Stocks of social trust, norms, and networks that people can draw upon to solve common problems. These are referred to as “capital,” because like many other forms of capital, they can accumulate and can be drawn upon as an investment for future action. Forms of social capital vary. It is thus important to develop strategies and policies that enable the positive benefits, especially for sustainable, resilient, and just communities, while containing negative externalities.

Fast Facts:

Various studies examine social capital in the context of specific approaches to public problem solving. To be sure, as with any analytic concept, there exists much scholarly debate on its usefulness, measurement, causality, and application. Check out the full glossary entry for an exploration of studies focused on healthy communities, disaster resilience, and faith-based community organizing.


1835: Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America famously called attention to citizen readiness to form associations to address any number of community and social problems, though he did not use the specific term of social capital.

1961: Jane Jacobs’ classic work, The Death and Life of American Cities, utilized social capital to refer to casual interactions in street life, which can be enhanced by design of streets, sidewalks, porches, and the like.

1986: French theorist Pierre Bourdieu analyzed social capital and linked it to one’s rank (military, family pedigree, bureaucratic position) and relative resources (economic capital).

2000: Putnam published Bowling Alone, which argued that many trends indicated that social capital was on the decline in the U.S. over previous decades.

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