rather non-distinct boundaries between these various types of resources. Help
with decision-making may, for instance, sometimes overlap with receiving information and so on. Furthermore, it seems plausible that informal and formal social
contacts provide individuals with disparate social resources. Formal social ties
characterized by mutual trust probably provide better preconditions for the
achievement of instrumental resources such as valuable job-related information
(Granovetter, 1973), whereas trustful informal ties are more valuable in the
provision of emotional support.
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The Facets of Social Capital


Collective social resources have a somewhat different character compared

to individual social resources. While individual social resources signify exclusive
capital that an individual can acquire through his/her social relationships,
allowing the achievement of individual ends, collective social capital signifies
non-exclusive resources that are formed through cooperation and coordinated
action by people in a social structure that enable them to pursue shared objectives.
An example of this is when people unite and gather money for charity in a
community (a form of coordinated action). Such action is facilitated by good and
trusting social networks available in the community and generates social resources
(money) that, in turn, contribute to returns (such as providing welfare for vulnerable citizens). Many organisations have, for instance, generated social capital
through fund-raising for people subjected to the earthquake in Haiti or the
Tsunami in Asia. Another example is when parents in a troubled neighbourhood
coordinate activities to watch out for each others teenage children at night. This
generates social resources (social control over and exchanged information about
teenagers activities) and contributes to returns for that neighbourhood (lower
criminality and reduced drug/alcohol use among teenagers). A Swedish organisation called dads and moms in town has, for instance, been active in reducing
youth problems in metropolitan areas in Stockholm, Sweden through collective
activities such as walking in the streets, talking with, and taking care of teenagers
who are out during the night. A final example is different types of support groups
for individuals with alcohol or drug problems, such as Alcoholics Anonymous
(AA). Such groups generate social resources (emotional support, information
about risks with drug abuse) and contribute to returns (lower risk of relapse,
emotional well-being for both abusers and their family members).
Moreover, Figure I suggests that the social resources exchanged in individuals
social networks characterized by social trust might facilitate the achievement of
various returns (Bourdieu, 1986; Lin, 1999; Lin, 2001). The returns of social
capital should, however, not be confused with social capital per se, as they are
always a consequence of it. Lin (2001) suggests two categories of individual returns
of social capital: instrumental and expressive. Examples of instrumental returns
are economic, political and social. Economic returns are represented by material
or financial gains (wealth) whereas political returns comprise changes to an individuals hierarchical position in the collective (power). Moreover, social returns
are indicated by reputation or status and hence denote opinions about an individual within his/her social networks. Finally, expressive returns as a consequence
of emotional support may result in physical and mental health as well as life
satisfaction as returns.
The returns of social capital suggested by Lin (2001) are, however, chiefly suited
to individual-level definitions of the concept. The instrumental returns of collective social capital are, however, consequences of collective social resources formed
by coordinated action. Instrumental collective returns include economic performance, public health, lower crime levels, democracy and quality of political
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Mikael Rostila



Figure II. Network with (a) and without closure (b).

institutions. Increased psychological or physical well-being as a consequence of

participation in support groups for people with disabilities, personal problems,
diseases etc. are examples of expressive returns from coordinated action. Nevertheless, the boundaries between instrumental and expressive returns from collective social capital are rather indistinct due to the universal character of collective
resources. Hence, the same resource may have instrumental returns for some
groups in the social structure yet expressive benefits for others.
Finally, it seems essential to highlight the circumstances in which social capital
may contribute to negative externalities. One property of social networks (both
informal and formal) is what is sometimes called closure. An entirely closed
network refers to a network in which all members are interconnected and interact
exclusively with one another as shown in Figure II a. Obviously, such a network
also lacks bridges to other networks as ties to other networks are lacking. The
structural dimension of social capital (informal or formal networks) presented
in Figure I hence chiefly contributes to social resources with negative externalities
when characterised by a high degree of closure. Coleman (1988) argues that some
degree of network closure is a valuable asset, especially for parents collaborative
abilities in the surveillance of minor children. I agree that some degree of closure
might have positive consequences for individuals in a network in some circumstances. Yet, I argue that a very high degree of closure of peoples entire network
structures (i.e. their total number of social contacts) chiefly has negative consequences. First, network closure limits the accessibility of social capital for individuals in adjacent social networks which contribute to an unequal distribution
of social resources across networks. Network closure can, for instance, be used as
a strategy by members of high socioeconomic groups for the exclusion of disadvantaged people from the access of valuable social resources (Bourdieu, 1986; Lin,
2000). In its second place, closure chiefly also contributes to the exchange of
bad social capital in social networks. Examples of bad social capital in closed
networks include exchange of firearms, drugs, black-marketing goods etc. in mafia
families (Gambetta, 1993) or exchange of adverse information, knowledge, and
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The Facets of Social Capital


drugs in groups of anabolic steroid users (Maycock and Howat, 2007). Finally,
closed networks are, on average, also at greater risk of producing or maintaining
negative norms and behaviours within the network which, in turn, have negative
externalities (see for instance, Maycock and Howat, 2007). This is because closed
networks, to a greater extent than other networks, facilitate submission to norms,
behaviours and attitudes among network members (see also Coleman, 1988).
As each member is directly or indirectly linked to the others, such networks
also facilitate an effective diffusion of possibly negative features (Rostila, 2010).
Accordingly, open networks are, on average, at lower risk of producing negative
externalities, as shown in Figure II b.
Closure is, however, not merely a feature of individual networks. Larger
social structures and organizations such as neighbourhoods, communities and
even countries may also be more or less closed to outsiders; that is, they have few
bridges to other social structures. Nevertheless, closed social structures are also at
greater risk of producing negative externalities as they, to a greater extent than
open social structures, facilitate diffusion of possible negative features as well as
submission to negative norms, behaviours, and bad social capital among their
populations. Furthermore, coordinated action within a closed structure may additionally produce sinister ends for those residing outside the social structure as
some types of coordinated action may even exploit or harm people outside the
structure. Examples of closed social structures include totalitarian organizations
or countries, religious and ideological community-based sects, highly segregated
neighbourhoods, and criminal organizations and networks.
To summarize, social capital is composed of three componentssocial networks, social trust and social resources. Yet, the two former components are
considered as preconditions for the formation of the latter (social resources). Social
capital hence comprises the social resources that evolve in accessible social networks or social
structures characterized by mutual trust. These social resources, in turn, facilitate access
to various instrumental and expressive returns, which might benefit both the
individual and the collective. Accordingly, the more social resources of high
quality an individual can acquire through his/hers networks the better individual
social capital he or she has. At the collective level social capital might be considered as the number and quality of resources formed in a social structure through
coordinated actions by individuals within that structure. Yet, negative externalities chiefly arise when social networks or social structures are characterized by a
high degree of closure which, for instance, prevents the accessibility of social
capital for individuals in adjacent networks or structures.


Although social capital has been suggested as one of the most successful exports
from sociology to other scientific disciplines during the past decades, it might also
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Mikael Rostila

be considered one of the most controversial and criticized scientific concepts due
to its conceptual vagueness emanating from the emergence of its two facetsthe
individual and the collective. It seems that the former approach (Bourdieu, 1986;
Coleman, 1988) dominates sociological theory while the latter (Putnam, 1993;
Fukuyama, 2000) was developed during the exportation process from sociology to
other scientific disciplines. Hence, as the concept lost it original meaning in the
exportation process from sociology it may also, in some sense, be considered one
of the most unsuccessful sociological exports.
The primary objective of this article was to elaborate on a theoretical model
with the potential to bridge the facets and dimensions of social capital previously
suggested in the literature. Another aim was to scrutinize when downsides of
social capital emerge. The definition in the article suggested that social capital
comprises social resources that evolve in accessible social networks and social structures
characterized by mutual trust. These social resources, in turn, facilitate access to
various instrumental and expressive returns, which might benefit both the individual and the collective. This definition might bridge some of the antagonism
between the individual and collective facet of social capital and separate the often
confused preconditions for social capital from the core of the concept.
The theoretical framework presented in this article highlights some significant
bridges between the individual and the collective facet of social capital. First and
foremost, the core of both individual and collective social capital is embedded
social resources. Even though the features of individual social resources embedded
in social networks differ from collective resources embedded in social structures,
social resources of varying forms constitute the essence of social capital. Accordingly, other suggested components of the concept, such as social networks and
social trust should be considered as preconditions of social capital rather than
social capital per se. In the second place, both individual and collective social
capital inhere in the structure of social relationships (Coleman, 1988) as social
resources embedded in both social networks and structures vanish at the same
moment as relationships are dissolved. Accordingly, neither exclusive social
resources in individual social networks nor non-exclusive social resources in
social structures are owned by single individuals. Third, extensive social networks characterised by high levels of trust are necessary fundamental precondition for the formation and exchange of social resources. Hence, both collective
and individual social capital chiefly originates from trustful social relationships.
Fourth, both individual and collective social capital may, to a greater extent,
produce or maintain negative externalities when networks are characterized by a
high degree of closure, lacking bridges to other networks or social structures.
Hence, closure may be considered as an important feature of social networks
that determine whether individual and collective social capital has negative
Although this article suggested a theoretical definition of social capital, it does
not imply that the theoretical work on the concept is complete. The findings and
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The Facets of Social Capital


suggestions in this article should inspire the development of a resource-based

notion of social capital at different levels of aggregation rather than being considered the solution to the social capital debate. Such a theory would have the
advantage that it more explicitly stresses the core of the concept and hence have
greater potential in bridging the individual and collective facet of social capital.
Nevertheless, the significance of the model presented in this article should be
validated by empirical studies as it is highly important to bridge theory and
operationalization in the field. Empirical studies should, for instance, examine
the extent to which various dimensions of the theoretical model presented in
this article are causally related. A resource-based definition of social capital also
highlights the need for new tools with the ability to measure social resources
embedded in social networks and social structures. Although some efforts have
already been made to measure social resources embedded in individual networks
(van der Gaag and Snijders, 2004) it unfortunately seems impossible to measure
access to all resources in all networks that might be relevant for various returns. In
line with Finsveen and Oorschot (2008) a potential strategy is then not to focus on
some general social capital indicator but on social resources relative certain needs
or goals such as those needed to acquire a job or high status in society.
Because of the theoretical uncertainties and the suggested multidimensional
character of the concept in this article it might finally be relevant to ask: Why use
the concept of social capital despite its theoretical and empirical obscurities? Why
not discuss and examine networks, trust and social resources as separate phenomena? I argue that there are at least three main reasons for not abandoning the
concept and for continuing the theoretical work on it.
First, social capital brings a comprehensive view. The potential of social capital,
as defined in this article, lies in that it contributes to a greater understanding of
how various dimensions and levels of social relationships are related. Network
theory and theories on social trust, for instance, lack such a potential as they focus
exclusively on specific aspects of social relationships. I believe that such a comprehensive view is necessary as social relationships and their features make up one
of the cornerstones of the social sciences. In the second place, we cannot disregard
the fact that numerous empirical studies show that various dimensions of individual and collective social capital are related to central outcomes in society such
as economic performance, democracy, health and well-being. Abandoning the
concept may cause us to lose important knowledge on how to improve several
fundamental social conditions in society and hence the concept is highly relevant
also from a policy perspective. Finally, the introduction of new concepts and
theories in science often gives rise to resistance and criticism. Researchers may
instinctively defend their own domains if they feel that social capital is intruding
on their area of research, by rejecting or criticizing the concept. An obvious
example is the threat that social network researchers sometimes feel when
researchers interested in social capital use their ideas as a base for building
theories on social capital. Accordingly, Kuhn (1970) once stated that this is how
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Mikael Rostila

a scientific discipline reacts when there is a paradigm vicissitude. However,

resistance and criticism form a natural element of scientific progress and we
should hence not let such reactions stop us from studying social capital. Nevertheless, bridging the two facets of social capital is an important prerequisite for its
theoretical development as well as for confronting criticism of the concept.
Mikael Rostila
Centre for Health Equity Studies (CHESS)
Stockholm University/Karolinska Institutet
Sveavgen 160, SE-106 91

It is, however, beyond the scope of this article to perform a full review of the theoretical
foundations of the concept (for a review see for instance, Portes, 1998; Baron et al. 2000).

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