Social Capital

Before you can begin your investigation, you will need some background on the case. First, you will need to become familiar with the concept of "social capital." In its simplest sense, social capital invokes the idea that our social connections and social networks are valuable for society and politics, much like "physical capital" is valuable for economics.

Social capital, however, is more than simply having social connections and networks. Social capital is exhibited in individuals who have a well-developed sense of mutual trust and "give-and-take" or "reciprocity" in their social networks. Moreover, it is exhibited in individuals who are actively engaged in civic and political life. This trust, reciprocity, and civic and political engagement then enriches the communities where these individuals reside.

Largely as a result of the scholar Robert D. Putnam's work, social capital has gained widespread popularity in social and political research and has even received the attention of the government of Canada, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and the World Bank. However, keep in mind that despite the widespread popularity of social capital research, there is also disagreement over its definition. For a discussion of this, see the article "The Myth of Social Capital in Community Development" by James DeFilippis.


Equipped with the concept of social capital, you are on your way, but your investigation is still incomplete. Like any investigator, you will need a research question and a hypothesis to test. Here is where Putnam's work enters the scene. In the article "Bowling Alone" in 1995 and the subsequent book of the same name in 2001, Putnam claimed that community--civic engagement and social capital--had declined in America over the last 30 to 40 years of the twentieth century. This turned out to be both a provocative and a controversial claim. Read Putnam's (2005) summary of this development in his opinion-editorial "1996: The Civic Enigma" in The American Prospect. Similar to investigating a claim that a crime has been committed, you will begin your investigation into Putnam's claim that community has declined in America.


The overall goals for your investigation are:

  • To develop expertise on social capital, including Putnam's definition of social capital and the variables used to measure it.
  • To identify Putnam's major research questions and to identify hypotheses investigated throughout the book, Bowling Alone.
  • To learn how Putnam uses quantitative social science evidence to support his hypotheses.

Why Bother?

A lot of social science investigation goes on without anyone outside of the scholarly community noticing. Social capital investigation is unique in this regard. It gained widespread popularity partly because of its significance for so many social and political issues. This discussion demonstrates its significance.

In a Boston Globe op-editorial "A Friend in Need" on November 14, 2005, Thomas H. Sander warns of a social capital "gap" between the rich and the poor. To illustrate his point he writes about Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf Coast of the United States at New Orleans on the morning of August 29, 2005.

Relatively recently our hearts were pained by a sea of black and poor victims, trapped on the Gulf Coast pre-Hurricane without an exit. We notice that they were carless and lacked money for bus fare, meals, and hotels. But far fewer notice that the poor were equally trapped by a dearth of these social connections, especially crossing economic lines. Specifically, they lacked affluent friends to give them a ride, lacked contacts to negotiate heavily discounted hotel rates, and lacked out-of-town relatives with extra bedrooms.

The unfolding story of Hurricane Katrina is a haunting one. As Sander's quote captures, what would haunt us most was not so much the natural disaster itself, but the human disaster. Social capital mattered for those trapped as Hurricane Katrina approached. And social capital matters for rebuilding the Gulf Coast communities in the Hurricane's aftermath.

Thus, social capital is a "powerful public idea," according to Xavier de Souza Briggs' "Social Capital and the Cities: Advice to Change Agents" in the National Civic Review. This lesson of Hurricane Katrina is only one of numerous examples of the power and significance of social capital.

Now it is time to introduce you to the evidence you will need to conduct your investigation--the datasets.