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Is Social Capital a Good Concept?


This paper explores whether the concept of social capital as popularized by Robert Putnam is a good social science concept. Taking Gerring’s work on concept evaluation as the starting point, the paper first presents a set of criteria for conceptual ‘goodness’ and discusses how social capital performs on these criteria. It is argued that social capital eventually may be a good concept if it can be shown empirically to be a unidimensional concept. An empirical section therefore explores the validity of the unidimensionality assumption and rejects it in four separate tests at both the individual and aggregate level. We conclude that even if social capital has been a remarkably productive idea, it is not a good concept as most popular conceptualizations define social capital as several distinct phenomena or as phenomena that already have been conceptualized under other labels.

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  1. 1.

    We must stress that we primarily think of the dimensionality question in an empirical/statistical sense. Hence, even though a concept may be multidimensional in terms of consequences or attributes, it need not be multidimensional in a statistical sense if these attributes are sufficiently related. The strong test of multidimensionality that we have in mind is that of approximate, empirical orthogonality, i.e. attributes or phenomena are almost entirely unassociated with each other.

  2. 2.

    The fact that sample sizes are the same—48 states and countries—is purely coincidental.

  3. 3.

    As is standard, Alaska is excluded from the survey due to its extremely sparse population, and Hawaii is excluded since it arguably does not belong to American culture, having approximately 60% indigenous inhabitants.

  4. 4.

    At first sight, more variables included in this data set may be relevant in a composite social capital index. However, while those included in the analysis here are all measured in frequency within the last 12 months, the remaining variables are either measured in frequency compared to the previous year or only asked in certain years. As such, one set measures frequency while another measures year-to-year changes. In Putnam (2000), it is not always ideally clear which type is used.


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We are grateful for comments on previous versions from anonymous referees, Niclas Berggren, Jørgen Møller, Svend-Erik Skaaning, Richard Traunmüller, Eric Uslaner, and participants at a CINEFOGO conference in Aalborg, Denmark, June 2009. All remaining errors are of course ours.

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Correspondence to Kim Mannemar Sønderskov.

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Bjørnskov, C., Sønderskov, K.M. Is Social Capital a Good Concept?. Soc Indic Res 114, 1225–1242 (2013).

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  • Social capital
  • Principal components analysis
  • Concept formation