Social capital – Reading Bowling Alone No.1

The concept of Social Capital came up during my research for Expedition Think Up Mondays. It was in the midst of a conversation about values. The individuals in that group quickly identified that they each bring the value of their personal networks to the group. On a rainy Monday a week later in Islington Central Library I explored this theme, and quickly came upon the notion of Social Capital, and Robert Putman’s highly regarded book ‘Bowling Alone – the Collapse and Revival of American Community’. The book explores the theories relating to social capital, its rise, decline and possible resurrection in America.

The Expedition Think Up Monday programme is long finished, but understanding and growing social capital seems to be at the core of what I am doing with Think Up, the Useful Simple Trust and through my volunteer role at the Institution of Civil Engineers. I have decided therefore to read Putman’s book and log my notes here, with the hope that rearranged, with some retained and some discarded, they can help with the formulation of a vision for how these organisations could work.

Bowling Alone РChapter 1 Thinking about Social Change in America Рnotes

Putman notes a general trend that up until the mid-sixties there was an ever increasing involvement of citizens in civic life, be it in sports and social clubs, benevolent societies or in public office; since then however, there has been a considerable decline.

“In recent years social scientists have framed concerns about the changing character of American society in terms of the concept of “social capital”. By analogy with notions of physical capital and human capital – tools and training that enhance individual productivity – the core idea of social capital theory is that social networks have value. Just as a screwdriver (physical capital) or a college education (human capital) can increase productivity (both individual and collective), so too social contacts affect the productivity of individuals and groups.”

Some social capital results in personal benefit, as in when any reciprocity is specific – I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine”; more valuable to society however is generalized reciprocity: “I’ll do this for you without expecting anything specific back from you in the confident expectation that someone else will do something for me down the road.

On reciprocity, “‘If you don’t go to somebody’s funeral, they won’t go to yours.’ – Yogi Berra”

Frequent interaction among a society of individuals tends to cause more generalised reciprocity. [pg 21]

Your social capital comes in many different shapes and sizes – eg sunay schools, family, internet chat groups.

The external effects of social capital are not always good. Terrorist groups depend on social capital.

‘Therefore it is important to ask how the positive consequences of social capital¬† – mutual support, cooperation, trust, institutional effectiveness – can be maximised and the negative manifestations – sectarianism, ethnocentrism, corruption – minimized. Towards this end many different form of social capital have been distinguished.’ Pg 22

There is a distinction between bridging capital and bonding capital.

Bridging (Inclusive) capital

Outward looking and encompassing people across diverse social cleavages. Eg. civil rights movement, youth service groups.

Good for establishing specific reciprocity and mobilizing solidarity.

A socialogical superglue

Good for getting ahead

Bonding (exclusive) capital

By choice of necessity, inward looking and tend to reinforce exlcusive identities and homogeneous groups. Eg Ethnic fraternal organisations, country clubs.

Better for linking external assets for information diffusion.

A socialogical WD40

Good for getting by

Many people bond in some dimensions (class, race) and bridge in others.

Putman’s maxim for evidence in his book is similar to the jounralist’s two source rule: never report anything unless two independent sources confirm it.

The last page of the chapter reveals the inspiration for the books name: two people from quite different socio-economic backgrounds come into contact with one-another through a bowling team. The aquaintance leads to the younger of the two offering to give his kidney to the older of the two who has been on a waiting list for three years.


The Useful Simple Trust exists to blaze a trail in the integrated, intelligent and humane provision of the human environment. Freed from the traditional contraints of serving the aquisition of financial capital, the beneficiaries should be look at (and already are, although not necessarily framed in these terms) look at what social capital they have between them, and look to unlock and stimulate the social capital.  One idea for Think Up in this instance is to run an event that helps everyone realise our collective social capital, and explore what good we can do with it, and examine how we can grow it.

At first sight, the Institution of Civil Engineers is an organisation that consolidates bonding capital but that wants to create bridging capital. This very concise observation I feel help me shape my input into the ICE London Region’s strategic direction.