This is a learning module for the class Contemporary Social / Mass Media Theory taught at Purdue University by Sorin Adam Matei
Social Capital Theory proposes that effective social action and the wellbeing of social groups, from the smallest voluntary organization to entire societies, is the product of a “secret ingredient:” social capital. Traditionally, if a group or institution functioned effectively, its success was attributed to well-designed formal rules, the sharing of common values, fair distribution of rewards and punishment, and forward-looking, clearly-defined goals. While important, studies revealed that these attributes were insufficient unless the groups also possessed social capital, which is a dense network of interpersonal relationships built on trust. According to the theory, only groups and institutions that cultivate this “social capital” will thrive.
Social capital, like other kinds of capital, is a form of wealth that “yields.” However, rather than possessing a truck (physical capital) or computer programming skills (human capital), which can be employed to make a profit, an individual with social capital possesses close trust-based relationships that are used to further his or her social, civic, or political agenda. These relationships entitle the individual to be used as a type of credit that can then be “cashed in” when he or she is need of resources, assistance, or other benefits (Bordieu, 1986). For example, if a couple brings a casserole to their neighbors who just had a baby, these new parents will see the fruit of the social capital they had cultivated with their neighbors. Thus, the gains of social capital are similar to those generated by economic capital (Coleman, 1988), benefitting the individuals in these interpersonal relationships—but also the communities in which they are embedded. As connectedness, interdependence, and trust between individuals grow, the social ties binding the group together grow stronger, which in turn, creates well-connected, smoothly-functioning communities.
How then does media influence the creation—or disintegration– of social capital? In our technological society, many believe that social capital is rapidly deteriorating, that Americans and many other modern people are becoming increasingly isolated, dependent on their devices, and disconnected from each other. Some fear that the “weak ties” online are replacing the “strong ties” formerly born out of civic clubs, bowling leagues, and volunteer organizations. Meanwhile, other voices sing the praises of new media and its social benefits, claiming the decline of civic organizations or PTAs to be counterbalanced by new, nontraditional social groups such as virtual communities or social networking sites. For many, these online environments are thriving incubators of social capital, creating or maintaining dynamic interpersonal networks. To examine the true influence of media on the health of our relationships, this module will explore social scientists’ attempts to identify the role of media in the cultivation, maintenance, and erosion of social capital.
What, how, to what effect: the first conceptualization of social capital
Though a vague concept of social capital emerged in early works by individuals such as Alexis de Tocqueville, Marx, and Durkheim, Pierre Bordieu was the first to offer an explicit definition in his 1986 work, “The Forms of Capital.” In this work, Bordieu describes social capital as the benefits one derives from membership within a particular group. He also proposes the “credit” analogy, by which he identifies credit as the resources or advantages one accesses through the members or his or her group. In this early explication of social capital, Bordieu also describes social capital as in dynamic interrelationship with other forms of capital, illustrating how their overlap and intersection truly produces the “yield” of all the kinds of capital.
A few years later, James Coleman gave social capital far greater visibility in his work, “Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital” (1988). In this wok, Coleman defines social capital as the “potential to engage and sustain efficacious communities” and identifies “closure” as a key concept in understanding social capital. Closure, as defined by Coleman, is the collective observance of social norms that results from dense connections between members stretching between all the “nodes” in the social network.
Robert Putnam, however, drew mass attention to social capital through his well-known work Bowling Alone. In this extensive treatment of social capital, Putnam stretched the original definition considerably, examining social capital’s effects on entire nations and societies. The popular conception of social capital likely stems from Putnam’s definition– the “features of social organizations, such as networks, norms, and trust, that facilitate action and cooperation for mutual benefit” (2000, p. 35). Putnam also makes an important distinction between types of social capital– identifying both “bonding” capital and “bridging” capital. Bonding social capital is the product of close relationships and trust among individuals in the same community. This form of social capital grows the existing group tighter. Bridging social capital, however, is social capital that extends outward—connecting individuals from separate groups to each other, forming linkages between new people and new communities.
Putnam first started his investigations on the role of social capital in Italy (Making democracy work), illustrating how municipalities whose populations had high social capital were more likely to be effective than municipalities with less social capital. In Bowling Alone, Putnam argues that social capital in America has been rapidly decreasing over the past fifty years (2000). Using data collected on a national scale, Putnam illustrates how effective participation in civic organizations and political involvement has declined in the U.S., a process that goes hand-in-hand with the increasing isolation of the American individual. For Putnam, at the root of this unfortunate phenomenon lies electronic media and technology, specifically television. According to Putnam, Americans today are more connected to their TVs and less connected to their neighbors. As they’ve turned to computers, they’ve turned away from civic organizations. Upon publication, Putnam’s work seemed to confirm the fears of many—that the inherently antisocial nature of technology’s is harming not only individuals and communities, but our great nation as well.
The role of media in creating or destroying social capital
However, since Putnam’s time, the media landscape has changed drastically. Television—the medium supposedly responsible for the erosion of social capital—is a hallmark of old media. If new media, however, is characterized by connectedness, networks, and participation, how then, does this influence social capital?
In 1998, as internet usage was becoming widespread, researchers Wellman, Haase, Witte, and Hampton conducted a large-scale national survey to examine how this growing phenomenon affected offline, interpersonal relationships. By surveying thousands of visitors on the National Geographic website, researchers began gauging the level of Internet users’ online interaction and offline community involvement (Wellman et al., 1998). Surprisingly, they discovered that online interaction had very little influence on participants’ amount of offline interaction. The researchers concluded that the Internet merely supplemented these interactions without replacing or increasing them. More surprisingly, they discovered that frequent Internet users were more likely to engage in volunteerism—a finding seemingly contradictory to Putnam’s hypothesis about media and the decline of civic involvement. Such a study seemed to indicate a countercultural trend—that the Internet was not destroying but simply supplementing pre-existing social capital.
Recent studies of social media have taken these findings even further—demonstrating that new media has gone beyond supplementation and begun facilitating the creation of social capital. As early as 2001 Matei and Ball Rokeach have shown that social capital migrates from offline to online environments. Furthermore, individuals with social aptitudes and ability to connect in everyday life will use these skills to build social capital online as well. A 2006 study conducted by Ellison, Steinfeld, and Lampe examined the influence of Facebook on bonding and bridging capital as well as “maintained” social capital, or the capital resulting from connections maintained from former networks. The findings indicated a positive relationship between Facebook and all three kinds of social capital. The strongest relationship was bridging capital, illustrating the unique nature of online social networks to connect individuals by virtue of their weak ties, or “acquaintance” relationships.
Studies of other online social environments have illustrated similar results. Researchers studying the popular online game World of Warcraft explicitly stated that WoW players are certainly not “bowling alone” (Williams et al., 2006, p. 357). Rather, these individuals operate in dynamic social environments where people meet, connect, and build communities together online. In their study, many players maintained and strengthened preexisting relationships in the gaming environment. Nearly all players met new people, cultivating bridging capital that often turned into bonding capital over time. Just as WoW players reinforce existing social ties in their virtual environment, Matei’s study of online communities, Yahoo! groups, indicates a “magnification of [offline] pre-existing social capital” as well (2004, p. 36). Thus, more recent studies of online social environments—whether social networking sites or virtual communities—reveals a consistent trend of the creating or strengthening of social capital.
Social capital as a theory
The primary strength of social capital is its ability to explain the intangible, yet powerful benefits derived from relationships and social networks, for both individuals and communities. For the mass media researcher, it can be an important variable in measuring media influence on these relationships and the health and effective functioning of social groups and institutions.
However, vague definitions and diverse applications of social capital have weakened the theory’s conceptual framework. In much of the literature, descriptions of the possessors, sources, and benefits of social capital are intertwined, muddying the clear meaning and application of the concept. Social capital has been used to examine individual, dyadic relationships as well as effects on nations and societies as a whole. These more ambitious applications of social capital—particularly to massive, multi-faceted groups of individuals—has stretched it beyond a tight, focused conceptualization, and into some loose generalizing about social phenomena. Such diversity—and even conflict—in definitions and applications has threatened the strength of its explanatory power of the effects of media on society.
Furthermore, critics consider some applications of social capital to be circular in logic as well as vague in definition (Portes, 1998). For example, lack of social capital has been identified as the cause of social fragmentation and moral disintegration—and has also been identified as the result of social fragmentation and moral disintegration. The moralizing often attached to social capital is another criticism of the theory, as many uncritically laud the societal benefits of social capital without addressing its negative attributes. Portes (1998), however, discusses the dark side of social capital, describing four of its unhealthy outcomes in his article, “Social Capital: Its Origins and Applications in Modern Sociology.” The first negative aspect of social capital is its common “exclusion of outsiders” (p. 15). As communities privilege bonding over bridging capital, they likely shut out others and become increasingly insular and homogenous. The second negative attribute is “excess claims on group members,” or the overlarge contribution demanded of some members to counterbalance other members’ lack of effort. Social capital can also limit individuals’ personal freedoms. As certain norms are strongly reinforced in close-knit communities, these expectations may inhibit the liberties of some group members. Finally, social capital can lead to “downward leveling norms.” This occurs when social groups encourage unhealthy behavior, but group loyalty and social pressure discourages individuals to seek positive alternatives. As these negative practices become normative, the entire social group suffers.
Thus, there are clearly two sides to social capital. Just as close bonds between group members can benefit a community, so they can also forestall important progress and change. However, if a mass media researcher understands this duality to social capital, he or she is better equipped to apply the theory effectively. By avoiding the common pitfalls in theorizing, and creating a tight, focused application of the concept, social capital theory can be a powerful lens through which to examine media effects in society.
Of the couple dozen theories that aim to explain how mass media impact society, how many of them are still valid today, when mass media is slowly metamorphosizing into social media? Or, in other words, if there has been a shift from one-to-many, to many-to-many communication systems, have the theories that explained the former, such as media dependency, agenda setting, or knowledge gap, still applicable to the latter? The course from Mass Media to Social Media, which I will teach at Purdue University in the fall of 2010 will scrutinize this problem in great detail.
Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone. Read Chapters 1, 6, and 13 — download via Blackboard. I highly recommend buying the book (click the image to see the Amazon.com page of the book).
James Coleman, Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital, The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 94, Supplement or http://www.jstor.org/stable/2780243
In this paper, the concept of social capital is introduced and illustrated, its forms are described, the social structural conditions under which it arises are examined, and it is used in an analysis ol dropouts from high school. Use of the concept of social capital is part of a general theoretical strategy discussed in the paper: taking rational action as a starting point but rejecting the extreme individ- ualistic premises that often accompany it. The conception of social capital as a resource for action is one way of introducing social structure into the rational action paradigm. Three forms of so- cial capital are examined: obligations and expectations, information channels, and social norms. The role of closure in the social struc- ture in facilitating the first and third of these forms of social capital is described. An analysis of the effect of the lack of social capital available to high school sophomores on dropping out of school be- fore graduation is carried out. The effect of social capital within the family and in the community outside the family is examined.
Social capital is 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 in a group – which provides each of its members with the backing of the collectivity-owned capital, a ‘credential’ which entitles them to credit, in the various senses of the word. These relationships may exist only in the practical state, in material and/or symbolic exchanges which help to maintain them. They may also be socially instituted and guaranteed by the application of a common name (the name of a family, a class, or a tribe or of a school, a party, etc.) and by a whole set of instituting acts designed simultaneously to form and inform those who undergo them; in this case, they are more or less really enacted and so maintained and reinforced, in exchanges. Being based on indissolubly material and symbolic exchanges, the establishment and maintenance of which presuppose reacknowledgment of proximity, they are also partially irreducible to objective relations of proximity in physical (geographical) space or even in economic and social space.
The volume of the social capital possessed by a given agent thus depends on the size of the network of connections he can effectively mobilize and on the volume of the capital (economic, cultural or symbolic) possessed in his own right by each of those to whom he is connected. This means that, although it is relatively irreducible to the economic and cultural capital possessed by a given agent, or even by the whole set of agents to whom he is connected, social capital is never completely independent of it because the exchanges instituting mutual acknowledgment presuppose the reacknowledgment of a minimum of objective homogeneity, and because it exerts a multiplier effect on the capital he possesses in his own right.
This paper reviews the origins and definitions of social capital in the writings of Bourdieu, Loury, and Coleman, among other authors. It distinguishes four sources of social capital and examines their dynamics. Applications of the concept in the sociological literature emphasize its role in social control, in family support, and in benefits mediated by extrafamilial networks. I provide examples of each of these positive functions. Negative consequences of the same processes also deserve attention for a balanced picture of the forces at play. I review four such consequences and illustrate them with relevant examples. Recent writings on social capital have extended the concept from an individual asset to a feature of communities and even nations. The final sections describe this conceptual stretch and examine its limitations. I argue
that, as shorthand for the positive consequences of sociability, social capital has a definite place in sociological theory. However, excessive extensions of the concept may jeopardize its heuristic value.
Wellman et al.
Does the Internet increase, decrease, or supplement social capital?: social networks, participation, and community commitment
American Behavioral Scientist November 2001 vol. 45 no. 3 436-455
How does the Internet affect social capital? Do the communication possibilities of the Internet increase, decrease, or supplement interpersonal contact, participation, and community commitment? This evidence comes from a 1998 survey of 39,211 visitors to the National Geographic Society Web site, one of the first large-scale Web surveys. The authors find that people’s interaction online supplements their face-to-face and telephone communication without increasing or decreasing it. However, heavy Internet use is associated with increased participation in voluntary organizations and politics. Further support for this effect is the positive association between offline and online participation in voluntary organizations and politics. However, the effects of the Internet are not only positive: The heaviest users of the Internet are the least committed to online community. Taken together this evidence suggests that the Internet is becoming normalized as it is incorporated into the routine practices of everyday life.
This study examines the relationship between use of Facebook, a popular online social
network site, and the formation and maintenance of social capital. In addition to
assessing bonding and bridging social capital, we explore a dimension of social capital
that assesses one’s ability to stay connected with members of a previously inhabited
community, which we call maintained social capital. Regression analyses conducted on
results from a survey of undergraduate students (N = 286) suggest a strong association
between use of Facebook and the three types of social capital, with the strongest relationship
being to bridging social capital. In addition, Facebook usage was found to
interact with measures of psychological well-being, suggesting that it might provide
greater benefits for users experiencing low self-esteem and low life satisfaction.
Steinfeld, C., Lampe, C., Ellison, N., and Vitak, J. Online social network sites and the concept of social capital. Lee, F. L. F. (2013). Frontiers in New Media Research. Routledge.
From Tree House to Barracks : The Social Life of Guilds in World of Warcraft
Games and Culture 2006 1: 338
Dmitri Williams, Nicolas Ducheneaut, Li Xiong, Yuanyuan Zhang, Nick Yee and Eric Nickell
A representative sample of players of a popular massively multiplayer online game
(World of Warcraft) was interviewed to map out the social dynamics of guilds. An initial
survey and network mapping of players and guilds helped form a baseline. Next,
the resulting interview transcripts were reviewed to explore player behaviors, attitudes,
and opinions; the meanings they make; the social capital they derive; and the
networks they form and to develop a typology of players and guilds. In keeping with
current Internet research findings, players were found to use the game to extend reallife
relationships, meet new people, form relationships of varying strength, and also
use others merely as a backdrop. The key moderator of these outcomes appears to be
the game’s mechanic, which encourages some kinds of interactions while discouraging
others. The findings are discussed with respect to the growing role of code in shaping
The paper analyzes the 48 contiguous states of the Union and their ability to create and maintain online communities (Yahoo! groups). Multiple regression analysis indicates that the number of online groups and overall amount of online activity increase with amount of social capital. Also, ethnic homogeneity positively influences the number of online groups, while population density and number of IT workers are positively associated with level of online activity. In broad terms, the analyses support the idea that the Internet strengthens offline interaction, sociability online building on sociability offline.
MATEI, S., & BALL-ROKEACH, S. J. (2001). Real and Virtual Social Ties: Connections in the Everyday Lives of Seven Ethnic Neighborhoods. American Behavioral Scientist, 45(3), 550–564. doi:10.1177/0002764201045003012
The relationship between online and offline social ties is studied in seven Los Angeles ethnically marked residential areas. Contrary to visions proposing a zero-sum game between the two, the authors advance a “the more, the more” approach to online social ties. A higher level of belonging to real communities translates into a higher propensity for interaction online. This approach is informed by a social shaping of technology perspective, which proposes that strong anchoring to offline social and cultural groups links cyberspace to people’s local communities. Results of a logistic regression analysis indicate that the chances of making a friend online increase by 7% for each belonging index unit and by 32% for each neighbor known well enough to talk to about a personal problem. Belonging is captured through an index measure, combining eight items concerning objective and subjective involvement in residential community. Ethnic differences are less pronounced than expected. However, Asian respondents, particularly those of Korean descent, are more likely to form online ties than mainstream White respondents. Focus group data suggest that online ties are established with people of the same ethnicity.