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Social Capital


Explanations > Relationships > Social Capital

Description | Example | Discussion | So what?



Social Capital is a metaphor that describes how trust and obligation work. The principle is that social actions are like money. When we do things for others we gain social capital, and when we get things from others we 'pay' social capital.

We hence have a social 'bank account' which goes up and down like our real-world bank account. We make deposits and withdrawals, and generally try to stay in the black. Owing money or help to others can be morally uncomfortable, and can be made uncomfortable when others remind us of our obligations to repay the social debt.

Social capital includes all forms of help, including giving money, time, advice, listening, forgiveness and simple acceptance. It can be given to friends, family, work groups and more, including general society.


I help a friend fix his car. He thanks me, goes out with me and buys me a beer.

A person spends time volunteering with a charity. They mention it briefly in conversation with friends.


Having a lot of social capital can mark us as kind people who are to be admired. It may also mark us as a 'soft touch', a person who will always say 'yes' to any request, who is easily persuaded. A surfeit of social capital can even lead to others being unhappy with us when they feel they owe us more than they can easily repay.

Social capital can be very specific, such as when helping a friend, and where the debt is clearly repaid. It can also be diffuse, such as volunteering at a non-profit or picking up litter. Diffuse social capital works on the general principle that if many people are altruistic then overall, life will be better for everyone. Giving to society increases when social values are explicit about this and when we are reminded of these, such as when we see people in need on TV and when our friends are helping others. Showing off our

Sometimes we try to gain social capital through 'conspicuous conservation', where we deliberately show how ecological we are being, for example by putting solar panels on the front of the house, even though it faces north. This is an overt reversal of materialist status-seeking 'conspicuous consumption' where we show off how rich we are.

Having social capital in a small group or with one other person means that they have an obligation to repay you. If they find this duty overwhelming or otherwise uncomfortable, they may blame you for putting them in this situation. Blame leads to desire to punish and you may be confused by their negative attitude towards you after you have helped them so much.

So what?

Build social capital within your relationships and various groups to which you belong, but beware of over-doing this, lest people resent the obligations you create. To balance giving, also take social capital, asking for things from other people.

See also

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