Blog Posts > The Dynamics of Social Capital
October 26, 2018

The Dynamics of Social Capital

State of Working West Virginia co-author and West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy board member Rick Wilson penned this blog post. Rick is the Director of the West Virginia Economic Justice Project for the American Friends Service Committee. He is a regular contributor to the Charleston Gazette-Mail’s editorial page as well as to WVCBP reports and issue briefs. This post, a companion blog post to the State of Rural West Virginia 2018 report, explores the concept of social capital, and how it relates to rural West Virginia.

The concept of social capital, which can be defined as all the formal and informal networks of relationships between people, is one of the most important and influential concepts in contemporary social science.

Interestingly, it was first developed by West Virginia native and educator L.J. Hanifan, who in 1916 wrote of it as,

“The tangible substances [that] count for most in the daily lives of people: namely good will, fellowship, sympathy, and social intercourse among the individuals and families who make up a social unit. . .. The individual is helpless socially, if left to himself. If he comes into contact with his neighbor, and they with other neighbors, there will be an accumulation of social capital, which may immediately satisfy his social needs and which may bear a social potentiality sufficient to the substantial improvement of living conditions in the whole community. The community as a whole will benefit by the cooperation of all its parts, while the individual will find in his associations the advantages of the help, the sympathy, and the fellowship of his neighbors.”[i]

Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, author of the influential Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,assembled great deal of evidence indicating that the richer communities and individuals are in social capital, the better equipped they are to deal with personal and social problems. Rich networks of social capital can vastly improve access to information, resources, opportunities, allies, and favors.

Conversely, individuals and communities poor in social capital can be extremely vulnerable to negative forces. Unfortunately, by several measures, social capital has been declining in the United States over several decades.

In Bowling Alone, Putnam identifies several factors that contributed to the decline of social capital in the US. These include pressures of time and money; sprawling and suburbanization; the effects of electronic entertainment and television on particular; and fourth, generational change, “the slow, steady, and ineluctable replacement of the long civic generation by their less involved children and grandchildren,” which may account for as much as half of the decline.[ii]

Putnam identifies two main kinds of social capital, bonding and bridging, which are respectively exclusive and inclusive. Bonding social capital is inward looking and tends to “reinforce exclusive identities and homogenous groups.”[iii]  At its best, it can reinforce norms of reciprocity and solidarity within the group. At its worst, it can encourage suspicion of, hatred towards and even violence directed against those outside the group. Examples could include small rural communities, religious or political sects, groups with strong ethnic identifications, or even the country club set.

Bridging social capital refers to the kinds of networks that cross ordinary divides and brings diverse people together. It’s also a better way to gain access to new information and resources. Putnam compares bonding social capital to superglue and bridging social capital to “sociological WD 40.” Sociologist Xavier de Souza Briggs argues that bonding social capital is good for “getting by,” while bridging is more effective for “getting ahead.”  [iv]

The reasons for this are simple: those within a bonded group tend to share the same base of information, beliefs, norms, and resources. Bridging allows access to new sources of knowledge and resources. Often the newest and most valuable information can come from weak ties and distant connections. As social scientist Mark Granovetter argued in a classic study, such connections can be “indispensable to individuals’ opportunities and their integration into communities…”[v]

Both forms of social capital are vital for communities and individuals to thrive. The absence of either or both can have negative consequences. As Cornelia Butler Flore et al have argued in Rural Communities: Legacy and Change,

“When both are high, we get effective community action, or entrepreneurial social infrastructure (ESI)…When both are low, extreme individualism dominates, which is reflected at the community level in social disorganization. Community action is low when residents predominantly relate apathetically to their community. When bridging social capital is high but bonding social capital is low, there is clientelism, and the relationships formed within and outside the community are predominantly vertical. When bonding social capital is high but bridging social capital is low, there is often conflict. The community may be organized against an outside entity or against itself. In the latter case bonding social capital occurs within homogenous groups within the community, and these groups oppose one another.” [vi]

The case of West Virginia

For many historical reasons, including exploitive relations dominated by out of state interests, bonding social capital is strongest in many rural West Virginia communities. But the events of recent decades—the closing of Main Street stores, school consolidation, out-migration, declining union membership, the opioid epidemic—have tended to erode the state’s web of both types of social capital.

A qualitative study of social capital in the state’s southern coalfields published in 2009 has a revealing title: “There Ain’t No Bond in Town Like There Used to Be”: The Destruction of Social Capital in the West Virginia Coalfields.” The author, Shannon Elizabeth Bell, conducted community interviews in a rural  community in Hardy County and a mining community of roughly the same size in Boone County to assess social networks, trust and norms.

While social capital ties were fairly high and stable in the non-mining community, she found a breakdown in social trust and norms in the coal community, particularly in the wake of the expansion of Massey Energy into the area, which she attributed to that company’s assault on the United Mine Workers in what had once been solidly union country.

Traditionally, the union brought not just greater workplace security but a degree of power and respect. Several of the people interviewed “remember the period of union dominance as the one time in the history of exploitation in southern West Virginia that the people successfully fought the powers of oppression.” When the anti-union Massey began buying up formerly union mines in the area, “this signaled the end of an era of power for the residents.”[vii]

The author also found that older coalfield residents who had lived and worked for most of their lives during the period of union strength had higher levels of social capital than younger residents. This “Union Cohort” was protected from some of the worst effects of the breakdown of social trust, norms and networks.[viii]

Labor conflicts aside, union membership is a classic example of social capital, one which decreases along with it. The generational effect of the “Union Cohort” in West Virginia echoes Putnam’s assertion that the slow passing of America’s “long civic generation” has reduced the nation’s stock of social capital.

The good news is that while many of the events and trends that have taken a toll on rural West Virginia are beyond the immediate control of residents, rebuilding social capital is not one of them.


[i] Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, (Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 2000), p. 19.

[ii] Ibid. p. 283.

[iii] Ibid. p. 22.

[iv] Xavier de Souza Briggs, “Social capital and the Cities: Advice to Change Agents,” The National Civic Review, vol 86, no. 2, Summer 1997.

[v] Mark S. Granovetter, “The Strength of Weak Ties,” The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 78, No. 6. (May, 1973).

[vi] Cornelia Butler Flora, Jan L. Flora with Susan Fey, “Rural Communities: Legacy and Change” (Westview Press, 2004), p. 62, 63.

[vii] Shannon Elizabeth Bell, “’There Ain’t No Bond in Town Like There Used to Be’: The Destruction of Social Capital in the West Virginia Coalfields,” Sociological Forum, Sept. 2009, p. 651.

[viii] Ibid., p. 653

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