Social capital

Social Capital and online learning – a brief intro

I decided to post a brief section of my literature review after reading the article Natalie tweeted this morning, which portrays similar ideas.

I’m happy to see my reasoning is supported by others but I realise I should probably make an effort to at least try and publish some! Anyway, here it is and I’ll post more…

Access to knowledge, information and ideas is mediated by the fabric of social relationships within individuals in a social network. These can be seen as benefits gained from social interactions and can be conceptualised as “Social Capital”.

This concept, which is also a theory, is rooted in the work of several scholars, starting from Bourdieu (1986) and Coleman (1988) who provided the first definition of social capital. The theory was then extended by the work of Burt (1992), Putnam (1995) and more recently by Lin (2001).

Social capital was defined by Bourdieu as “the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition”  (Bourdieu, 1986 p 51). Social capital allows individuals to access resources – e.g. information – through relationships with members belonging to the same network (Ellison, Steinfield & Lampe, 2007). This  process is not linear or transparent, in fact a person’s actions or practices are influenced by a complexity of social forces acting in the immediate locus where the action is exploited (“field”) and a set of dispositions of thoughts and behaviours assimilated over time by the individual (“habitus”).

The dynamics of reciprocal influence between a social structure and an individual’s ways of thinking and acting are explained by Bourdieu with a formula which highlights their interdependence:

[ (habitus) (capital) ] + field = practice (Bourdieu, 1984 p101)

These factors, if applied and understood within an online educational activity, could help theorise why different students embark in different trajectories and degrees of learning and engagement. If the success of an online educational intervention depends upon the relationships, the dynamics between participants, the medium itself and the social interactions, it is vital that we understand these processes. Steinfield, Ellison and Lampe (2008) argue that “the ability to form and maintain relationships is a necessary precondition for the accumulation of social capital” (p435) and this mechanism could determine the access to certain benefits – information, knowledge – by network members.

Putnam (2000) outlined the concepts of bonding and bridging capital, which reside in the fabric of relationships within a network. Bonding capital refers to the emotional benefits that individuals who have a very close personal relationship with each other can profit from, while bridging capital encompasses informational benefits derived from weak connections. These two processes can explain the acquisition of knowledge in a community of learning.

The importance of the strength of weak ties in bridging capital was highlighted by Granovetter (1973). The power of these connections resides in the fact that they allow individuals in the social network to access pieces of information that would otherwise be inaccessible. Another concept that emphasises the importance of weak ties in the information flow is that of “structural hole” introduced by Burt (1992). A missing connection – a “hole” – between two nodes, or two networks, can be bridged by an individual, a “broker” who can span the hole, bringing together otherwise disconnected contacts (Burt, 2000).

Applying these concepts to a social network of students engaged in an online educational activity, could help understanding on how knowledge flows within the network and subsequently how to moderate and facilitate this exchange between users. Lin (2001) has emphasised the importance of social networks and interpersonal relationships in the development of social capital, which he describes as “resources embedded in a social structure which are accessed and/or mobilized in purposive actions”  (p35). The access and subsequent use of resources embedded in the network facilitates the flow of information and gives some form of profit. So we have three ingredients in the notion of social capital: resources, accessibility and use. (Lin, 2001 p35). While these elements have been conceived within studies concerning the structures of society and the use of social resources in relation to socioeconomic statuses (Lin, 1982 in Lin, 2001), it is apparent that the mechanisms of accessibility and use of resources in an online social network can influence the creation and use of social capital. It is important to highlight the fact that it is not an intrinsic characteristic of technology that allows growth of social capital: it is the specific ways that individuals use technology which determine the amount of this benefit (Valenzuela, Park & Kee, 2009).

Further reading: The Habitus of Digital Scholars by Cristina Costa – and her Blog Post


Bourdieu, P. (1986) The Forms of Capital. In: John G Richardson (eds) Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education. New York: Greenwood Press.

Burt, R.S. (1992) Structural holes: the social structure of competition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Coleman, J.S. (1988) Social capital in the creation of human capital. The american journal of sociology. 94(Supplement): S95-S120.

Ellison, N.B., Steinfield, C. And Lampe, C. (2011) Connection strategies: social capital implications of Facebook-enabled communication practices. New Media & Society. XX(X):1-20.

Granovetter, M. (1973) The strength of weak ties. American journal of sociology. 78: 1360-1380.

Lin N (2001) Building a network theory of social capital. In: Lin N, Cook KS and Burt RS (eds) Social Capital: Theory and Research. New York: Aldine de Gruyter. 3–29.

Putnam, R. (1995) Bowling alone: America’s declining social capital. Journal of Democracy. 6:65-78.

Putnam, R. (2000) Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of american community. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Valenzuela, S., Park, N., Kee, K.F. (2009) Is there social capital in a social network site?: Facebook use and college students’ life satisfaction, trust and participation. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. 14:875-901.