social capital meaning

It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of powerful private interests, such as greedy developers and large corporations who seem to have a direct line to the decision makers in the government. Here in Portland, events like developers demolishing existing homes and displacing residents to put 4-6 story condo developments, disappearing local businesses that can’t afford rising rents and community amenities like food cart pods that are being kicked out of the lots they helped revitalized are just some of the injustices people are feeling. Do people who don’t happen to have millions of dollars or a big corporation to back them up have a voice anymore? Is there a way for regular everyday people to have a say in what goes on around them and in the way their neighborhoods and cities are shaped?

This is where social capital will come in handy. Whereas the 99% may not be endowed with a lot of financial capital, we do have access to social capital, which can be just as powerful, if cultivated and leveraged in the right way. Let me explain.

What is Social Capital? The Basics:

Sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and James Coleman defined social capital as network-based resources. Coleman cited the different forms that social capital could take, including:

1. Trustworthiness of social environment

2. Information channels

3. Norms and effective sanctions

4. Appropriable social organizations or associations that are established for a specific purpose, like a neighborhood group established to fight crime but that can later be appropriated for broader purposes

Political scientist Robert Putnam furthered the concept of social capital and defined it as, “the features of social organization, such as trust, norms and networks that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated actions.” According to Putnam, social capital is beneficial both to the individual and to society at large. For example, an individual that participates in a crime watch group benefits from it individually by reducing her own fear of crime, and the community as a whole benefits as well because people who aren’t even aware of the crime watch group will potentially experience lower crime rates.

Another aspect of social capital to know about is the distinction between bonding social capital and bridging social capital. Bonding social capital refers to the ties among members of a group who are similar to one another with respect to social class, race or ethnicity, religious affiliation or other characteristics of social identity. Bridging social capital is made up of links among members of a community who are dissimilar to one another with respect to social identity. Bonding social capital, which often takes the form of aid and social support shared between members of a homogenous group, facilitates “getting by”. Whereas bridging social capital can be a means of “getting ahead” in that these ties enable individuals to access resources beyond their own social group.

The Benefits of Social Capital

There are several tangible benefits of social capital:

1. The first involves network-based resources. Network-based resources contain information channels through which new ideas are introduced, then spread, and eventually become adopted within a community. This depends on both bonding and bridging social capital.

2. The second benefit is social cohesion. For example, when those living in a community familiar with their neighbors, an overall sense of safety can reduce the psychological stress associated with neighborhood crime.

3. The third benefit is the ability of residents to mobilize to undertake collective action. A local Portland example of collective action is stopping the building of the Mt. Hood Freeway and instead funneling federal funding to the building of a robust transit network.

4. The fourth benefit of social capital is informal social control. This is best described by the saying that “it takes a village to raise a child.” This is when neighbors intervene when they see kids getting in trouble. This redistributes the burden of caring for people away from individual families to the community as a whole.

Local and National Examples of Social Capital at Work

Critical Mass: Critical Mass is an example of bridging capital that helped American cities get ahead in terms of bicycling infrastructure. It is a gathering of people on bicycles that convene once a month and ride their bikes in a group through various cities. This collective and informal action has had a great impact on the adoption of bicycle-friendly codes and the building of bicycle infrastructure in the city of Portland and other cities in the States and worldwide.

The Shift List: The Shift List was the progeny of Critical Mass in Portland. This listserv email group is used to desseminate information about bicycling in Portland. It enables everyday people to collectively communicate, organize and help each other in all things that are related to bicycling.

Food Not Bombs: Food Not Bombs is a national grassroots organization that was started in 1980 to protest the building of a nuclear power plant in Boston. The concept behind the organization is to “recover food that would have been discarded and share it as a way of protesting war and poverty.” Volunteers take excess, left over food that would normally be thrown away from restaurants and other organizations and distribute them to people who need it. In Portland, it consists of a regular gathering at Colonel Summers Park where people can come and eat free food provided by grocery stores, markets, restaurants and other organizations that would otherwise go to waste. Food Not Bombs is the result of collective action built from social capital. It is a great example of people cooperating with existing organizations and retail establishments to help people in need.

Portland Neighborhood Associations: The neighborhood associations in Portland have historically been tremendously powerful voices in the way the city has evolved. Neighborhood associations have advocated for everything from no new freeways to better bike/ped infrastructure to the building of community centers and public spaces. It was neighborhood associations that helped halt the building of the Mt. Hood Freeway in the 1960s and 70s.

Social capital is the one tool people have when they feel powerless. It is a way to empower people through cooperation, organizing and working together. Social capital can be a powerful tool against even the most oppressive forces that seem insurmountable. The women’s suffrage and the Civil Rights movements in the US, the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, and the Arab Spring are all examples of how social capital was able to overcome seemingly immense and unbreakable systems. How can we use social capital to fight forces that seem to have taken the agency away from the every day neighborhood residents today?

[Source: Making Healthy Places, Designing and Building for Health, Wellbeing, and Sustainability. Edited by Andrew L. Dannenberg, Howard Frumkin, and Richard J. Jackson. 2011]

Up next: How to Help Build Social Capital through the Built Environment

Photo Credit: Photo by USAID Africa Bureau (Ghana community visits water point) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons