Social Age Journal
Oct 4, 2016 · 7 min read

Social Capital in Learning

Written by Kurt Lindley

This piece is intended to explore the notion of ‘Social Capital in Learning’. My aim is to visit the origin of term, its definition, its worth in learning and the steps we may take to cultivate it. I seek to share my understanding of its value and offer a set of principles and action which a practitioner may take to nurture it for the advancement of personal and group learning.

The first formal recording of social capital as a concept was made by Lyda Hanifan:

“In the use of the phrase social capital I make no reference to the usual acceptation of the term capital, except in a figurative sense. I do not refer to real estate, or to personal property, or to cold cash, but rather to that in life which tends to make these tangible substances count for most in the daily lives of a people, namely, goodwill, fellowship, mutual sympathy and social intercourse among a group of individuals…..” (Hanifan, 1916, p.130).

If what Hanifan articulates is true it would make sense we harness the power of social capital for the good of learning. Especially as it was considered that the school, a formal learning environment be the ‘logical centre’ (Hanifan, 1916, p.130) for its accumulation to allow for constructive work (e.g. co-invested learning) to begin.

In my work as a learning and development practitioner I have experienced connections and communities which exhibit some of these social capital elements although perhaps more as a consequence of chance than by design. I am often left wondering how we may purposely go about fostering such co-invested learning relationships.

Why this is of interest to the learning and development world is eloquently captured in the words of Dekker and Uslaner (2001) and Uslaner, (2001) in that social capital is about the value of social networks, bonding similar people and bridging between diverse people, with norms of reciprocity – investing in the now of each other to perhaps borrow a favour for use later.

Adler and Kwon (2002, p.23) reference, that where social capital is strong so is the flow of information, influence, and solidarity. Related assets available to those within the community are manifested in the goodwill others have toward us (a valuable resource).

The value of social capital is highly dependent on this free flow (or otherwise) of available assets (be they tangible or intangible) within a community and on the worth community members paces upon these collective assets.

Putnam (2000, p. 19) felt that social capital enabled people to resolve collective problems more easily. He elaborates on this point with the following:

  • People often might be better off if they cooperate, with each doing their share,
  • Social capital greases the wheels that allow communities to advance smoothly,
  • Social capital widens our awareness of the many ways in which our fates are linked.

Field (2003, p. 1–2) sees the central notion of social capital in simple terms – ‘relationships matter’. Interaction enables people to build communities, to commit themselves to each other, and to knit a social fabric. A sense of belonging, concrete experience, trust and tolerance can bring great benefits to people.

Trust as the vehicle for developing social capital

In my reading and reviewing of academic and less so academic material it seems trust is often cited as the vehicle for developing social capital. Daniel (2002) singles out trust as an enabler of social capital, trust between individuals, trust between strangers and trust of social institutions. Further to this Daniel (2002. p.7) states “trust enables people to build communities, to commit themselves to each other and form a social fabric, which in turn is useful to both the community and the individual members of that community.”

Putnam (1993) talks of the significance of association, mutual commitment and in later work (Putnam 1995, p. 67) mentions social trust as a facilitator for coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit. Here social trust relates to a confidence in people, goodness, decency, morality and dependability in the community around us. Simmel (1950, p. 326) saw social trust as a core component of social capital, perhaps its best indicator. Communities that have high social trust are likely to have high social capital. Putnam’s (2000) view is “where people are trusting and trustworthy, and where they are subject to repeated interactions with fellow citizens, everyday business and social transactions are less costly”.

But where does this trust come from, how do we recognise and build on it? Can we expect it to simply exist because we are learners on a similar journey? Daniel (2002) offers a number of considerations to account for in the building of trust:

  • Relationships built on trust cannot be hurried; trust takes time and space to develop,
  • Trust grows as a result of exposure to one another, and sharing experiences, whether success or failure (sharing frailty, vulnerability),
  • Storytelling can be a protocol for the exchange of experiences, which in turn can be avenue for the cultivation of trust,
  • When people of similar experiences exchange stories they are likely to build a rapport and special bond that connects them together regardless of their adverse differences
  • Through sharing of experiences or telling stories of common interests, individuals identify with each other and build trust.

Practitioners should take note of this and look to build relational trust through dialogue, learning conversations and storytelling. Building relationships which crisscross and reinforce one another, solving problems together, exchanging experiences and sharing of successes and failures through social interaction. As practitioners we should:

  • Practice ‘power in parity with the collective’ not ‘power over the collective’
  • Care as much about questions and who the question is directed to as we may the answers
  • Strive to be the change, not simply discuss or present the concept of change
  • Encourage learners to care as much about collective learning as their own learning
  • Devote as much energy to listening as speaking and encourage this within others
  • Value the process of witnessing learning (including the thoughts and feelings of others)
  • Be open to influence by the conversation

In addition there are a number of actions practitioners can encourage within others, these include:

  • Organising social gatherings to welcome newcomers (physical or virtual)
  • Volunteering your skills and invite others to share theirs
  • Inviting people into your world (be vulnerable) and open up
  • Get to know more about those you are learning with (be curious in your encounters).

Evidence for social capital

In a 2011 study by Leana, looking at the relationship between human and social capital and its impact on achievement (in maths) across 130 New York City elementary schools found those with high social capital showed positive achievement outcomes.

In addition it was noted that schools with strong social and human capital together performed even better. Findings of greater interest perhaps were that those with low human capital working in environments where social capital was high saw better achievement outcomes than those working in environments where social capital was low.

Fox and Wilson, (2015) in their yearlong case study of three beginner teacher embarking on initial teacher education (within a secondary school environment) noted that whether supportive relationships developed depended not only on the trainees but also on others. Their recommendations advocate that those involved in teacher education should promote social-capital building as supportive tool for the development of teachers.

A further study by Yao, Tsai and Fang (2015) which investigated the relationships of social capital, knowledge sharing, team learning and e-loyalty in virtual communities found that social capital was positively related to team learning and knowledge sharing in the community.

Concluding thoughts

These musings only scratch the surface of this concept, merely offering thoughts on the building blocks of social capital i.e. trust through repeated engagement and connection through collaborative action.

Borrowing some words from Daniel (2002), it’s time now to reflect on this abstract resource accumulated/attained when people value relationships among each other, interact, collaborate, learn and share ideas, the implication of which sees past collaboration as the basis for future collaboration.

More thought should be given to the gaining of it, the giving of it, its use, misuse and abuse. Considering social capital for learning, not personal gain, social capital for the development of the collective versus promotion of self, immorally searched for, poorly looked after and its use in good and evil (the darkside of social influence).


Adler, P.S, & Kwon, S.W. (2002). ‘Social Capital: Prospects For a New Concept.’ The Academy of Management Review, 27, 17–40.

Daniel, Ben (April 2002), Building Social Capital in Virtual Learning Communities (unpublished). Educational Communications and Technology; University of Saskatchewan.

Dekker, P., & Uslaner, E.M. (2001). Introduction. In E.M. Uslaner (Eds.) Social Capital and Participation in Everyday Life (pp. 1 – 8) in, London: Routledge.

Field, J. (2003). Social Capital, London: Routledge.

Fox A.R.C & Wilson, E.G. (2015) Networking and the development of professionals: beginning teachers building social capital. Teaching and Teacher Education, 47, 93–107.

Hanifan, L.J. (1916). The Rural School Community Centre. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, 67, 130–38.

Leana, C.R. (2011). The missing link in school reform. Stanford Social Innovation Review, 9(4), 34.

Putnam, R.D. (1993). Making Democracy Work. Civic traditions in modern Italy. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

Putnam, R.D. (1995). ‘Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital’, Journal of Democracy, 6:1, Jan, 65–78.

Putnam, R.D. (2000). Bowling Alone. The collapse and revival of American community. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Simmel, Georg (1950). The Sociology of Georg Simmel. Translated and edited by Kurt Wolff. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press.

Uslaner, E.M. (2001). Volunteering and social capital: how trust and religion shape civic participation in the United States. In E.M. Uslaner (Eds.) Social Capital and Participation in Everyday Life (pp. 104 – 117) in, London: Routledge.

Yao, C.C., Tsai C.C., & Fang Y.C. (2015) Understanding social capital, team learning, members’ e-loyalty and knowledge sharing in virtual communities. Total Quality Management & Business Excellence, 26, 5–6.

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