The Political Implication of Social Capital

By Reid, Ashley | Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview
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The Political Implication of Social Capital

Reid, Ashley, Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy


Politicians do not live in a vacuum. Their lives span more than their political commitments, affiliations, and even careers. The line between personal and political life is particularly thin for local elected officials. While U.S. congressmen are often away from their districts for the majority of the year and have time to strategically develop their "home style," local politicians do not have this advantage (Fenno 1978). Local elected officials interact with their constituents on a daily basis. They must work, play, and volunteer with the same people they serve. By having multiple roles within the same community, local officials are connected to various networks that affect their personal lives and political careers. This article explores the intersection between the two spheres. More specifically, I examine how social capital impacts the policies and programs that local elected officials champion while in office.

Social capital, a concept originating in the field of sociology, refers to the resources and value received from maintaining individual connections within organizations, as well as links between organizations that form broader social networks. These networks can be composed of a variety of formal and informal institutions, such as churches, bowling leagues, and gardening clubs. Social capital can also be attained through participation in groups that do not have a specific focus on social or recreational activity. For example, one can build networks though relationships with people in the same labor union or professional society, as well as through parent-teacher associations in schools (Coleman 1988; Putnam 2000; Sampson 2005).

Like physical capital and human capital, social capital has also been shown to play an important role in improving economic, community, health, and educational outcomes. In fact, it has been demonstrated that social capital can improve one's life opportunities overall (Dika and Singh 2002; Putnam 2000). However, the way in which social capital impacts politicians' activity in office and policy outcomes has not been explicitly considered.

As I will discuss in detail, literature on the subject of social capital has shown that social capital can aid politicians in their campaigns to get into office. And that is where the story generally ends. This article considers what happens once a political candidate becomes a political official. Does the social capital that helps officials win their seat impact the work that they do while they are there?


Modern theoretical definitions of the phrase "social capital" are attributed to French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and American sociologist James Coleman (Portes 2000; Lin 1999). Bourdieu focused on distinguishing social capital from economic and cultural capital. One defining feature of social capital, in Bourdieu's view, is that people actively cultivate social capital and form networks in anticipation of the positive benefits that they will bring later (Bourdieu 1980). This differs from Coleman, who focuses more on the psychological foundation of the networks, such as reciprocity and trust. Coleman does not specify that people are interested in other long-term benefits that can occur as a result of belonging to these networks (1988). Despite some inconsistencies in how these sociologists view the motivations for obtaining social capital, both definitions center around the resources accessed in social networks.

Social capital does not impact all groups equally. Just as there are disparities in human capital and economic capital, the literature on social capital highlights that individuals and groups also have inequalities in their social capital and the resulting benefits experienced. Specifically, social capital is distributed differently among the types of networks to which people have access. Since people have variations in their networks, then this naturally causes some people to have connections that are more extensive and diverse than others.

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