Summary of "Social Capital"

Summary of

Social Capital

By Brett Reeder

By David Halpern

Summary written by Brett Reeder, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Halpern, David, 2005, Social Capital, Polity Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom


According to Halpern, social capital "refers to the social networks, norms and sanctions that facilitate co-operative action among individuals and communities."(p39) Thus for Harplen, "any social structure--short of a fully formal institution--that facilitates cooperation and trust between people can be viewed as a form of social capital" (p292). This definition is a bit broader than many social capital scholars employ. Indeed, Halpern's version of social capital is virtually synonymous with "social fabric".

Though Halpern's definition is broad, like most social capitalists, he does not view social capital as inherently positive. Rather, "like other forms of capital, social capital may be used to achieve objectives that some may regard as 'bad'" (p23). As a concept, social capital aids our understanding of the importance of social networks and their implications, both positive and negative. However, it is a complex, multi-faceted concept, and as such, Halpern devotes the first chapter to discussing its dimensions.

Dimensions of Social Capital

Halpern identifies three "major cross-cutting dimensions" of social capital: components, levels of analysis, and function. There are three components of social capital: networks (the interconnecting relationships between people), norms (the rules, values and expectancies that govern social interaction), and sanctions (the punishments and rewards that enforce the norms). These three components interact, influence and reinforce each other. For example, networks are shaped by norms, which are enforced by sanctions, which are expressed through networks. Thus, the components of social capital, though distinct, are interrelated and dependent upon each other.

There are also three levels of analysis for social capital: micro, meso and macro (though many social capital scholars only recognize the meso-level as social capital). At the micro-level, social capital consists of close ties to family and friends. Meso-level social capital refers to communities and associational organizations. Macro-level social capital consists of state and national-level connections such as common language and traffic customs. According to Halpern, there is "some functional equivalence between the different levels" (p19) and declining social capital on one level can sometimes be compensated for increases on another level. For instance, if people in a society begin to have weaker ties to their family (declining micro-level social capital), this loss could be functionally offset by an increase in participation in community organizations (meso-level) or more fervent nationalism (macro-level).

Finally, there are three primary functions of social capital: bridging, bonding and linking. Bonding social capital refers to networks that are "inward looking and tend to reinforce exclusive identities and homogeneous groups"(p. 19). Bridging social capital refers to networks that are "outward looking and encompass people across diverse social cleavages"(p19). Linking social capital links people across asymmetric power relations and "may be provisionally viewed as a special form of bridging social capital that specifically concerns power--it is a vertical bridge across asymmetrical power and resources" (p. 25). These three functionalities exist simultaneously to varying degrees. For example, a black church may bond black people together, bridge sexual divisions and link with powerful politicians.

While the three aspects of each dimension interrelate internally, the three dimensions (components, levels of analysis and functions) also interrelate with each other externally. By conceiving of the dimensions as distinct, and at the same time recognizing the ways they interrelate, scholars can better focus their analyses. For example, one might look at the sanctions component of micro-level bonding social capital, such as a parent punishing a child. Alternatively, one could examine how bridging effects meso-level norms, such as how environmental organizations expectations shift as they interact with other environmental groups. Though these cross-cutting dimensions can help to focus analyses, they also warn us that "we should be wary about making snap global judgments about whether a society or community is high or low in social capital, because it might be high in one type but low in another" (p 26). Nonetheless, there are some qualitative trends in contemporary social capital worth noting.

Trends in, and Importance of, Social Capital

According to Halpern, and consistent with the findings of many scholars "by almost all measures, social capital declined in the USA over the period from 1960 to 2000...(but) this decline follows an earlier period of growth in US social capital stretching back to the beginning of the twentieth century" (p210). However, it appears that a handful of American social organizations have bucked this trend. These include self help groups, "checkbook-based" social movements, religious fundamentalist groups, and youth volunteerism. These counter-trends generally "involve low-cost, minimal wider social contact activities..." while the "cross-cutting, multi-faceted forms of social capital are almost universally in decline." (p211)

In the rest of the world, Australia and the UK seem to be following in the US's footsteps, but Sweden, Japan and the Netherlands are experiencing slightly increasing levels of social capital. Thus, while some countries are experiencing a net drop in social capital, others are not. Despite such divergent trends, some near-universal global tendencies have been identified. In general, most traditional forms of social capital (such as church groups and trade unions) are in decline globally. In many cases, these forms of social capital are being replaced by more issue-specific and less time-demanding forms.

The most explicit manifestation of this global social capital transformation lies in the virtually universal increase in individualistic social capital. However, this trend has taken different forms in different countries. Indeed, according to Halpern, "it would seem that all nations are shifting towards a certain kind of individualism, but that the character of this individualism differs greatly between nations" (p. 223). Some countries, such as Sweden, are "expressing their growing individuality within a lifestyle that maintains and enhances the connections between them" (p223), what Rothstein calls 'solidaristic individualism'. Other countries, such as the US and Australia, seem to be adopting a more fragmenting form that Halpern has termed 'egoistic individualism'.

These trends and transformations are important because social capital and the form it takes directly affects many aspects of our life. Halpern identifies five of these: economic performance, health and well-being, crime, education, and good governance. High levels of positive forms of social capital generally positively affect each of these, but in different ways. For instance, economic performance is most positively affected by bridging social capita,l especially at the macro-level. On the other hand, bonding social capital at the micro-level is most important for maintaining good health. However, some forms of social capital can have negative effects. For instance, excessive bonding social capital coupled with weak bridging social capital often leads to corruption in government and increased crime rates.

Because of its importance to economic performance, health, crime, education and government (among other things), shifts in social capital should be of significant concern. This is particularly true for the Anglo nations where a general decline has been detected, but even in countries like Sweden ,where net social capital is increasing, it's shifting form may be problematic.


Due to its multi-dimensional nature, it should not be a surprise that there is no single cause for shifting social capital. Indeed many casual agents have been identified on each level of analysis. At the micro-level, social capital is affected by personality type, age, family, class, education, work, religion, and consumption habits. At the meso-level, social capital is affected by civil society, school, community, ethnic and social heterogeneity, mobility, transportation habits/infrastructure, and urban design. Finally, at the macro-level, social capital is directly affected by history and culture, social structure and hierarchy, labor-market trends and the size and nature of the welfare state.

In his initial effort to pull this litany of causal factors together, Halpern developed the 'Catherine Wheel'. The Catherine Wheel consists of macro-level factors which create "a stable pattern of collective investment in public goods, such as education and the welfare state, that attenuate economic and social status differentials, and that in turn create an environment that stimulate social trust, community and associational life"(p. 276). At the heart or "axle, of the wheel stand the society's common social values, such as mutual respect, trust and consideration of others"(p. 276).

Essentially, the Catherine Wheel describes public practices based around values of community and aimed at societal cooperation, which interact and reinforce each other in the creation of social capital. If such public practices are not implemented, the wheel will stop and social capital will stagnate and eventually atrophy. Additionally, if community is not valued, the wheel may spin the "opposite direction," actively undermining social capital.

In this work, Halpern extends this model by adding micro and meso Catherine Wheels and describing the wheel as dynamic and changing over time. While there is likely to be only one or a few macro-level wheels based on governmental policy and popular politics, there are many meso-level wheels, based on community structure, and countless micro-level wheels, based on individual social practice. Further, these wheels operate on different timetables as "governments and their programs stand and fall over periods of a few year...(but) at the micro level, the cycles operate primarily along generational lines"(p278). These micro-, meso- and macro- wheels interact and spiral together forming "a thread of continuity over time"(p. 278). Harplen describes this process as "rather like a rope made of thousands of tiny causal threads entwined together into broader cords, which are then in turn bound together to form the rope itself" (p279) . Thus, Halpern envisions social capital as the result of a complex weaves of micro-, meso- and macro- causal factors.

Policy Toward Social Capital

Despite the fact that "social capital has now been shown to relate to nearly all the key policy objectives of modern societies and government, and even to the life satisfaction of the population" (p285) there are those who understandably argue against actively trying to encourage social capital development. After all, it is an incredibly complex and very personal aspect of human life, which is arguably outside of the state's authority, or even ability, to influence. Indeed, there are many areas of life that have major impacts on policy outcomes that are largely left to the individual, such as diet and religious beliefs.

Halpern rejects this view, giving several reasons why social capital is not an aspect of human life that governments should ignore. First, he believes that 'market failure' arguments apply because social capital, as a quasi-public good, is vulnerable to systematic under-investment by rational individual actors. Second, 'equity' arguments are thought to apply, since unequal access to social capital will be exacerbated without government intervention. Third, he argues that "even if social capital once looked after itself, changing social and economic conditions may have undermined this delicate equilibrium" (p. 286). Finally, he argues that intervention is a good idea because it has been shown to work in the past, even if it was not for the expressed purpose of effecting social capital.

In this vein, Halpern points out that many of the policy decisions necessary to effect social capital are already being made. For instance, education tends to increase social capital and most "developed countries" already have public education. What's missing is not the decisions necessary to effect social capital, but what is under consideration during these decisions. Thus, the biggest policy recommendation Halpern has is to consider how policy affects social capital and actively avoid unnecessarily destroying it. He imagines this being done in explicit terms, much like environmental impact statements are done today. Such careful consideration of social capital might help to avert accidental, but tragic, destruction of social capital. For example, the 'housing projects' of the 1990's devastated bonding social capital for thousands (though arguably aiding them economically), largely because social capital was not considered. Such tragedies could be avoided with effective social capital audits.

Additionally, social capital deficits and toxicities could be identified through social capital audits. Because different forms of social capital have different impacts, too much or too little of any one form is generally not a good thing. Thus, a "vitamin model" is needed; in which people have access to a diverse set of social capital forms. The development of such a model may require direct intervention in many areas of public policy such a public funding for mentoring programs or zoning for mixed use.


Halpern's conception of social capital is dependent upon his three "major cross cutting dimensions": components, levels of analysis, and function. Most contemporary social capital scholars use concepts similar to Harplin's components and functions in their analysis, but often limit social capital to meso-level traditional communities and associational organizations. In contrast, Halpern broadens the concept of social capital to include micro-level close personal ties and macro-level culture and state policy.

This broad scope has lead Halpern to slightly different conclusions than many social capital scholars. Rather than seeing a general decline in social capital, Halpern sees a transformation of social capital. While he acknowledges a decline in certain forms of social capital (especially traditional forms of meso-level social capital), he identifies an increase in new forms of individualistic social capital, which often exist on a different 'level of analysis'. Thus, Halpern is not concerned with a general decline of social capital, but rather the ramifications of its transformation.

This transformation is important because different forms of social capital have been shown to affect economic prosperity, health and wellbeing, crime, education and government legitimacy differently. In reviewing contemporary trends, he is relatively optimistic about the Swedish style transition in social capital towards "solidaristic individualism" which maintains social connection while expressing individuality. However, he is not convinced that the more fragmenting American "egoistic individualism" will have a positive effect on society.

To offset this potentially devastating shift in American social capital, Halpern believes the state and individuals should pursue a policy of active intervention. The most important piece of such policy is simply to "consider social capital, along with many other factors, when drawing up and implementing policy." (p288) However, he also argues for active attempts at increasing positive forms of social capital. Though he suggests several ways this could be done, he is adamant that new and creative ways to expand and improve social capital at all levels must be developed.