Social Capital: Networks and Connections

The paper that I want to review today is “Social Capital: Its Origins and Applications in Modern Sociology” by Alejandro Portes. I found this paper in the list of the most highly cited Sociology papers of the last century. This is the first paper that I’ve ever read in Sociology, and I found it to be very engaging. This has definitely made me want to explore this field more.


The concept of “social capital” has become one of the rare terms to transcend the rarefied world of sociology into everyday language. The media makes it sound like the solution to most of the world’s problems, both between individuals and countries. Due to the diverse applications to which this term has been put, there is no one definition of the term anymore.

Although this term has its historical roots in the writings of Marx and Durkheim, its modern presentation leaves much to be desired. Sociologists often only present the positive aspects of it whilst leaving aside the negative. Also, “social capital” is often interpreted as similar to monetary capital in its capacity to provide an individual with power, status or opportunities. Some authors have also gone on to the extent of saying that cities and countries too can possess social capital, as opposed to just individuals, and the presence of this ill-defined “social capital” is retrospectively held responsible for certain cities being more prosperous and stable.

Clearly, the modern presentation of social capital can benefit from a more balanced view. The author intends to do just that in this article.


Pierre Bourdieu, the first person to systematically analyze the concept, defined social capital as “the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance or recognition”. For historical reasons, this analysis did not become well-known amongst researchers, what with the original paper being in French. Bourdieu makes the point that it is the benefits that members accrue, from being part of a social network, that gives rise to the strength and stability of such networks. Social networks do not just come into place on their own. People have to invest time and effort into building social ties. However, once this network is in place, the members of this network can appeal to the institutionalized norms of group relations to gain social capital. In some sense, this is like a monetary investment that can pay dividends later.

Because spending this social capital may lead to the acquisition of economic capital in the form of loans, investment tips, etc, Bourdieu thinks of social capital as completely interchangeable with economic capital. However, the acquisition of social capital is much less transparent, and much more uncertain than the process of acquisition of economic capital. It requires the investment of both economic and cultural resources, and involves uncertain time horizons, unspecified obligations, and the possible violation of reciprocity. If you help your friend today, it is not completely certain that you will ever need their help in the future, and that they will help you if you do.

Another contemporary researcher who has probed this realm is Glen Loury (1977), who stated that economists studying racial inequality and welfare focused too much on human capital (which might perhaps be interpreted as individual education or ability), and the creation of a level playing field such that only the most skilled persons succeed. They want to create a level playing field by making employers’ racial preferences illegal. However, this cannot succeed because the acquisition of human capital by some communities is stunted due to a lack of economic resources, along with the absence of strong social networks.

The merit notion that, in a free society, each individual will rise to the level justified by his or her competence conflicts with the observation that no one travels that road entirely alone. The social context within which individual maturation occurs strongly conditions what otherwise equally competent in- dividuals can achieve. This implies that absolute equality of opportunity…is an ideal that cannot be achieved. (Loury 1977)

Although Loury’s analysis of social capital and social networks stopped here, this led Coleman to delve into the issue in more detail, who described how social capital leads to the acquisition of human capital. Coleman defined social capital as “a variety of entities with two things in common: They all consist of some aspect of social structures, and they facilitate certain action of actors- whether persons or corporate actors- within the structure”. Coleman also described some things that lead to the generation of social capital, like reciprocity expectations and group enforced norms, along with the consequences of having social capital, like privileged access to information. Resources obtained through social capital are often looked upon as “gifts”, and hence one must distinguish between the possession of social capital, and the ability to acquire these gifts through it. Not everyone who possesses social capital, by virtue of being a member of a social group, can necessarily acquire these gifts without some requisite social savvy.

Another distinction that should be made is between the motivations of recipients and donors. Although the motivations of recipients are fairly clear, donors can either be motivated by reciprocity from the individual that they’re helping, or greater status in the community; or perhaps both.

Coleman also talks about the concept of “closure” in communities, which is the presence of sufficient ties in a community that guarantee the observance of norms. For instance, the possibility of malfeasance in the tightly knit community of Jewish diamond traders in New York is pretty low because of “closure”. This leads to easy transactions between members without going into much legalese.

Another interesting perspective on social capital is offered by Burt, who says that it is the relative absence of ties, called “structural holes”, that facilitates individual mobility. This is because in dense networks, after a certain amount of time, new information is scarce, and only redundant information gets transmitted. It is the weak ties in a sparse network that can suddenly become active, and transmit useful and new information, that can lead to new contacts, jobs, etc. Hence, it is the weaker networks that mostly lead to advancement as opposed to the stronger or denser ones. This is in stark contrast to the stance taken by others like Coleman, who emphasize that the benefits that can be accrued through a social network is directly dependent on how dense that network is.

Sources of social capital

What motivates a donor to help out a person asking for help in a social network? This motivation can be consummatory or instrumental. A consummatory motivation is one that stems from a sense of duty or responsibility. For instance, the economically well off members of a tightly knit community might feel an obligation to help out those who are less privileged. An instrumental motivation is one that stems from expectation of reciprocity. Donors help others only to accumulate obligations, and expect to be repaid on full at some time in the future. This is different from an economic exchange however, because the method of repayment can be different from the original method of payment, and also because the time frame of repayment is more uncertain.

There is another set of examples that explains this dichotomy of motivations. Bounded solidarity refers to the mechanism through which an underprivileged or sidelined community develops a sense of solidarity, and all members feel a duty to help each other out. This is an example of consummatory motivation. On the other hand, sometimes donors help out others only to raise their status in society. Hence, although there is an expectation of reciprocity, it is from the whole community and not from an individual. This again is an example of instrumental motivation. Of course the two motivations can be mixed: a donor may extend a loan to another member of a community to both gain status, and also expect individual reciprocity in that they may expect that the money be returned in time. The strong ties in the social network would ensure that both happen.

Effects of social capital

The three basic functions of social capital are

  1. As a source of social control- Parents, the police, etc use their social capital to influence the behavior of others in the community. For instance, parents may expect their children to behave well by using their social capital, which they possess by virtue of being guardians of their children. This social capital, if one may imagine it to be some sort of money, is never really spent and exhausted. Parents will always have an infinite amount of social capital to control the behvaiour of their children. The same goes for policemen, etc.
  2. As a source of family support- Children may use their social capital, which they possess by virtue of being dependent on their parents, to expect help from their parents in all spheres of life. This form of social capital is also inexhaustible. It has been noted that children that are brought up in a stable household with two parents often experience better success in their education and careers. On the other hand, children brought up in one-parents households face a harder time dealing with their education and career. This is mainly because children in one-parent households have less social capital, in that they have one less parent to ask for help from.
  3. As a source of benefits through extrafamilial networks- This one is slightly more intuitive. Connections made outside one’s family can have a huge impact on individual mobility and careers. For instance, Jewish immigrants in New York at the turn of the 20th century often received help from other immigrants in the form of small loans of employment in companies. They had social capital just by virtue of belonging to the same community. Other examples of this phenomenon are New York’s Chinatown, Miami’s Little Havana, etc.

    On the flip side, a lack of connections can spell doom for certain communities. For example, impoverished communities rarely have connections with the better parts of town which might provide them with employment or relief. For instance, inner-city impoverished black communities often lack connections with potential sources of employment, and remain mired in poverty. This problem is further exacerbated by the dense social network existing between members of this community, which leads them to influence each other to pursue crime and drug abuse.

    Stanton-Salazar and Dornbrush have found a positive correlation between the existence of such extrafamilial social networks and academic achievement amongst Hispanic students in San Francisco. On a side note, they found an even higher correlation between bilingualism and academic achievement, highlighting the importance of being able to communicate with a wider community.

    This form of social capital is exhaustible, in that you cannot keep asking the wider community for help and not expect people’s patience to run out.

Negative social capital

It is important to identify the negative with the positive. Recent studies have noted four negative consequences of the existence of social networks:

  1. Strong social ties within a community can bar access to others. For instance, business owners from some ethnic communities often employ only members of the same community. Control of the produce business on the East Coast by the Korean community, control of the diamond business in New York by the Jewish community, etc are examples.
  2. Successful members of a community are often assaulted by job-seeking kinsmen. The strong social ties often force these otherwise successful professionals/businessmen to help out or hire their kinsmen, affecting the overall quality and performance of their organizations.
  3. Social control can lead to demands of excessive conformity. In tightly knit traditional societies today, divorces are still looked down upon for instance, and errant members are ostracized. Privacy and individualism are reduced in this way.
  4. Marginalized communities often develop a strong sense of solidarity, and are apprehensive about mixing with the rest of the population and go up the social and career ladders. Consider the following quote from a Puerto Rican laborer, for instance

“When you see someone go downtown and get a good job, if they be Puerto Rican, you see them fix up their hair and put some contact lenses in their eyes. Then they fit in and they do it! I have seen it! … .Look at all the people in that building, they all “turn-overs.” They people who want to be white. Man, if you call them in Spanish it wind up a problem. I mean like take the name Pedro-I’mjust telling you this as an example-Pedro be saying (imitating a whitened accent) “My name is Peter.” Where do you get Peter from Pedro?”

(Bourgois 1991, p. 32

Decades and centuries of discrimination or persecution often lead to certain communities becoming closed to the outside world, which removes them from the larger social network that could perhaps have helped them succeed. This self-imposed exclusion makes their situation even worse than before. These are known as downward leveling norms. Moreover, members that step outside of these communities are often ostracized, which leads to low overall member mobility.

Social capital as a feature of communities and nations

Some political scientists have also extended the notion of social capital to cities and communities, renaming it as “civicness”. This “civicness” or social capital of a community encompasses “the features of a social organization, like networks, norms and trust, that facilitate action and cooperation for mutual benefit”. There is no information on the number of people involved in this social network, the density of the social network, etc.

Robert Putnam, a prominent advocate of the community view of social capital, said that the decline in the nature of cities and the community in general is a result of the loss of social capital through the falling membership of organizations like PTA, the Elks Club, the League of Women Voters, etc. Critics have called this view elitist for stating that social capital can only be regained through membership in these high society organizations. Moreover, they have also admonished Putnam’s opinion that the responsibility for increasing this social capital lies in the hands of the masses by joining these organizations, and not in the hands of the government or corporate leaders.

Dr Portes notes that Putnam’s argument is also circular. The social capital of a community cannot be measured directly. It can only be inferred from a community’s success. If a community is successful, one may infer that there probably is a strong sense of cohesion between the members. Anything that cannot be measured directly, and can only be inferred, cannot scientifically considered to be a cause. For instance, “emotional balance” cannot scientifically be considered a cause of a person’s success. There may be lots of causes of their success, like hard work of networking. Emotional balance can only be inferred: because this person is successful, they probably do have emotional balance. In this way, identifying one single cause for the success of a person or community, especially if that cause can only be inferred and not measured directly, is a dangerous game. The only way that Putnam could have proven his thesis is by taking two communities that are similar in all regards except that one has more social capital than the other (we are assuming that this social capital can be directly measured), and showing that the one with more social capital is more successful. This is obviously a difficult experiment to conduct in real life.


“Social capital” is essentially a mix of old ideas in a new garb. Moreover, it is unlikely that just increasing social capital will lead to a solution of community-wide problems. As has been explained above, social capital is also responsible for holding back certain communities from development. Hence, appreciating both the positives and negatives of social capital is important for having a balanced and realistic view of the concept.


  1. Social Capital: Its Origins and Applications in Modern Sociology, by Alejandro Portes.


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Graduate student

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