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October 2022

What is social capital?

What is social capital?

What is social capital?

Social capital is the ‘glue’ that holds societies together.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) defines social capital as: 

“the extent and nature of our connections with others and the collective attitudes and behaviours between people that support a well-functioning, close-knit society.”

Research by the OECD shows that higher levels of social capital are beneficial and can be associated with better outcomes in health, education, employment and civic engagement. 

Social capital is one of several interconnected capitals that underpin economic growth and future wellbeing. 

Capitals are our wealth, the stocks and flows of resources, not captured by success metrics like GDP or life expectancy, and underpin our future wellbeing. 

For OECD, the four capitals are:

  • Social capital = addressing the social norms, shared values and institutional arrangements that foster cooperation
  • Natural capital = environmental stocks and systems that generate benefits for people, including ecosystem services, raw materials, and a stable climate.
  • Human capital = the health and skills of the population.
  • Economic capital = financial goods, physical infrastructure and technology.

The UK government’s Levelling Up White Paper and Cambridge University’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy further split out the following types:

  • Social capital = the strength of communities, relationships and trust.
  • Knowledge capital = the accumulated ‘best practices’ and ‘ways of doing things’ enabling innovation in management and business processes. 
  • Institutional capital = the quality and reliability of governance and relationships between institutions and organisations.

Institutional capital, governance and democracy are also used for the macro parts of social capital, for example in Levelling Up, New Zealand Living Standards Framework and Carnegie’s SEED model

There are several ways of conceptualising social capital. Our work as a centre focuses on identifying what works to improve these capitals and understanding how they work together as a system.

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