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« Privacy issues and possible collateral uses of NSA data | Main | Barabasi on "The architecture of real networks: from the Web to social networks" »

27 January 2006

Social Networks and Social Capital: Semantic or Substantive Differences?

Many social science articles focusing on networks also discuss social capital. Sometimes the two terms are used nearly synonymously. Some scholars bristle at the conflation, others are indifferent.

Does a network map necessarily provide insight into social capital?
Does understanding social capital require a network map?

As food for thought, consider these two potentially problematizing examples (continued below in the extended entry)...

1. Social capital may have meaning beyond networks:
One finding under the social capital umbrella is that the crime rate in a neighborhood is negatively associated with the percent of residents who know their neighbors' first names. In this case, social capital can be a kind of public good, where it is possible for an individual resident who does not know his or her neighbors can still derive free-rider benefits from the social capital of others.

Does a network-based definition of social capital account for such phenomena that are more associated with a general social structure than a specific network?

2. Social networks may be independent from social capital.
Social capital is sometimes characterized explicitly by network structure. For example, the person located at the hub of a star network is considered to have the most social capital in that network. But networks are defined in part by the nature of their ties, not just their existence. Does the star network give us information about the relative social capital of its members if the tie is something like "makes eye contact with during the course of the day," "has sexual relations with," or "prepares food for?" These ties are very important to epidemiologists in studying the spread of infectious diseases or other pathogens. In these settings, individuals like bus drivers, sex workers, and food service workers are quite influential. But is this influence an example or form of social capital?

My own take is that social networks are a representational methodology – a way of representing social reality that focuses on the quantification of relationships. Other representational methods with other foci include not only approaches like ethnography, censi, sample surveys, records of economic transactions, and the like, but also documentary film making, photography, portraiture, and other artistic and interpretive/expressive methods.

Social capital, on the other hand, is a construct. Because this construct deals explicitly with social structure and individual interdependencies with others, a representational methodology that quantifies relationships among individuals is particularly well-suited for operationalizing this construct for formal analysis.

As an SAT-style analogy, social networks are to social capital as a piano is to a musical composition. The latters of the pairs can exist independently from their formers, but we sometimes use the formers to understand and interpret the latters. The analogy is far from perfect, but hopefully illustrative of my understanding of the difference between social networks and social capital.

I welcome all blog readers to weigh in with your views.

Posted by Brian Rubineau at January 27, 2006 7:28 PM