1998 INSNA


A SOCNET Discussion on the Origins of the Term Social Capital


Edited by Stephen P. Borgatti
Carroll School of Management, Boston College



On January 7th, 1997, Michael Lichter posted a message to the SOCNET listserv asking about the origins of the term social capital. This was not the first time social capital had been discussed in that forum, but this particular topic sparked special interest. Although social capital in general continues to be discussed on SOCNET, the discussion about the origins of the term ended on June 11th, 1997. People interested in discussing the topic further should note that a listserv has been set up for that purpose: contact Karl van Meter ( for information.

I have edited the series of messages for spelling, punctuation and grammar, and have printed them here in chronological order of reception. To conserve space, I have removed signatures and personal comments.

From: Social Network Researchers on behalf of Michael I. Lichter
Sent: Tuesday, January 07, 1997 10:10 PM
To: Multiple recipients of list SOCNET
Subject: Genesis of Social Capital

Would anybody venture to guess when the term "social capital" was first used, where, and by whom? Bourdieu was the first person I know of to use it, but the earliest reference I have is DISTINCTION, in 1984, and I would guess he had been using the term for at least a decade by then.

How do people on this list feel about "social capital"? I've noticed that most of the scholars using the term are not, per se, social network researchers.

From: Social Network Researchers on behalf of David M Krackhardt

Sent: Wednesday, January 08, 1997 12:31 PM

To: Multiple recipients of list SOCNET

Subject: Re: Genesis of Social Capital


Michael, I anticipate it will become standard terminology in the social network community. It has had some heavy hitters behind it, most notably Jim Coleman and Ron Burt. And, it is such a catchy phrase __ it might even replace "weak ties" as the favorite term in the field.




From: Social Network Researchers on behalf of Bill Stevenson

Sent: Wednesday, January 08, 1997 1:16 PM

To: Multiple recipients of list SOCNET

Subject: Re: Genesis of Social Capital


David, I agree completely that social capital is a new buzzword in social networks as well as other fields such as Organizational Behavior. But why is it so catchy? On the one hand, I think it is because we non_economists can sound like economists and can be serious bottom_line type researchers. Thus, we no longer have neighbors, friends, or sympathetic colleagues, we have social capital. On the other hand, social capital contains an implicit critique of the type of economic thinking which does not move beyond the assumption that the social world works solely on the principle that "greed is good" and the accumulation of capital as monetary wealth. This critique falters however when theorists start talking about investments in social capital and strategies for individuals to follow to manipulate their social networks to increase social capital.




From: Social Network Researchers on behalf of Scott L. Engle

Sent: Wednesday, January 08, 1997 5:51 PM

To: Multiple recipients of list SOCNET

Subject: Re: Genesis of Social Capital


Michael, in Chapter 12, entitled "Social Capital," of Foundations of Social Theory, James Coleman credited G. Loury with originating the term. The cite is:


Loury, G. 1977. A dynamic theory of racial income differences. Chapter 8 of Women, minorities, and employment discrimination, ed. P.A. Wallace and A. le Mund. Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books


Coleman also cited Bourdieu (1980) and Flap and de Graff (1986) as early users of the term. Based on Coleman's description, Loury's construct is very similar to the way "social capital" has been used by Burt and others; i.e., a set of useful resources that are vested in relations and in social organization.


I weigh in with those who find it a useful term in describing the value of specific relations and the value in the structure of those relations. I've found that it helps my students and others grasp much of what we network_types are about, esp. when set against financial and human capital, a la Burt. I suspect our challenge will be in keeping the term useful and at least reasonably specific __ so most of us can agree on wwhat we mean when we use it. I'm reminded of what Nitin Nohria had to say about the loss of the term "culture."




From: Social Network Researchers on behalf of Lewis A. Friedland

Sent: Wednesday, January 08, 1997 11:23 PM

To: Multiple recipients of list SOCNET

Subject: social capital


The term social capital was first used by Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961 in reference to networks in urban neighborhoods: "These networks are a city's irreplaceable social capital. Whenever the capital is lost, from whatever cause, the income from it disappears, never to return until and unless new capital is slowly and chancily accumulated" (p. 138).


It was picked up by Glenn Loury in 1977 and James Coleman in 1986. I have written several papers that include reviews of the concept with discussions of social capital in relation to Laumann and Fischer if anyone is interested.




From: Social Network Researchers on behalf of Barry Wellman

Sent: Wednesday, January 08, 1997 1:52 PM

To: Multiple recipients of list SOCNET

Subject: Re: Genesis of Social Capital


Michael, in one of his many essays pertaining to social capital, Robert Putnam (Harvard, Kennedy School) gives his account of origins. I forget the specifics __ and which article __ but I am pretty sure it was unBourdieu. I'm sorry, you'll have to search for it yourself.


I agree that many social capital folks don't talk network, and vice_versa The 'cepts are complimentary. Two network folks who did use the term are (a) James Coleman & (b) myself & Scot Wortley in our "Different Folks from Different Folks" (AJS, 1990). We cite the Coleman usage there.


When you've finished your research on this, I'd appreciate a final summary. I think Bob Putnam would also.




From: Social Network Researchers on behalf of JD Eveland

Sent: Wednesday, January 08, 1997 10:00 AM

To: Multiple recipients of list SOCNET

Subject: Re: Genesis of Social Capital


As someone noted earlier, a lot of the dialogue in this area originated in economics, particularly the "human capital theory" of Gary Becker. It's worth looking back at his work to see how memes change as they migrate from field to field...




From: Social Network Researchers on behalf of Holly Arrow

Sent: Wednesday, January 08, 1997 3:23 PM

To: Multiple recipients of list SOCNET

Subject: Re: Genesis of Social Capital


On Wed, 8 Jan 1997, Bill Stevenson wrote: "This critique falters however when theorists start talking about investments in social capital and strategies for individuals to follow to manipulate their social networks to increase social capital. "


Well, any metaphor highlights some things and obscures other. Machiavellian behavior is very nicely analyzed by just this notion __ people treating social ties in a self_interested, "maximizing" sort of way. But we can apply other notions that have emerged from the critique of rational actor, optimization models. Some people take a satisficing approach to social capital.


Extending the model to classic economic paradigms like prisoner's dilemma and resource depletion: People are faced with social capital dilemmas in which short_term losses (costs of developing relationships) translate into long_term gains. The emergence of cooperation can be explained by a richer model if we include both economic goods and social "goods" as outcomes. And so on.




From: Social Network Researchers on behalf of Ronald L. Breiger

Sent: Friday, January 10, 1997 2:10 PM

To: Multiple recipients of list SOCNET

Subject: Re: Genesis of Social Capital


A 1972 source for "social capital" is: Pierre Bourdieu, "Esquisse d'une the'orie de la pratique. Pre'ce'de'e de trois e'tudes d'ethnologie kabyle." Geneve: Droz, pp. 227_243.


As Loic Wacquant notes on p. 119 (n. 73) of Bourdieu and Wacquant, "An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology" (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1992), Bourdieu's whole work may be read as a hunt for the varied forms and effects of capital. As to a definition, Bourdieu (ibid., 1992, p. 119) states that "social capital is the sum of the resources, actual or virtual, that accrue to an individual or a group by virtue of possessing a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition."




From: Social Network Researchers on behalf of Xavier de Souza Briggs

Sent: Friday, January 10, 1997 4:32 PM

To: Multiple recipients of list SOCNET

Subject: Re: Genesis of Social Capital


Ulf Hannerz, the Swedish anthropologist who studied poor urban neighborhoods, also used the term. By social capital, he referred to the resources reflected in favors that friends and acquaintances did for one another as part of coping with poverty.


Hannerz, Ulf. 1969. Soulside: Inquiries into ghetto, culture and community. New York: Columbia.


So, so far I trace:


jacobs (1961) > hannerz (1969) > loury (1977) > coleman (1986) > bourdieu (1992?) > putnam (1993)

As someone who thinks mainly about urban inequality, I propose that we care about 2 types of social capital when discussing individuals and opportunity in particular:

Support Capital _ a la Carol Stack's (1974) "all our kin," which helps people cope with problems posed by their circumstances ("get by"). this type is very often provided by socially similar others; and

leverage Capital _ a la Granovetter's (1974) "getting a job" or Burt (various), which helps people change their life chances or create and take advantage of opportunities ("get ahead"). This type calls for having diverse ties, whether weak or strong.

Jeremy Boissevain, social anthropologist, didn't use the term, but his "friends of friends" book (1974) is the most engaging and detailed account of how people think about, secure, and make use of the leverage type of social capital. Irony is that he used Sicily, which came up short on social capital by Putnam's use of the term, to show how important social capital is for individual, as opposed to societal problems, and how one acquires it. this, I would suggest, underlines the importance of clarifying what one takes "social capital" to mean, and what one considers an indicator of some particular type of social capital, in a given context.


From: Social Network Researchers on behalf of Sam Leven

Sent: Friday, January 10, 1997 4:50 PM

To: Multiple recipients of list SOCNET

Subject: Re: Social Capital

See the new book by Athol Fitzgibbon, "Adam Smith's System". The old SOB understood that community, interaction, and trust underlie effective economic action.


From: Social Network Researchers on behalf of John Boyd

Sent: Friday, January 10, 1997 9:28 PM

To: Multiple recipients of list SOCNET

Subject: Genesis of Social Capital

When this fad passes, it is at least clear what the next one will be: the "Exodus of Social Capital"__this has at least One of the same "heavy hitters" behind it.


From: Social Network Researchers on behalf of Barry Wellman

Sent: Friday, January 10, 1997 5:52 PM

To: Multiple recipients of list SOCNET

Subject: Re: Genesis of Social Capital

Thanks Xav for your info & time line. [However, my research shows that it goes back to Jane Austen's Miss Dashwood in _Sense and Sensibility__ who when asked about her trip to London, said "Well, it was quite a social capital." ;_) In fact, all of Jane's books are about getting and spending social capital.

Two somewhat more serious comments:


Your use of the symbol ">" in the timeline suggests actual linkage. While I am comfortable that Hannerz read Jane Jacobs, I wonder if some of the others cited actually read/used their immediate predecssor.

You cad, you left me & Scot Wortley out. I refer you to "Different Strokes from Different Folks," Amer J of Sociology, March 1990, p. 561:

"Community ties with friends and relatives provide social support that transcends narrow reciprocity. They make up much of the SOCIAL CAPITAL people use to deal with daily life, seize opportunities, and reduce uncertainties (Kadushin 1981). They underpin the informal arrangements curcial for a household's survival, expansion, and reproduction (Pahl 1984). Hence, they are both a product and a cause of role relationships."

The cites are to:


Charles Kadushin. 1981. "Notes on expectations of Reward in N_Person Networks." pp. 235_54 in Blau & Merton, Continuities in Structural Inquiry;

Ray Pahl, Divisions of Labour.


I regret that I don't have these worthy tomes handy to check what they actually said.

As a player in this, I know I read Jane Jacobs (my current Toronto neighbor) within a year of her book coming out, but I had sure forgotten her use of the "sc" term. Same for Hannerz (not my neighbor.) I think I discovered Coleman after I wrote my piece, because I don't cite him here but I do cite him on "sc" in a later piece (I recall). I confess to having never heard of Loury, to having heard of but not having read much of Bourdieu (especially in the original Provencal), and to reading Putnam (but as his 1993 date tells you, only after I wrote my stuff). On the other hand, it is extremely possible I lifted the term from somewhere besides Charles K, while reading or talking with someone.

All this, Xav et al, is to be careful of ">" implications if they mean "lead to" or "took from".

And to start a somewhat different thread, in talking yesterday with grad student Sherry Bartram here, we worked out two different uses of "social capital." One, as I, Jim Coleman & some others have used it is to talk about the resources that individuals have. "He is amassing lots of sc." But Bob Putnam is interested in whether social systems have lots of sc floating around in them (so they'll be more civically active in a de Tocquevillian sense, etc.) It's a different level of analysis.


From: Social Network Researchers on behalf of Robert D. Putnam

Sent: Sunday, January 12, 1997 10:46 PM

To: Multiple recipients of list SOCNET

Subject: Re: Genesis of Social Capital

As an interested lurker on SocNet, I've much enjoyed the series of posts about the origins of the term "social capital." In the spirit of bibliographic completeness, I add another early use of the term, brought to my attention by the author himself in discussion after a talk last spring in which I had offered the usual attributions to Jacobs, Loury, Bourdieu, and Coleman that have been cited in earlier contributions to this thread. (My own guess is that the term was probably independently invented by a number of different scholars in different fields, each quite unaware of the others; given that, it is striking that there is a family resemblance among all the individual coinages.)

In an essay entitled "Cognitive Dissonance in Economics," published in Normengeleitetes Verhalten in den Sozialwissenschaften (Berlin: Duncker und Humblot, 1984), 61_81 (citation at p. 62), Ekkehart Schlicht [a professor of economics at Ludwig Maximilians Universitaet in Munich] wrote:

"It is obviously very important for the efficiency of any economic system that people obey the rules even if unobserved since this saves control costs, and their desire to appear to themselves as law_abiding citizens is a very important economic asset and can be considered as a kind of *social capital*__one might speak of 'moral capital' just in the same sense as v. Weizsacker speaks of the "organizational capital" of a society as embodying the value of the organizational structures present within an economy."

In a personal communication to me (intended to clarify his own claim to have coined the term), Schlicht attributes his inspiration to the German economist von Weizsacker and earlier to Alfred Marshall's idea of "organization as an agent of production." Schlicht was apparently ignorant of the Jacobs and Bourdieu usages and believes that Loury and Coleman got their inspiration from him, via a seminar at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. In intellectual pursuits, as in warfare, success (or purported success) has many fathers and mothers.

To follow up the related thread that Barry Wellman started, it is worth noting that Schlicht's use of the term, like those of Coleman and Jacobs (and derivatively, me), emphasizes the collective_good facet of social capital__I can benefit from broader social networks and the associated norms of reciprocity and trust, even when I did not help produce and do not own those assets. By contrast, Loury, Burt, Briggs, and Portes (among many others) emphasize the private_good facet__how *my* connections can help me. I think that Bourdieu belongs more in this second category, but I'm not certain. Barry Wellman puts Jim Coleman in the second, private_good category, but Jim's discussion of "The Public Good Aspect of Social Capital" at pp. 315_318 of Foundations, as well as his canonical example of child safety in Jerusalem, suggests the opposite. My own view is that those two usages are complementary, not competitive, but others on this list, more expert than I in sociology and network analysis, may have a different view.

On the other hand, I agree with Scott Engle about the dangers of too sloppy a delimitation of the term, especially since it is now increasing used by practitioners in several different social sciences. Since this concept is useful (if it is) primarily as a framework for discussing adjacencies among different disciplines__broadly speaking, the implications of social networks for economics, politics, public health, and so on__it will be interesting to see whether the term and the incipient subfield it signals can survive the tensions inevitably associated with interdisciplinary discourse, or whether sociologists will feel that non_sociologists have misappropriated the term. In my view, much theoretical rigor would be gained if some more systematic network analysis could be integrated into the current discussions of social capital, but that will depend in large part on the work of subscribers to this list.

Thanks for letting an outsider borrow your soapbox (and your concept) for a moment.


From: Social Network Researchers on behalf of Robert D. Putnam

Sent: Friday, May 30, 1997 12:56 PM

To: Multiple recipients of list SOCNET

Subject: Re: social capital

I've been replying separately to these individual requests, since I happened to keep a set of the earlier correspondence. To save myself further time, I'm reposting all the messages to socnet, along with a related, but shorter exchange between myself and my colleague Xavier de Souza Briggs.

I should add that out of idle curiosity I've been collecting a file of claimed origins, some apparently true, others apparently false. (Under the latter heading, for example, it seems that John Bates Clark, noted 19th century American economist, borrowed the term from the Austrian economist von Bohn_Bawerk, but used it not at all in the current sense, but in the sense of collectively employed physical capital.) Quite aside from such false "origins," however, I'd guess from my cursory investigations that this term in approximately its current sense has been "invented" independently at least several times over the last three decades.

If anyone has any further insights, I'd be glad to hear from you.


From: Social Network Researchers on behalf of Michael I. Lichter

Sent: Thursday, June 05, 1997 12:15 AM

To: Multiple recipients of list SOCNET

Subject: Origins of "social capital"

If I'm not mistaken, Bob Putnam said last week that he was going to send the list a compendium of responses to the question posed a while back about the origins of the term "social capital". Since I haven't seen anything since, I figured I'd post the version I sent to a colleague a while back. By the way, a couple of people asked me at the time to send them a summary of what I found, but since I didn't do any research outside of the list there wasn't anything new to report.

Below is the query I sent to the list and a selection of the messages that were sent in reply. [Omitted -- ed.] My summary is that Jane Jacobs' 1961 reference to "social capital" is the earliest anybody remembers seeing. Ulf Hannerz in 1969 used the term in a way more consistent with contemporary usage, and Bourdieu apparently first used it in 1972. A few others also used it in the early 1970s, well before Coleman came on the scene.

It was commented that Jane Austen, Adam Smith, and Niccolo Machiavelli all well understood that social ties are important in generating other kinds of "capital". I think the mention of Austen is particularly interesting; the creation, maintenance and use of "social capital" is clearest (and possibly the most clearly instrumental) among the nobility (at least Bourdieu thinks so). On the other hand, it seems to me that the nobility also illustrate some of the problems of the concept, in that their uses of social capital are often more political than economic, per se. Another aside: while most Americans seem to think of social capital as being bound up in ties between people who know each other, Bourdieu sees titles of nobility as being forms of concentrated social capital. In this view, it is to some extent true that the larger number of people who know you while you do not know them, the larger your stock of social capital. (In the U.S., it would be celebrity rather than nobility.)

See especially the Briggs, Wellman (second), and Putnam messages.


From: Social Network Researchers on behalf of Xavier_Briggs/FS/
Sent: Thursday, June 05, 1997 7:09 PM
To: Multiple recipients of list SOCNET
Subject: Your note _ Origins of "social capital"

Michael Many thanks for posting your compendium of our social capital exchange (sic) from a few months back. my own feeble attempt created something colorful but untidy.

Your thoughts on "nobility" and "celebrity" fit well, it seems to me, with Coleman's (1990) broadest treatment of "social capital" in foundations ..."those features of social structure..." If we take things like status and even group membership itself to be facets of social structure, then it makes sense that your celebrity as, say, a moonlighting rock star _ when you're not sociologizing? _ would be a resource because of what people you don't even know might do for you, also that my wife continually finds that other African_Americans riding the subway here in boston go out of their way to nod or acknowledge her _ a fellow group member (black), though a stranger, and someone whom the "nodder" in question would be just a little more likely to trust or aid if approached. (The ridership on her particular commute is overwhelmingly white Anglo_American.)

This can lead to some awfully broad usages of "social capital," surely, but many facets of day_to_day social exchange would remain obscured if we were only interested in concrete personal ties. One need not know someone to be "tied" to them.

I must make another pitch for Boissevain's "friends of friends," a book now out_of_print, which Charles Kadushin made me read in his course on social networks at CUNY some time back. The discussion on "being a broker" is absolutely enchanting sociology. Speaks to your points...and I need to look at Austen and the other ancestors of the term, I suppose...does anyone know if the classic (i.e., Greco_Roman) treatises on governance and politics included references to what we now term "social capital"? Or Hebrew or other ancient books?

(I've been inclined toward the ancient ever since exciting my students with the thought that "suburbs," places that people go precisely to get away from the noise and such of the city, are, even by a purists definition, at least 2,500 years old. Ancient Babylonian texts refer to such places.)


From: Social Network Researchers on behalf of Robert D. Putnam
Sent: Wednesday, June 11, 1997 2:25 PM
To: Multiple recipients of list SOCNET
Subject: "Social Capital"__another "origin"

I hope that this message makes it through to the net, since the concatenation of previous postings on this topic that I tried to post last week did not. (Thanks to Michael Lichter for picking up the ball.)

By chance, a sharp_eyed research assistant of mine, Brad Clarke, has just discovered an unexpectedly early usage of "social capital" in very much our contemporary sense. Indeed, the passage is startling prescient, including the now_familiar distinction between the public_good and private_good effects of social capital, as well as a discussion of the civic consequences of entertainment gatherings [bowling leagues?]. The following quotation appears in a book by L. J. Hanifan, <italic>The Community Center</italic> (Boston: Silver, Burdette and Co, 1920), pp. 78_9. [The "community center movement," within which Hanifan was writing, was a prominent part of the Progressive Era.]

"Social capital defined. In the use of the phrase 'social capital' no reference here is made to the usual acceptation of the term 'capital,' expect in a figurative sense. We not refer to real estate or to personal property or to cash, but rather to that in life which tends to make those tangible substances count for most in the daily lives of people: namely good will, fellowship, sympathy, and social intercourse among the individuals and families who make up a social unit, _the rural community, whose logical center is in most cases the school. In community building, as in business organization, there must be an accumulation of capital before the constructive work can be done....

Now we may easily pass from the business corporation over to the social corporation, the community, and find many points of singularity. The individual is helpless socially, if left by himself. Even the association of the members of one's own family fails to satisfied that desire which every normal individual has of being with his fellows, of being a part of a larger group than the family. If he comes into contact with his neighbors, there will be an accumulation of social capital, which may immediately satisfy his social needs and which may bear a social potentiality sufficient for the substantial improvement of life in the whole community. The community as a whole will benefit by the cooperation of all its parts, while the individual will find in his associations the advantages of the help, the sympathy, and the fellowship of his neighbors. First, then, there must be an accumulation of community social capital. Such accumulation may be effected by means of public entertainments, picnics, and a variety of other community gatherings. When the people of a given community have become acquainted with one another and have formed a habit of coming together occasionally for entertainment, social intercourse, and personal enjoyment, then by skillful leadership this social capital may easily be directed towards the general improvement of the community well_being."

I propose that as far as credit for inventing the term, Hanifan's is the claim to beat. At the very least, this citation illustrates that we have here a classic case of multiple inventions of the same concept.