What is social capital?
November 28, 2016 8:20 AM   Subscribe

What is social capital, when and how do people acquire it, and how do they use it?

I am particularly interested in stories about the role social capital plays during a person's teens and twenties, when they are presumably getting started in life. Assuming that social capital comes from one's family of origin, how it is it applied/transferred for the benefit of the next generation? How does a twenty-something with social capital use it in his/her working and personal life?

I ask because I had fleeting exposure to high-upper-middle class and upper-class kids in high school. Decades later, a disproportionate number of them have gone on make a name for themselves in various highly competitive vocations. Of course, hard work, intelligence and luck probably accounts for their success, but I suspect some of them were well positioned for success because of social capital.

I'm looking for details from personal experience or from nonfiction sources.
posted by A. Davey to Society & Culture (16 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Social capital is the accumulated trust in a person, organisation, or entity which can be exchanged for advancement, discounts, or free goods or services. Social capital is usually explicit but could be implicit. A bum might not have a lot of social capital day to day, but were they attacked the accumulated trust they have with locals may result in funds or housing for rehabilitation. That's social capital. Social capital can be bought but mostly it is created for free through explicit and implicit actions by the actor. There is no guarantee that social capital will last or that just starting an action will result in it.
posted by parmanparman at 8:41 AM on November 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

I read a book recently called The Promise of a Pencil. The author has social capital and describes how he uses it. That wasn't the focus of the book, so it's typically more implicit than spelled out, though.

One example I can think of off the top of my head is the time he went traveling with his family and Justin Beiber for a month and they really bonded, and Justin Beiber was inspired to donate the proceeds of his thus-and-such to the author's nonprofit.
posted by aniola at 8:41 AM on November 28, 2016

My own personal experience with social capital - I grew up in a working poor family where nobody went to college. But my dad was a very likeable and smart guy who sold things to college professors. He was on a friendly, first-name basis with famous profs at schools like Johns Hopkins. This gave him a sort of insider's edge when I got to high school and wanted to know more about the college experience. He introduced me to professors he knew and had me shadow them, and even got me a summer job as a web developer at a local university. As a result, I had two things my peers did not: access to actual college professors who could help and inspire me to get into college and feel like I belonged there, and a "real" job on my resume that showed initiative and smarts when my grades and SAT scores were abysmal.

Actually, the former was probably the biggest benefit. My classmates (and myself up until that point) thought we weren't meant to go to college, that college was for wealthy people only. Having exposure to people actually in the college world enabled me to see that anybody could be there. It didn't hurt that I could also ask for letters of recommendation from these profs.
posted by joan_holloway at 8:52 AM on November 28, 2016 [8 favorites]

A recent study sent fake resumes for summer law internships in which "privileged applicants listed expensive, exclusive sports like polo and sailing, and mentioned a penchant for classical music. Less-privileged applicants preferred country music and track-and-field sports." Guess who got more callbacks?
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 8:56 AM on November 28, 2016 [7 favorites]

Examples of social capital:

A friend who will let you stay in their spare room/couch;

A friend who will proof-read your job application or your PhD thesis;

A friend who will drive you to the airport;

A friend who will visit you in hospital;

A friend or neighbour who will bring you home cooked meals if you're ill or bereaved;

Someone who will babysit for you in an emergency;

Someone who will pick you up when you're groggy after surgery and keep an eye on you until the anaesthetic wears off;

Someone who will lend you money if you get mugged and all your cards get stolen...
posted by Sockpuppets 'R' Us at 8:57 AM on November 28, 2016 [15 favorites]

Not trying to be sarcastic here, actually literal -- you might take a harder look at the role of *financial* capital in these success stories. I consult with businesses, and a lot of failure of small businesses is not because their ideas or management was all that terrible, but because it takes a lot of money to get something off the ground, and everyone systematically underestimates the amount of money they'll need to get started, how long it will take to turn a profit, and how many setbacks (that cost money) they'll run into along the way.

So if your family has more money they're willing to help you out with, you have that much more altitude and airspeed before smacking the ground...

similarly, if your family has a business venture and/or is wealthy you've had a few advantages:

- your dinner table talk includes senior management, financial, and strategic discussions that the rest of us aren't privy to.

- your family's existing business can be a customer or vendor to your new business in ways that can help you out.

So intra-family social capital, in a sense, matters - my own experience is that people don't strong-arm their non-family business associates to just out and out GIVE their younger relations work, although I'm sure it happens.

Another type of social capital on one's youth is the academic scene, which may be related to family ties (family has the money and/or influence to get you into the Ivy league, for example) or not (you were smart and/or fortunate enough to get into a good school). Zuckerberg may have gotten FB off the ground if he'd started at a branch campus of a state school in (name obscure state here), but I think it would have been a more uphill climb for a wide variety of reasons. Schools have connections to businesses, which often forms a career pipeline, and alumni often like to hire fellow alumns.

Another type of social capital which has little to do with family is - you can accumulate it by being a person people want to work with. Which leads to better opportunities, recommendations. I'll hire someone with 80% qualifications and a good attitude, along with recommendations from people I trust, over a rock star with a bad attitude and unknown connections any day.
posted by randomkeystrike at 9:01 AM on November 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

I'll throw you some personal experience. My family was kind of all over the economic spectrum when I was little, but by my school years my parents were well off and rapidly getting more so. We lived in a rich, very sheltered neighborhood, I went to a very fancy private school, etc.

I'm sure this affected me in a million different ways but one of the most obvious was getting me into college. The last couple years of high school were not stellar for me, as some of my mental health stuff (and some good old-fashioned teenage goofing off) started to kick in. I did have very good SAT scores, and I was a girl applying for a field that was largely male-dominated just at a time when they were starting to actively try to get more girls in, so I had some stuff going for me on my own. But still, I'm pretty sure one of the reasons I got in to the college of my choice was that I had a recommendation letter written for me by one of their most superstar professors. Who had never met me, but knew my stepfather, and decided to do him a favor by writing a letter about what a great kid I was. I have absolutely no idea what my stepdad told him, or what the letter ended up saying, but I have to think it was a factor in overlooking my abysmal senior year grades.

Similarly, my first internship during college was procured for me entirely via family connections. I was miserably underqualified for it and ending up pretty much wasting my summer (and my boss'), but there were never any repercussions for it because, again - social capital got me that job, no one at that company wanted to rock the boat with my parents and their friend who'd helped get me the job. So I was just the shiftless Bad Intern for a summer, made a pretty nice amount of money for it, solely riding on my parents' social connections.

I don't ride on my parents' connections much these days - as an adult I've switched careers and am in an entirely different field now where they hold no pull, so I couldn't if I wanted to. Which I don't. But if I'd stayed in that field that they helped me get into, and helped me get my first job in, and actually dug in and done the work to get good at it, I would likely be riding pretty high in some big tech company now as many of my classmates are, and I might be one of those people you're talking about. (Turns out I wasn't suited for it, for a variety of reasons, and I'm not at all sorry, but one does occasionally look at one's former classmates' resumes and the probable salaries attached and think...ouch.)

That said, yeah, the line between social capital and financial capital is - fuzzy, at least in my personal experience. All that social capital to get into my expensive well-regarded college wouldn't have done me much good if my parents couldn't write the check to back it up, and I couldn't have chucked the well-paying field for one that pays much less if I hadn't had family money as a safety net.
posted by Stacey at 9:07 AM on November 28, 2016

A lot of ambient social capital (out in the world among strangers, as opposed to the capital you build among people you know like work colleagues) is performative - how you act and how you look compared to the expectations people have in the places you want to go.

Confidence is key, and it can either be learnt (comes naturally as an adult, is the natural way of things - think wealthy son of fancy family who doesn't have impostor syndrome/performance anxiety about his place in life) or performed (you know it well enough to fake it but don't feel it deeply), and it can be used to get access to stuff that not everyone has access to.

Example: I live in Cambridge UK, fancy old university city. I studied at the university, so I know it as an institution. Many of the older, fancier colleges charge admission, but if you can pull it off you just walk right in through the other door. All you have to do is look like you belong there. As long as you are dressed right (either young enough you could be studying there or older and respectably middle class towards eccentric academic) and you don't look too nervous or in awe of the buildings you can just walk right in for free. If you look visibly like a tourist (or some other unwelcome-to-the-porters category like homeless), someone will stop you if you try to do this. If you pull it off, no one even looks at you.

Example: Sometimes it's hard to find a place to pee. Two places that usually have toilets accessible to people who've walked in off the street are department stores and hotels. I needed to pee in Bristol once when I was there for a work meeting and I walked into the lobby of the Radisson or the Sheraton or whichever one it was and found the bathroom and used it, even though I was not a guest of the hotel or a customer of their restaurant or bar. Again, someone visibly homeless doesn't have that option. I am trusted to be supposed to be in a hotel to the point where I can use their facilities when I have no reason to be there at all, based entirely on my appearance (white, female, middle class, tidy & clean, dressed for business, physically unthreatening, not obviously mentally ill - all of which have privilege attached to them as things one can be or appear to be). That is my ambient social capital in play.
posted by terretu at 9:15 AM on November 28, 2016 [9 favorites]

A lot of the above is a very biased view of social capital, in that much of what is being offered is a list of benefits of class. Social capital is not interchangeable with financial privilege, nor does it by definition stem from wealth. Social capital is at work and in trade across all classes.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:13 AM on November 28, 2016 [8 favorites]

Some stories about social capital from personal experience:

So, I have a lot of friends in a certain community. Over the years, I've helped various people in various ways, and accumulated a lot of it in that community.

When I moved, people in that community let my husband stay at their house while he went on interviews, and helped drive him around to check out apartments that we would be able to live in. They also let us stay in their house for a week when we had a mishap getting into our new apartment. That's social capital that didn't take class to build - but it helped us from getting into a terrible financial situation. If we had had to pay for a hotel for that length of time, it would have really set us back and hampered us moving forward in the new place.

At the same time, I've also gotten jobs and tips about jobs through social capital - people know me in my professional field, and I go to social events in my professional field. Thus, when there's a job opening that's going to come up, I usually get tipped off to it before the general public.

Class comes from family, but social capital is much more, in my experience, about your personal charisma and reliability with other humans.
posted by corb at 10:19 AM on November 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

No one has chipped in with academic suggestions yet, so in case that's what you're looking for, here are some suggestions.

The classic popular account of social capital from a political science perspective is Bowling Alone, by Robert Putnam. His work isn't so much about how individuals use social capital for advancement, but how an abundant stock of social capital keeps democracy ticking. There's a rich vein of research in this vein by political scientists, sociologists, and others. I remember finding Michael Woolcock's theoretical formulations very useful when I was studying this.

For the more individually-focused use of social capital that you're interested in, I would look for work inspired by the sociologist/anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu. Here's a non-paywall version of an essay of his on different forms of capital. Note that some of what people are talking about in their answers here is what Bourdieu calls "cultural capital." Bourdieu has inspired lots of theorizing, including plenty of quantitative studies as well as more finely-textured ethnographic work.

In terms of the specific issue of finding a job or career and the role that social capital or social networks play in that, I believe that the economic sociologist Mark Granovetter's 1970s study Getting a Job is still the canonical text. Here's a sociologist blogger's explanation of Granovetter's study and how it relates to the "strength of weak ties." Granovetter has been hugely influential in the development of social network analysis as a method.

Each of these authors has inspired thousands of further studies, and even if you're not up for reading (or paying for) full-on academic articles I'm sure that their names (with the possible exception of Woolcock) will be helpful Google fodder for more popular accounts if that's more in line with what you're looking for.
posted by col_pogo at 10:57 AM on November 28, 2016 [8 favorites]

I think of three kinds of social capital.

First, there's the social capital that people build among themselves and their neighbours that gives them a political voice and increases their economic resilience. Jane Jacobs talks a lot about this kind of social capital in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. She was part of the movement that saved Greenwich Village in New York from being bulldozed for an expressway. What gave them their power as a movement was their social capital. The neighbourhood was built in a way that fostered connections and relationships, and that network of relationships allowed them to react rapidly and powerfully to the threat of "modernizing" destruction.

Second, there's the social capital that people build for themselves by being, well, social. joan_holloway's father is a great example of this. You could think of this as the social capital that people are able to claim for themselves from the general store of social capital available to their family and community.

Third, there's the kind of social capital that the wealthy and powerful have as a side effect of being wealthy and powerful. A lot of people want to be near them, so they have a strong incentive to develop a Guess Culture which allows them to silently identify and weed out those who aren't already part of their group - those who are trying to get close to them for reasons of money and influence. As groups lower down the ladder gradually figure out the silent signals, the specific social capital of a particular group of rich people at a particular point in time gets transmuted into a more general cultural capital. It trickles down.

Lewis H. Lapham provides a clear, crude example of how all three of these applied to his own job prospects in the '50s. When he was interviewed by the CIA, they asked him three questions:
1. When standing on the thirteenth tee at the National Golf Links in Southampton, which club does one take from the bag?

2. On final approach under sail into Hay Harbor on Fishers Island, what is the direction (at dusk in late August) of the prevailing wind?

3. Does Muffy Hamilton wear a slip?
He got the first two questions right, but the last one wrong. The first kind of social capital, the building up of power by a community within a culture, is obvious; the CIA was a bastion of privilege that had gained for itself the power to spy on pretty much anybody it wanted to.

His parents and his time in private boarding school had given him a fair amount of the third kind of social capital; he knew many of the private cues that the powerful used to identify members of their own kind.

However, he failed at the second kind of social capital. He was not social. He did not keep current by going to the right parties with the right people. He schmoozed poorly. He had inherited all the advantages, but in this case there was an inner circle inside the inner circle that he did not have the personal social capital to penetrate.

He chose to excuse himself from the interview rather than wait for the inevitable rejection.
posted by clawsoon at 12:25 PM on November 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

When I was a college student, I was looking for an intern-style summer position, or any sort of summer job that'd make use of my abilities. Not a huge undertaking given I was studying computer science, but this was the summer immediately following the dot-com bubble and things seemed a little more desperate than they really were.
My dad works in the general sphere of construction, and had mentioned to someone he knew through work dealings that I was looking for a summer job. A construction company had a few summer intern spots, and they had the idea that someone with more of a computer background than a construction background would be able to help do a number of computer tasks they had around the office, and I was hired.
I worked there a couple summers, and later used them as a reference when I applied for a different summer job between my junior and senior years of college (I later found out that one of the people I interviewed with also called a friend of hers that I'd helped out at the first company, too). That got my foot in the door at a company that had a pretty large internal group of software developers, and that network of contacts has helped in a few career changes since then.

Some friends who I used to work with quit to work at a high profile political campaign's IT organization five years ago (you can hazard a guess on this one). They were recruited into that, in a way, due to a pretty random link -- one of them went to a small liberal arts college, where he met a resident advisor during his freshman year who, years later, became the chief tech officer of that campaign. So that social link paid off.

I haven't taken advantage of a social link of my own, although I've considered it at times. When in high school, I took a lot of classes at a magnet school in our district, where I had some classmates who were financially/socially better off (their parents were college graduates in careers like banking and medicine, my parents at most completed an associate's degree). After a stint at higher profile colleges, a couple of them now work for some large SV-type companies. I noticed one of them quit working at large_social_network company and is now working with our classmate at another high profile company, and I have no doubt that he ended up there due to this past link.
posted by mikeh at 12:34 PM on November 28, 2016

So I think there are a few different kinds of social capital, and some of those are linked to money and some aren't. When I needed a summer job between the end of high school and the start of college, I was able to get an office gofer position rather than having to apply for retail work because my dad had the social capital to be able to say to his friends "I have a daughter who will be a reliable, good worker," and they took it on faith that he was right. Similarly, when I wanted to go into book publishing after college, some of what got me my first job was my own work (I had worked for my university's Press for two years at that point), but ALSO my mom's cousin was able to call his editor and say he knew someone looking for editorial assistant positions. This allowed me to skip the HR resume weed out stage and it's no coincidence that the place where he was published was the place that ended up hiring me. (Like others above, I left the field not long after for something that was a better fit.) So those are instances in which goodwill that my parents/relatives built up let me get a better starter job than I might have otherwise. In this case money/social class helps determine the type of opportunities you have access to, but the basic idea is the same no matter what class you belong to: some person who is trustworthy can vouch for you to someone who is hiring.

But then there's the kind of social capital that I built on my own that leads to things like ten friends showing up to help me move on multiple occasions. Some of that I built by being a person who showed up to help them in various ways, and some of it is... I don't know exactly. A general likeability?
posted by MsMolly at 6:17 PM on November 28, 2016

Here's the famous comic about privilege, but it also illustrates social capital at work.
posted by CathyG at 11:31 AM on November 29, 2016

J.D. Vance talks about social capital quite bit in his fascinating memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, as he moves from a 'white trash' upbringing to Yale Law grad. Especially interesting since he had virtually no social capital growing up (except for a couple of fiercely loving grandparents), and came at it as an outsider. (I do suspect he has a certain amount of innate gregariousness, which couldn't hurt.)

Some of my notes / excerpts from the book:
[during a week of interviews with major law firms for internships:]

“It was at this meal, on the first of five grueling days of interviews, that I began to understand that I was seeing the inner working of a system that lay hidden to most of my kind… Our interviews weren’t so much about grades or resumes, we were told; thanks to a Yale Law pedigree, one foot was already in the door. The interviews were about passing a social test — a test of belonging, of holding your own in a corporate boardroom, of making connections with potential future clients.

[Since he’s already made it to Yale Law] The most difficult test was the one I wasn’t even required to take: getting an audience in the first place. All week I marveled at the ease of access to the most esteemed lawyers in the country…

…It was pretty clear that there was some mysterious force at work, and I had just tapped into it for the first time. I’d always thought that [getting a job meant searching online, sending resumes, hoping you get a call back, the usual stuff, to little or no avail].

The problem is, virtually everyone who plays by those rules fails. That week of interviews showed me that successful people are playing an entirely different game. They don’t flood the job market with resumes — they network. They email a friend of a friend, have their uncles call old college buddies, use their schools career services office to set up interviews. They have parents who tell them how to dress, what to say, and whom to schmooze."


“Social capital isn’t manifest only in connections; it’s also, or perhaps primarily, a measure of how much we learn through our friends, colleagues, and mentors."

[talks about how valuable good advice from one of his professors was in providing some direction to his life when he needed to make a decision about a clerkship — not walking into it blindly, but determining which path to take in that process. // Contributed to website of conservative journalist, which provided contacts to a law firm he later worked at, which provided a mentor.]

“This is just one version of how the world of successful people actually works. But social capital is all around us. Those who tap into it and use it prosper. Those who don’t are running life’s race with a major handicap. This is a serious problem for kids like me."
posted by Bron at 12:12 PM on December 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

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