Social Capital: Definition & Theory

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  • 0:04 What Is Social Capital?
  • 1:21 The Theory of Social Capital
  • 2:46 Negative Social Capital
  • 3:43 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David White
Through this lesson, you'll learn what defines social capital, explore a brief introduction to the theoretical basis, and gain insight into how it benefits individuals and their communities. When you're finished with the lesson, you can test your new knowledge with the quiz.

What Is Social Capital?

If you're a fan of comedy and satire, you may have noticed that a common source of inspiration for comedians these days is the ways in which Americans are perceived by people from other countries. But while jokes about how it might be wise to stick a Canadian flag sticker on your luggage are sometimes amusing, they also contain a bit of truth. Whether they know it or not, these comedians are talking about a concept known as social capital. Whether you're traveling abroad or not, it's incredibly important.

Social capital is a term used to describe a person's participation or position within a particular social group, which contributes to their lives in certain ways. For example, in small towns people tend to know each other more than those living in cities, and they bond more over commonalities. In this case, the people within the town possess significant social capital which strengthens the community.

Unlike physical capital (cars, houses, or money) or cultural capital (education or career), social capital depends on the groups that you are a part of, the people that you know, and the extent to which you engage with that group. A CEO of a large corporation, for example, has a significant amount of social capital because they have a large and influential social network, which is the connections that they've made through their career.

The Theory of Social Capital

Although it existed as a vague concept in the mid-to-late 19th century in the work of certain philosophers and social critics, scholarly theories about social capital weren't an area of strong academic focus until the late 1980s and early 1990s. The driving concept behind the theory of social capital is that a person's position within a particular group provides certain benefits that work to their advantage. From the perspective of the social scientists, social capital emphasizes commonality to strengthen communities.

Although it's separate from physical and cultural capital, social capital has a strong influence on both of these areas. For example, if a company is considering two internal candidates with identical levels of experience for a job, and they choose the person that serves on more committees or is better known within the company, that job is awarded, in part, on the basis of social capital. In this case, the person was awarded the job because of their known association with others in the company, the extent to which they participate, and, occasionally, their popularity within the group.

Because of the potential benefits of social capital, political scientists note an important correlation between social capital and civic participation, which is the extent to which a person participates in or contributes to their community or country. In this case, scholars emphasize that a person is more likely to participate in community building and bonding with those around them because, among other things, it works to their advantage.

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