Reaching Out, Reaching In
Edited by Viva Ona Bartkus and James H. Davis
Chapter 1: What is Social Capital?
Elinor Ostrom In this chapter, I will argue that the concept of social capital is extremely important as well as useful for all of the social sciences. After reviewing the current situation, I will lay out a careful set of deﬁnitions of types and forms of human-made capital and clarify the individual and shared characteristics of these concepts. Next, I will illustrate the importance of social capital by comparing the performance of irrigation systems in Nepal with high levels of physical capital and low social capital with those that have low levels of physical capital but high social capital. Finally, I will conclude with reﬂections on some of the broad lessons learned about social capital. Social capital research has grown steadily since James S. Coleman’s systematic analysis in 1988 (see Bourdieu, 1986; Loury, 1977 for earlier uses of the concept). In the early 1990s, researchers started employing the concept as a major building block in their scholarship (Burt, 1992; Ostrom, 1992). In 1993, Robert Putnam et al.’s celebrated book, Making Democracy Work, catapulted social capital research into a widespread and lively phase of development (see Knack and Keefer, 1997; Dasgupta, 2003; Fukuyama, 2000; Lake and Huckfeldt, 1998; Ostrom and Ahn, 2003b). Despite this attention, however, it remains unclear whether social capital will be useful for the social sciences over the long term. Academic research can be aﬄicted by fads and fashions, just like other ﬁelds of endeavor. Answering this question requires a clear, precise deﬁnition as...
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