Understanding Social Capital

By Eric Swanson

Robert D. Putnam (author of Bowling Alone and Better Together) defines social capital as “social networks, norms of reciprocity, mutual assistance and trustworthiness.” Like many others he is convinced that social capital is just as important or perhaps even more important than physical, financial and human capital. In an essay entitled “The Prosperous Community,” he quotes Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776), regarding the consequences of life without social capital:

Your corn is ripe today; mine will be so tomorrow. ‘Tis profitable for us both, that I should labor with you today, and that you should aid me tomorrow. I have no kindness for you, and know you have as little for me. I will not, therefore, take any pains upon your account; and should I labor with you upon my own account, in expectation of a return, I know I should be disappointed, and that I should in vain depend upon your gratitude. Here then I leave you to labor alone; you treat me in the same manner. The seasons change; and both of us lose our harvests for want of mutual confidence and security.

Social capital is the sense of mutuality that we feel for one another that expresses itself in trust and care. It is your good being bound together with my good. Unlike financial and human capital that can be infused very quickly into a city or community, social capital is built over time … and only over time. It accrues from time spent together in bowling leagues and soccer clubs, and Scouts and PTA meetings and even the local barbershop. The results of social capital are seen in neighborhood watch programs, picking up a neighbor’s kid from school, knowing what’s going on in schools. It is looking out for one another…my good wrapped up in your good. It is in communities with strong social capital that forms the basis for the wise investment of financial and human capital.

The Importance of Social Capital

Social capital is essential to building healthy communities. In Better Together Putnam writes:

The benefits of social capital spill beyond the people immediately involved in the network and can be used for many other purposes. The more neighbors who know one another by name, the fewer crimes a neighborhood as a whole will suffer. A child born in a state whose residents volunteer, vote, and spend time with friends is less likely to be born underweight, less likely to drop out of school, and less likely to kill or be killed than the same child—no richer or poorer—born in another state whose residents do not. Society as a whole benefits enormously from the social ties forged by those who choose connective strategies in pursuit of their particular goals.

Community Bonds

Robert Putnam points out there are two types of social capital. The first is “bonding social capital.” Bonding capital is the strength of the relationships between the members of a group of people—a family, an affinity group, ethnic group, club or church. Bonding capital is what Putnam calls the “Super Glue” of society. It is what holds us together. It is measured by the number of neighbors who know each other by name; by how many vote or volunteer or bring meals to their neighbors or shovel a neighbor’s walk. It is the social capital displayed in the Old Testament–Judges 1:3 – “Then the men of Judah said to the Simeonites their brothers, ‘Come up with us into the territory allotted to us, to fight against the Canaanites. We in turn will go with you into yours.” You help us with harvesting our corn today and we will help you harvest your corn tomorrow. Social capital is seen in the willingness to share resources with others. 2 Kings contains the story of the four lepers who take their chances by leaving the camp of the famished Israelites and stumble into an abandoned camp of the Arameans where they find storehouses of food—steaks, chops, ribs and the like. After eating their fill they come to their senses and say to one another, “We’re not doing right. This is a day of good news and we are keeping it to ourselves…. Let’s go at once and report this to the royal palace” (2 Kings 7:9). Soon afterwards everyone had his fill. This is bonded capital at work.

A church is a place to build bonded capital. It is a community of belonging. It is a place where people can be made to feel they are part of a family. A church provides, what Ray Oldenburg in The Great Good Place, describes as a “third place”—“a place that is neither work nor home, where people can spend time together.” Putnam writes, “Historically, the black church has been the most bounteous treasure-house of social capital for African Americans.” The church provides opportunities for relationships and connections — a place to build organizing and leadership skills. The church is a place where people can be restored to health in the context of a caring community. But bonding social capital is not enough.

Community Bridges

A second type of social capital is what Putnam calls “bridging social capital.” Whereas bonded capital is the strength within a social segment of society, bridging capital is the strength between the segments of society. He writes, “If you get sick, the people who bring you chicken soup are likely to represent your bonding social capital. On the other hand, a society that has only bonding social capital will look like Belfast or Bosnia — segregated into mutually hostile camps. So a pluralist democracy requires lots of bridging social capital, not just the bonding variety.” Bridging capital is harder to build than bonding capital since people normally prefer to hang out with people most like them. Bridging capital is necessary for diverse groups to work together … for genuine reconciliation to occur…for relationships between groups to heal.

In my community of Boulder Colorado, for the past couple of years, I have been meeting with a diverse group of leaders from the Christian, Buddhist, B’hai, Jewish and Moslem faith communities around issues in our community that we mutually care about. We bind together based, not around our diverse theology, but our common love for the city. In a world that will be more and more divided by religious factions, our work is really a capital investment in our community. One “payoff” of this trust was seen recently when 70 Jewish leaders attended the premier showing of Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” partially because of the bridges of trust built between diverse groups over the years. Bridging capital not only can be built between diverse groups but it is between diverse groups where it is most important.

Turning Bonded Capital into Bridging Capital

This brings us to the value of externally focused churches. Churches, perhaps more than any other institutions, are in the position to turn the strength of their bonded capital into the power of bridging capital. Externally focused churches are internally strong (which builds bonded capital) but outwardly focused (which builds bridging capital). They measure their effectiveness not merely by attendance but by the transformational effect they are having on their communities. Externally focused churches have the capacity to be the conduit to the people and the various segments within the community. They don’t need to “control” any segment but can be a servant to all segments by playing this bridge-building role. As churches partner with people in neighborhoods, schools, human service agencies, business and government agencies, they are creating bridging capital within these neighborhoods, not just by linking the entities of a neighborhood to the church but helping to link the entities to one another. It is the church’s care and love that build bridges through tutoring programs, ministering to the battered women in the safe house, hosting job fairs and opening day care facilities. As churches seek to be agents of community transformation, they should not ignore their abilities to bring social capital to a community—building community bonds and community bridges. Putnam agrees. “In any comprehensive strategy for improving the plight of America’s communities, rebuilding social capital is as important as investing in human and physical capital.” Whether you realize it or not, you are in a great position to improve your community through building social capital.

Rev. Eugene Rivers once took on a drug dealer in Boston and asked him what he was doing wrong as a pastor. Why was he losing the battle for the kids on the street? “It’s simple” the drug dealer replied. “When Johnny goes to school in the morning, I’m there and you’re not. When he comes home from school in the afternoon, I’m there and you’re not. When his grandmother sends him out for a loaf of bread at the corner store, I’m there and you’re not. I win, you lose.” – Barbara Elliott, 2004: Street Saints, p. 21.)

What is the scope of faith-based work in America? Sociologist Ram Cnaan has devoted the past ten years to finding out what religious congregations in America provide. The Israeli-born social scientist, a secular Jew…[came to America to discover] how society provides social services. was [perplexed] to discover that America doesn’t provide these services through the government, as is usually the case in European countries he had written about …. When he came to the United States he asked people, “Who provides social services?” No one knew what to answer. So he said, “Six o’clock in the evening, you’ve been evicted from your home, you can’t eat, where would you go?” People would pause and say, “Well, to a homeless shelter, or I’d go to a soup kitchen.” He assumed these were government agencies. When he found out how many of them were run by religious congregations in the private sector he was intrigued.

Cnaan has documented … 350,000 different congregations in the US. Religious congregations spend $36 billion providing services in America today …. Cnaan estimates the annual value of the work each congregation provides in helping others is on average $184,000. He found that 93% of religious congregations provide at least one program of service for the community. And most often, the beneficiaries were poor neighborhood children who had no affiliation with the church.”


  • Elliott, Barbara, (2004) Street Saints.
  • Robert D. Putnam and Lewis M. Feldstein, Better Together—Restoring the American Community, Simon and Schuster, New York (2003).
  • The Prosperous Community—Social Capital and Public Life by Robert D. Putnam.

View Eric Swanson’s Powerpoint presentation on Social Capital. (.ppt format)

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