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Contrasting Theories Of Social Capital Sociology Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 1563 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The terms ‘social capital’ is a rather complex one, as a variety of different versions of definitions are used by researchers in defining the concepts and ideas associated to social capital. However, generally speaking, there are two related dimensions of social capital seemingly agreed by many researchers. The first dimension of social capital is the network of affiliation, such as the family groups, friendship ties, professional co-workers, business partners or contacts, and any other formal or informal associations or relationship, where a person belongs to. The second dimension is about the general behaviors the respective individuals or groups rely on in the formation, retention and usage process of the networks. There are three important gurus in the development of theories concerning the subject of social capital, namely Bourdieu, Coleman and Putnam. It is interesting to observe that all of them develop different theories of social capital.

In the following section, the various theories of social capital from the gurus will be discussed. Later, employing the concepts and theories asserted by the respective guru, the notion that “social capital predicts that returns to intelligence, education, and seniority depend in some part on a person’s location in the social structure of a market or hierarchy.”

Bourdieu’s Social Capital

According to Bourdieu (1986), social capital is defined 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 and recognition – or in other words, to membership or a group – which provides each of its members with the backing of the collectively-owned capital, a ‘credential’ which entitles them to credit, in the various senses of the word.’ According to Bourdieu’s argument, the social capital is a form of capital or resources, similar to the concept of economic capital and cultural capital, which may be used for achievement, privilege treatment and to some extent, social exclusion. Social capital in such a definition is the source of networks and connections for a certain people, allowing continuing and future access to certain privilege.

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In Bourdieu’s framework, the capital is a form of power, and people with higher social capital are better position in the world for better achievement and privileges. The possession of social capital may influence a person’s economic capital, or the return to the economic capital. For example, comparing two people with different level of social capital, but both of them have exactly the equal amount of economic capital; the person with higher level of social capital will be able to generate better return to the similar amount of economic capital. The person possessing the social capital is more competitive positioned in the economic realm. The main contribution of Bourdieu’s theory is that it suggests that possession of social capital or the impacts of social exclusion will influence a person’s access to power and privilege as well as the inability to access power.

Thus, according to the assertion of Bourdieu’s theory, social capital can predict and influence the returns to intelligence; education and seniority depend in some part on a person’s location in the social structure of a market or hierarchy. Such a statement is reasonable and understandable, where the impacts of social exclusion may prevent someone to generate returns to intelligence, education and seniority. People with better networks and connections are better positioned and easier to apply their intelligence, education and seniority in generating returns. In contrast, people without social capital may not able to perform so, as due to lack of networks, connections and useful relationships, many actions and strategies may not be implementable, relevant or workable due to the effect of social exclusion.

Coleman’s Social Capital

According to Coleman (1988), the concept social capital can be comparable to the physical and human capital, whereby it may facilitates certain actions from the actors in a structure. Such a conception of social capital is very different to the one suggested by Bourdieu’s theory. According to Coleman (1988), social capitals are largely created or destroyed as by-products of other forms of activities. In such a definition, Coleman treats the concept of social capital not as a form of capital, power or advantages possessed only by a certain group of elites. His research is primarily concern about the possession of social capital impacts towards the accumulation of human capital in young people.

Some findings from Coleman discovered that social capital arises from closed network of family members, church members and etc, will contribute positively to human capital development in the young people. Besides, parental involvement in teaching children will also create a form of social capital, which will significantly reduce the children drop out from school in the early days. Apart from that, he discovered that parents that frequently move to new cities have lesser human capital because these parents are unable to share information about their children with other parents on better quality education for their children.

The concept of social capital suggested by Coleman, if applied to the statement asserted by Burt, where it is said that social capital predicts that returns to intelligence, education and seniority depend in some part on a person’s location in the social structure, can be confusing and complex. Firstly, Coleman is primarily concern about the educational achievement of young people, but the assertion by Burt does include a dimension of ‘seniority’, which is irrelevant from the discussion of social capital by Coleman. However, social capital does affect the returns to intelligence and education, whereby it is not hard to imagine that children with better upbringing condition and more attentive parents will achieve better in schools academically. Two similarly smart and brilliant children, under different upbringing situation, may have different achievement educationally. The children with better social capital will have high return to intelligence, in this context, as compared to the equally smart children who live in a broken or problematic family.

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Putnam’s Social Capital

Putnam’s theories on social capital are more influential and widely discussed. According to him, there are two forms of social capital, namely, (a) the bonding social capital and (b) the bridging social capital. In his framework, the bonding social capital is derived from exclusive network or connections primarily from the ethnic fraternal organizations, family and close friends’ network or religion based groups. The bonding social capital described by Putnam is similar to Bourdieu’s and Coleman’s assertions, where such a form of social capital often is used to separate people from different sociological groups, and thus determine the availability or access to special privileges or resources. On the other hand, the bridging social capital is often referred to the inclusive network such as the collegial, professional and civic groups. More specifically, Putnam explain social capital as closely related to a form of civic virtue, and further argued that civic virtue is most powerful when it is embedded in a concentrated network of reciprocal social networks and relationship. As such, following Putnam conception of social capital, a society of many isolated individuals may not have richness in terms of social capital. In this line of argument, the social capital is a property of the collectives (i.e., for the society), whereas the social capital describe by Bourdieu and Coleman is mainly a possession of a particular individual.

With reference to Putnam’s framework and theory, the assertion of Burt, where the social capital predicts that returns to intelligence, education and seniority depends in some part on a person’s location in the social structure is a vague and doubtful one. The social capital is a group’s possession and attributes in Putnam’s theory, so the social capital in a society does not have any direct linkages to the returns to intelligence, education and seniority of a person in the society. If there are any relationships, the linkages will be an indirect one.


After comparing and contrasting the various definitions, theories, findings and framework presented by the gurus, it is clear that the assertion by Burt is mainly adopting the definition suggested by Bourdieu. With Bourdieu’s definition, the assertion by Burt can be interpreted logically and meaningfully.

The concepts of social capital are complicated and the context in which the idea is being discussed will determine the definition and conception of social capital. It is very important for the readers to understand the various theories concerning the subject of social capital to follow the researches findings and argument in the literature.

(1398 words)


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