Social Capital as Process: The Meanings and Problems of a Theoretical Metaphor


Bankston, C. L., III & Zhou, M. (2002). Social Capital as Process: The Meanings and Problems of a Theoretical Metaphor. Sociological Inquiry. vol. 72 (2) pp. 285-317


In this study, we suggest that the difficulty in defining, locating, and measuring social capital is at core a philosophical confusion of language, and not just a consequence of excessively wide application. The term “capital” refers to resources for investment. Financial capital consists of specific quantities of assets. Human capital, a metaphorical extension of financial capital, also consists of specific quantities of assets, in the form of skills or credentials. However, social capital, a third metaphorical construction, does not consist of resources that are held by individuals or by groups but of processes of social interaction leading to constructive outcomes. Therefore, we argue, social capital is not located at any one level of analysis: it emerges across levels of analysis. The confusion over the meaning of this term, then, is a consequence of a metaphorical confusion of a substantive quantity (capital) and a process that takes place through stages (embedded, goal-directed social relations). Locating and defining social capital is further complicated by the variability, contextuality, and conditionality of the process. Stages of social relations that lead to constructive outcomes for one group of people or in one situation may not lead to constructive outcomes for another group or in another situation. To illustrate empirically how social capital may be thought of as a process consisting of stages and to demonstrate why the concept is inherently problematic, we employ data from the 1995 interviews of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health). These data enable us to examine connections among the stages of the social capital process found in the literature and to look at predictors of academic achievement, a central topic in research on this topic.



social capital

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Journal Article

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Sociological Inquiry


Bankston, C. L., III
Zhou, M.

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