Social Capital

The term “social capital” dates as early back as 1916 when L. J. Hanifan described it as:

goodwill, fellowship, mutual sympathy and social intercourse among a group of individuals and families who make up a social unit.”

Recently, social capital has landed back into the collective consciousness through Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Putnam’s main argument is that Americans’ sense of community has substantially decreased through increased suburbanization (and less dense urban centers), longer commute times and work days, less time for social outlets (and more time spent watching TV alone). Putnam cites community polls revealing that more than 80 percent of respondents reported desiring more of an emphasis on community, even if that put more demands on individuals. While suburban growth has substantially decreased since Y2k, our society has seen other, more troubling phenomena that have led to increased isolation, including widening wealth disparities, increased gun-violence, and erratic work schedules—for example, retail companies using on-call schedules to request workers at the drop of a hat during unexpectedly busy shopping times.

Therefore, a conversation about interventions to build social capital is timely, especially when coupled with the recent prioritization of early-intervention, wrap-around support and prevention programming to support childhood outcomes. While many family strengthening interventions focus purely on children and families, a preventative social capital-building initiative intervenes at the individual, family and community level, and sees individuals as a product of their social system or ecology. Thanks to the research of Urie Bronfenbrenner, a well-regarded developmental psychologist, we know how social and environmental factors shape how children interact with the world around them. Indeed, Bronfenbrenner has testified in a number of hearings focused on reducing child poverty, understanding its deleterious effects on child development and child mental health. Much of his work helped to support antipoverty legislation and wrap-around educational programming like Head Start.


Broadly, social capital is the idea that involvement or participation in social groups has positive consequences for the individual and the group or community[1]. So when parents of a school are involved in an advocacy group such as a Parent Teacher Association (PTA), it helps the the parent (he or she learns about school expectations) and supports school community cohesion (a network of parents work together to improve the school climate).

Over the years, there have been many variations of theories on social capital; here are two heavily cited and well-accepted definitions:

James Coleman and Pierre Bourdieu described social capital as the concrete value of forming relationships, which help families gain access to resources such as childcare, transportation, and food[2][3].

Robert D. Putnam defined social capital by the networks (friendship), norms (nodding your head to a neighbor) and trust (feeling safe) that are established through social organization, and discussed how this leads to cooperation, civic participation, and positive outcomes for society as a whole[4][5].

three working parts

1. Social Support

Bonding, or social support, is a form of social capital where parents or families can rely on others for support with daily life stressors. Local governments, real estate developers, and municipalities understand the importance of social support and often design cities and housing developments to encourage it. In San Luis Obispo, California, for example, the local government proposed to require that all new houses have front porches in an act to make a more tightly knit community[5].

2. The Protocol: Shared Expectations, Neighborhood Watch, and Norms of Reciprocity

Shared Expectations

As communities become closer knit, they form shared expectations or achieve a common belief system. At schools, for example, parents who connect with teachers become more informed about school expectations related to child’s academic progress. This relationship is reciprocal; teachers learn about parents’ expectations for their child’s schooling.

Neighborhood Watch or Informal Social Control

Community members become better able to maintain order and keep their community safe from violence or other problems when they know one another. Most people have seen the ominous neighborhood watch signs with the cold-war era cartoon spy character (Boris the Burglar) or the all-seeing eye; it is the idea that, if something bad happens, a neighbor will be there to help and report suspicious activity.

It is known that neighborhoods with high concentrations of poverty, economic dislocation, and residential instability (all variables that erode the social fabric of a community) tend to have higher rates of crime. It is also know that communities come together to make their communities stronger and safer. Using a participatory action-research framework (where community members themselves become the researchers), 41 youths and adults in Flint, Michigan, were recruited to take photos of their everyday lives as a way to document and viscerally communicate struggles related to community violence. These photos and corresponding letters were used to persuade community leaders and policymakers to support bills and local policies to support job growth and economic vitality[6]. In engaging with the research, members of the community, youths, community leaders, and policy makers of all ages and ethnicities worked together, forged relationships, and only then were able to support each other in their collective goal to reduce community violence.

Norms of Reciprocity

Otherwise known as the “favor bank” (coined by author Tom Wolfe[7]) norms of reciprocity is the idea that ‘if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.’ As communities grow to trust one another, this reciprocity becomes generalized; in other words, community members support one another without anything in return, with the implicit understanding that giving to the community, and supporting its development, will be best for everyone in the long run.

3. Connections: Social Leveraging, Neighborhood Organization, and Institutional Linkage

Social Leveraging

The more people one know, the more access one has to information or resources (i.e. job referral, childcare, etc.). Another way to look at this is, if one have more Facebook friends, more articles (or news) will appear in your news feed[8].

Neighborhood Organization and Participation

As communities or groups become closer, they become more organized and are better able to engage in community building activities. Neighborhood associations, for example, provide opportunities for people to work together at the grassroots level on initiatives that directly benefit their neighborhood and strengthen the entire community. As members mobilize and work together, their collective energy combines to strengthen the entire neighborhood[5].

Institutional Linkage

As people gain social capital, they gain power via institutions as well as through other people with influence. When parents know their school principal or teacher, they may have more decision-making power, and are thus able to support the implementation of policies that positively affect their children[9].

Effects on Parents and Children

Health and Well-Being

One benefit of gaining social capital is its effect on stress. In one’s personal life, one is well aware of the benefits of having family and friends around for support. Research confirms this feeling, showing that adults’ perception of their community predicts psychological well-being[10]. In other words, those who perceive themselves as having a strong system of support tend to also show better mental health outcomes. This benefit extends to physical health as well; researchers identified a connection between social capital and adult understanding of their own health and well-being[11]. Thus, adults who have more extensive social networks also tend to report better health. Indeed, social support, more so than other variables, best predicts increased life-span among aging adults.

In a study conducted by Putnam, he found that people who attend church report more “extreme” life satisfaction. This well-being was not attributed to religiosity or belief in God, however. Instead, it was associated with participant report of having more close friends at their congregation or religious institution. In other words, the act of attending church weekly and seeing close friends appeared to have a strong impact on participants’ sense of life satisfaction. A recent article detailing the effects of social connections on the human brain describes how economists have attempted to place a monetary value on human relationships saying that:

When economists put a price tag on our relationships, we get a concrete sense of just how valuable our social connections are—and how devastating it is when they are broken. If you volunteer at least once a week, the increase to your happiness is like moving from a yearly income of $20,000 to $75,000. If you have a friend that you see on most days, it’s like earning $100,000 more each year. Simply seeing your neighbors on a regular basis gets you $60,000 a year more [12].

Social capital’s effect on health goes beyond U.S. borders as well. In Indonesia, for example, researchers found a relationship between women’s health and perceived levels of trust and access to supports from extended social networks[13]. Women who had larger and stronger social networks appeared to report better overall physical health. While this is just one international example, compelling evidence from a variety of sources reveal that social connections, friendships, and a general sense of community greatly improve overall well-being.

Access to Resources

It is common to patronize a service after hearing a review from someone one trusts or knows. People tend to access community services (like family centers or childcare) through their informal social networks or trusted friends[14]. People learn about places and tend to use services only when they hear about it through trusted confidants.

Many people do not have access to the networks needed to find necessary services. In a recent study[15], 22% of families reported that they were not aware of available community services according to a survey designed to assess childcare service usage. The same survey showed 37% of participants did not feel connected to either informal or formal supports.

In a recent focus group conducted in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, only 15% of eligible participants accessed and or used their childcare subsidy. When participants were asked why they did not use this subsidy, many reported confusion about the process of applying and reported feeling unsure about who qualified as a certified childcare worker or agency. This confusion surrounding the process of accessing services highlights the importance of increasing social capital and building relationships to support knowledge sharing. By building relationships, people learn how to navigate the complexities of social service and other bureaucratic systems.

Buffer Against Stress

Much is known about how a family’s social context affects their child’s developmental trajectory, including their mental health and early skill development[16]. More current research supports this relationship, showing how the stress associated with poverty drastically affects a parent’s ability to cope with adversity and handle parenting tasks optimally[17]. Building relationships provides access to social capital, ultimately leading to more resources, social support, advice, and soft skills, allowing for better parent-child interactions and healthier child development. Social support serves as a buffer against the chronic stress felt by those living in poverty[18].

Child-Rearing Support

From an even broader lens, children tend to thrive in closer-knit communities. Research shows that communities where members trust one another tend to be safer environments for children because there is greater access to child supervision[19]. Using the “favor bank” theory, parents tend to look out for one another’s children when they know each other[20], and as parents get to know the parents of their children’s friends (known as inter-generational closure), parents establish common norms and expectations about rules, discipline and monitoring. Indeed, parental monitoring is highly associated with positive childhood outcomes, including behavior and mental health.

Academic Achievement

Lastly, an increase in social capital supports school communities, and is associated with higher academic achievement. When parents—and the community—have more social capital, parents develop positive academic norms through mechanisms of social influence, and feel comfortable advocating for their children. Parental involvement as a form of social capital is positively associated with college enrollment when controlling for all other variables including income[21]. According to Suarez-Orozco[22], strong school-based relationships positively contribute to school engagement and achievement among recent immigrant children.


Social capital building efforts can make a difference in the lives of individuals, families and communities. By strengthening social ties and creating stronger communities, parents and children thrive. It is worth considering how one can build social capital within his or her neighborhood, school, or community.

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