1995 Robert Putnam
Social capital as an active ingredient of social welfare
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Robert Putnam (1941) is political scientist and professor at the Harvard University. Although he is not the inventor of the concept of social capital, it is through his work that it gained wide recognition and invaded, among others, the social work profession. Before Putnam, the concept was used by social scientists like Durkheim, Bourdieu and Coleman. Putnam launched social capital outside the world of sociology through his 1995 article Bowling Alone. Some years later, in 2000, the fame of the concept skyrocketed through his book with the same title.

In both his article as well as his book Putnam developed three arguments. First he introduces the concept of social capital as an important ingredient of the quality of our society. It involves social networks, involvement between people and towards society, and trust. Social capital is critical for economic prosperity. This reverses the traditional thinking: social wellbeing is not the result of economic growth, but the basis for it!
A further distinction is added: bonding social capital implies belonging to a group, having social contacts; bridging social capital involves having social contacts across group borders, e.g. between ethnic groups; and linking social capital involves participation in society. Research indicates social capital is, just like economic capital, unevenly distributed in society. Marginalised groups seem to have low social capital, especially where it comes to bridging social capital.
Putnam subsequently argues that social capital is important, not just as a goal in itself, but also because it contributes to public safety, better health and increased levels of (informal) care. Finally, he outlines a whole range of developments that indicate social capital has been in decline for several decades. This includes e.g. the falling number of memberships with trade unions or churches, the declining participation rates at elections, and the increased tendency to sport on your own rather than as member of a club. Hence also the title of the article and the book. The individualisation of bowling stands symbol for a more overall process of individualisation. This erosion of social capital is reason for worries and should result in investments in renewing social capital. Ways how this can be done, and is done, are described by Putnam in a more recent book: Better together.

Just as in other disciplines, the concept of social capital has invaded the social work profession and renewed the interest in social networks and their effects on social support and social quality of life for both individuals as well as communities. One influence is e.g. that bonding social capital is good to get by, but bridging social capital is excellent to get ahead. In other words, to improve the situation of a person or neighbourhood, new social contacts with other groups are to be preferred above contacts with very similar persons or neighbourhoods. Social capital seems to go hand in hand with social improvement. The concept also fits nicely within the ecological tradition in social work and the person-in-environment approach.

This text was written by Jan Steyaert
Date of first publication: 04-2013
Date of latest revision: 06-2019

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  • External link Landhäußer, S., & Ziegler, H. (2006), Social capital. Social work & society, 4(1)
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