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Dimensions of Social Capital

Thinking about social capital can be a bit tricky because it has been reviewed from so many perspectives and dimensions. In this blog post I will introduce the individual and group perspective on social capital and the bonding and bridging dimension. I will then show how  Stephen Borgatti unite these views in a matrix (here is his paper on it) and then try to extend his ideas.

Individual social capital vs. Group social capital

Generally the first problem that I had with social capital is that it can be found and analyzed in different hierarchical degrees such as on a individual- and collective-level and on a on a micro-, meso- and macro-level: In the micro-level relations between individuals, household or neighborhoods are analyzed. The meso-level contains municipalities, institutions and organizations. The macro-level deals with whole regions and nations which are analyzed.

This multi-level view leads to a bit of confusion: Theorists debate whether social capital is a private good, where individuals invest in the formation of relationships so they can access the resources of others, or a public good such that everybody belonging to a social group with social capital may enjoy its benefits. While for example Putnam’s work (Bowling alone) describes social capital a quality of groups or societies,  Burt or Lin’s work (Brokerage and Closure) describe social capital for individuals.  This leads to a lot of confusion if social capital is a good of an individual or of a group.

Bonding (internal) vs. bridging (external) social capital

The second problem with it is that some people highlight the bonding nature of it while others focus on its bridging attributes. Much of the discussion these two perspectives of bonding and bridging social capital has already been captured in the views of Coleman and Burt  (Brokerage and Closure) which have highlighted different sources of social capital.

While in Coleman’s view social capital mostly results from analyzing internal group closure, in Burt’s view it results from exactly the opposite group mechanic, namely structural holes. While closure corresponds to creating internal ties with group members, the structural holes theory corresponds to creating ties to members outside the group. So what is social capital? Well we can either decide that we don’t like this theory anymore or try to somehow combine these dimensions into one framework. This is what Stephen Borgatti tried.

Borgatti’s Social Capital Matrix

Bortatti says that discussion on social capital mostly suffers from a different perspective on the group concept. In most cases the group “has been implicitly conceived as a universe, nothing outside the group is considered.”[p.3]  Adler and Kwon in their review come to similar insights on theoretical views on social capital stating that “external ties at a given level of analysis become internal ties at the higher levels of analysis and conversely, internal ties become external at the lower levels”[p.35].

Consequently we have to accept the duality of bonding and bridging social capital and see groups as embedded actors in their own social environments. The logical conclusion is to combine the individual vs. group dimension with the inside (bonding) vs. outside (bridging) dimension: This can be demonstrated nicely in the example of a work department: To look at it the group level internally one would analyze the working relationships among the members of the department, looking at the individual level one would analyze the individual ties of members of the group. But looking beyond this department one would have to analyze the relationships that the department has with other departments outside of it. Thinking in network terms an internal view looks at the group’s relationships within the group, while an external view looks at the structure of the group’s relationships to outsiders. This leads to a 4 fold classification matrix which has been suggested by Borgatti.

Social Capital Matrix of Borgatti

Using Borgatti’s original interpretation, quadrant A should be left empty, since there is no way to analyze the individual’s internal ties. This would correspond to analyzing the inner workings of an individual, such as the networks formed in his brain.I argue that the internal focus might also be used to describe the individual internal-group focus. This means defining internal focus as a focus inside the group and by defining external focus as a focus outside of the group. Using this logic the social capital that can be harvested in quadrant A depends on the individuals’ ties with the internal group. This type of thinking correlates with the popular concepts postulated in e.g. the works of Coleman saying that the bonding social capital in school classes benefits weak pupils.

Quadrant B corresponds to the individual social capital a person acquires by maintaining external ties outside of the group. This view has also been predominantly described by the works of Ronald Burt saying that managers benefit from brokerage between departments. Quadrant C describes the collective-good idea of social capital as described by Putnam describing the concept of social capital as a public good. (e.g. the more the people of a country are connected the better for everybody) Finally quadrant D describes the potential social capital that a whole group can acquire by maintaining ties to other groups. Mainly due to the available data collection survey based methods in the past, this concept has rarely have been operationalized and marginally been explored in the literature of social capital.

Extended version of the social capital matrix

If we now take this matrix a bit further and think of the different network “zoom levels” we can sort of create a recursive definition of Borgattis matrix where quadrant D at the inner level becomes quadrant A in the next version of the matrix if we “zoom out”. I have depicted this concept in the figure below and described it on a company example. (Attention I have flipped the original matrix 90°). So at the highest zoom level (which is the top of the figure) the individual is the person, and the department is the group.

Extended social capital matrix, with three different zoom levels on the example of a company.

The top left cell describes individual bonding social capital and deals with the position of the person in the department. The top right cell describes the group’s bonding social capital as a whole. The lower left cell describes how an individual creates bridging social capital by connecting two departments. Finally the lower right cell describes how the department as a whole creates bridging social capital, by being centrally connected to other departments in the company.

This brigs us to the next “zoom level”. Where the department becomes the individual unit of analysis and the company becomes the group concept, which is boundary of the system. So in this zoom level we focus on the study of how different departments are connected with each other inside the company.

If we zoom out again the whole company becomes the unit of analysis. And for example the country becomes the group concept. This brings us to studies that study how different companies connect with each other and how it benefits them from a social capital perspective. Finally if we were to zoom out once more then the whole country becomes the unit of analysis, bringing us to studies on a global level which analyze how different countries for example do trade with each other and so on.

As a conclusion I think that the social capital matrix is very handy when we try to conceptualize a network perspective on things. It helps to unite the bridging and bonding and the individual and group concepts of social capital and reminds us that the “group” concept repeats over and over again only on higher levels, yet the questions remain the same.

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