Social Capital is the topic of the day




What is Social Capital?

Social capital refers to the norms and networks that enable collective action. Increasing evidence shows that social cohesion — social capital — is critical for poverty alleviation and sustainable human and economic development.

Social capital refers to the institutions, relationships, and norms that shape the quality and quantity of a society's social interactions. Increasing evidence shows that social cohesion is critical for societies to prosper economically and for development to be sustainable. Social capital is not just the sum of the institutions, which underpin a society – it is the glue that holds them together.

Horizontal Associations

A narrow view of social capital regards it as a set of horizontal associations between people, consisting of social networks and associated norms that have an effect on community productivity and well-being. Social networks can increase productivity by reducing the costs of doing business. Social capital facilitates coordination and cooperation.

Social capital also has an important "downside" in communities, groups or networks that are isolated, parochial, or working at cross-purposes to society's collective interests. (e.g. drug cartels, corruption rackets) This can actually hinder economic and social development.

Vertical and Horizontal Associations

A broader understanding of social capital accounts for both the positive and negative aspects by including vertical as well as horizontal associations between people, and includes behaviour within and among organizations, such as firms. This view recognizes that horizontal ties are needed to give communities a sense of identity and common purpose, but also stresses that without "bridging" ties that transcend various social divides (e.g. religion, ethnicity, socio-economic status), horizontal ties can become a basis for the pursuit of narrow interests, and can actively preclude access to information and material resources that would otherwise be of great assistance to the community (e.g. tips about job vacancies, access to credit etc).

Enabling Social and Political Environment

The broadest and most encompassing view of social capital includes the social and political environment that shapes social structure and enables norms to develop. This analysis extends the importance of social capital to the most formalized institutional relationships and structures, such as government, the political regime, the rule of law, the court system, and civil and political liberties. This view not only accounts for the virtues and vices of social capital, and the importance of forging ties within and across communities, but also recognizes that the capacity of various social groups to act in their interest depends crucially on the support (or lack thereof) that they receive from the government as well as the private sector. Similarly, the government depends on social stability and widespread popular support. In short, economic and social development thrives when representatives of the government, the corporate sector, and civil society create forums in and through which they can identify and pursue common goals.

Social Capital - Introduction

ConnectUs offers a seminar that explores two questions. The first question is "what is social capital?" Assuming we can come to a consensus answer to this question along the lines that have already been suggested by experts, the second and more interesting question to be addressed in this seminar is "how might systems be designed to prevent the erosion of, or encourage the development of, social capital?"

At ConnectUs we suggest that we begin by thinking of "social capital" as a comparable term to "human capital" which was itself created by similarity to the term "physical capital." Physical capital in an organization would be the things that are owned by the corporation - the typewriters, computers, buildings, manufacturing equipment, etc. The physical capital might be worth a lot or very little. There are a variety of well-defined measures by which the value of the physical capital might be defined.

The human capital in an organization consists of the workers in an organization. This capital may be worth a lot or a little. There are a variety of measures, not quite so simple of course, by which human capital might be measured. Intertwined with the human capital would seem to be another kind of capital. Take a first-rate salesman, whom we all agree represents a high level of human capital, and move him or her to another organization. It is not hard to imagine scenarios in which the salesman might fail. Why? Maybe in the new organization, the salesman did not have the contacts he or she had in the old organization. More specifically, we might imagine a widget salesman in Ontario who does a wonderful business, but fails to sell widgets in Alberta. We might further imagine that over the years in Ontario, the salesman developed relationships with clients that allowed for high sales, given overall competence. Moving to Alberta, the salesman now has to complete with another widget salesman who has extensive relationships with his or her clients. People continue, in a reasonably competitive market to work with the person they know and trust. These relationships of trust might represent social capital squandered when the salesman left Ontario, and an example of the competition between social and human capital in Alberta. As novices in this field, we might go on to speculate about some formula that would make sales ability a function of the human capital and the social capital embodied in the competing agents.

This is just one example of social capital. You might imagine many more personal examples. Think about the person who always seems to know someone with whom they can barter or get something wholesale. Why? Is it magic or is it something that might be described as social capital. We could call it friendships. We could call it paybacks. We could call it favours. We could call it social capital - investment in a relationship.

Thinking about Systems and Social Capital

We could speculate that the primary reason why computers are used in organizations is the preserve and enhance the physical capital of the organization. We suggest that more recently, with the development of the PC and graphical user interfaces, we have begun to use computers to preserve and enhance the human capital in our organizations. Information system designers recognize that it is important to design systems in such a way that the investment in workers is optimized. There are a lot of terms that are used to describe the value of workers to organizations, but few would argue that one legitimate term is "human capital". While one might find arguments in the literature about the best way to describe this corporate asset, it is clear that just as organizations have long invested in physical capital of one sort or another, now there is a recognition that organizations must invest in workers as well.

Salary is only one form of that investment. Other forms of investment include training and education, fringe benefits, quality of work life, etc. From an interactive system design perspective, there is a strong awareness that design has an impact on how humans use a system. Put more bluntly, system design can increase or decrease human capital.

If we can begin to define what constitutes social capital, we can define the tools that can preserve and enhance our social capital. The following are a few of the “tools” that help us increase our social capital.

Consider a simple electronic address book that reminds us about important dates related to siblings, spouses, and children. This tool acts as an assistant that allows us to do the things that actualize latent social intent -- sending the anniversary card we might otherwise forget.

Consider a Roberts Rules of Order Agent that takes over the problems associated with controlling a meeting. The agent help us build social capital by providing a fairer and less personal control of meetings avoiding the need to hurt feelings by not recognizing someone or having to cut someone off.

Consider a bulletin board that provides an environment for birds of a feather gatherings. That is, an environment where people can drop in and out and make new contacts as needed.

Consider a social periphery tool that allows people to get a sense of what their co-workers are doing in an unobtrusive way. Examples of this are several tools that provide slow scan video of offices and gathering places that allow the viewer to get a sense of when people are available for a conference. Take it a step further and have the user agents associated with each view portray some sense of the "readiness" of the portrayed participants to be engaged.

Consider a tool such as CASCADE and how it might aid self organizing groups based on data about what people are interested in. (For example, CASCADE provides a whiteboard tool that currently opens windows on active users. A more advanced version might open the whiteboard only on the displays of active users who have shown some interest, implicit or explicit, on the material that is to be the topic of the whiteboard session.

Social Capital is here to stay.

How connected are Canadians to each other?

The following is a quick quiz to determine your social capital.
• How many of your neighbours' first names do you know?
• How often do you attend parades or festivals?
• Do you volunteer at your kids' school? Or help out senior citizens?
• Do you trust your local police?
• Do you know who your local/regional/provincial federal representatives are?
• Do you attend religious services? Or go to the theatre?
• Do you sign petitions? Or attend neighbourhood meetings?
• Do you think the people running your community care about you?
• Can you make a difference?
• How often do you visit with friends or family?

ConnectUs is offering workshops on Social Capital across the country. The workshops assist organizations, industry, and government to recognize and evaluate their “human capital” and maximize their existing resources. Once measured, additional training is provided to update and create greater Social Capital.

ConnectUs is measuring Social Capital in communities throughout Ontario. In our survey, we look at how connected participants are to family, friends, neighbours and civic institutions on a local and national level. These connections are measurable Social Capital and are the glue that holds a community together and enables them to build bridges to others throughout the community.

For more information on Social Capital, to hold a workshop or participate in a survey - Call ConnectUs at 905-337-9578 or email

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