Blog 2: Building Social Capital – why giving is receiving

Building my social capital includes being invited to be on panel discussions!

Each of us needs more ‘Social Capital’, to oil the wheels of business, our communities and society at large. This intangible resource can change the world. So what is it so good at doing? Robert Putnam identified three key reasons it matters in his book ‘Bowling Alone’ (Putnam 2001:288-9):

  • It enables citizens to resolve problems easily
  • It helps communities to advance because members know they can rely on each other
  • It fosters awareness of the ways in which our fates are interlinked and encourages us to be more tolerant, less cynical and more empathetic

In fact, many thinkers have defined it over the years. Pierre Bourdieu (1984) combined it with cultural capital, describing the elitism and class divide he so often talked of, becoming reinforced with cultural knowledge.

James Coleman defined it as one of the resources ‘available’ to us, much like financial capital, to improve life, for example by strengthening local communities, as it ‘relies on people looking beyond themselves and engaging in supportive and helpful actions’. (Coleman 1988:S95-S120)

But the greatest influencer on defining social capital was Robert Putnam, who declared it ‘connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them’ (Putnam 2001:19). Ross Gittell and Avis Vidal identified two types of social capital, ‘Bridging’, which embraces diversity and brings in many dispirit members and ‘bonding’, which is about tying people closer together who are already similar or have similar bonds. Both types have their value and their place.

Social Capital can thus be regarded as the oil of a good society, but how should we define the term ‘good society’? Karl Marx provided some early arguments in the 1800’s that defined a good society as providing ‘conditions that all humans require to survive’. He said we could judge existing societies according to the extent they provide or fail to provide humane conditions’ (Marx 1997).

But this desirable resource of social capital to help us build ‘good’ societies has been running a little thin. Putnam identified its decline in America from the 1970’s in part due to the rise of TV and a desire to have a more family and home-centred life. He cited the decline in card playing by the 1990’s amongst social groups in America as being responsible for ‘fifty million fewer ‘microdeliberations’ about community affairs each year (compared with) two decades ago’ (Putnam 2001:104)

This mattered said Putnam, because ‘civic connections make us healthy, wealthy and wise’. He concluded that ‘living without social capital is not easy’ (Putnam 2001:287).

David Gauntlett summarises, that ‘having friendly social connections and communication, and working together with people on shared projects, is not merely pleasant-but-optional ‘icing on the cake’ of individual lives, but is absolutely essential both for personal well-being and for a healthy, secure, trustworthy society’ (Gauntlett 2011:161).

The internet was in its early stages as Putnam was writing but he did realise its value stating its likely effect ‘…to enhance community, perhaps even dramatically. Social Capital is about networks he said, and ‘the Net is the network to end all networks’ (Putnam 2001:171).

My own impact as a public servant, as well as ensuring my expertise around creative industries, depends on my own social capital, the number of people I influence and the strength of connections I can make with key influencers.

In studying this issue I have realised it is vital to increase my engagement with networks and groups. I need to increase my profile and to try and be as effective as possible in what I do for the greater good of Greater Birmingham’s creative industries. Clearly for me giving like this will be receiving.

One of the things we need to build social capital is more time, so that leads us on to the next factor I have identified that must be conquered, the power of cognitive surplus. Blog Post 3 explores this and why it is important.



Bourdieu, Pierre (1984), Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984)

Coleman, James S (1988) ‘Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital’, American Journal of Sociology, 94, Supplement: Organizations and Institutions: Sociological and Economic Approaches to the Analysis of Social Structure (1988), pages S95-S120

Gauntlett, David (2011), ‘Making is Connecting: The social meaning of creativity from DIY Knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0’, Polity (London) p161

Marx, Karl (1997), ‘Writings of the Young Marx on philosophy and society’, Indianapolis, (IN Hacket)

Putnam, Robert, D (2001), ‘Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community’, New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001, p19, also 289-90



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