Clarifying “Social Capital”
In his paper Reflections on the Use of Social Capital, Tom Schuller discusses a framework for classifying social capital as bonding or bridging. This useful framework is the focus of our discussion; however, we’ve adapted the terminology to fit with our working definition of social capital. In our context, Schuller’s framework applies to relationships rather than to social capital (the resources within relationships).
Defining Bonding vs. Bridging
Bonding relationships are the links between people who have similar characteristics within a community.
Bridging relationships are the links people within a community have with others who are different outside the community.
Schuller points out that the distinction between bonding and bridging relationships is entirely dependent on the frame of reference. For example, “Reaching out across a street in a given neighborhood may bridge ethnic, class or other lines; but seen in a broader context it may look like a community simply reinforcing its bonds against outsiders.”
The Impact of the Bonding and Bridging Balance
Schuller proposes a useful framework for discussing the balance of bonding and bridging relationships in a community and understanding the likely implications of that balance. Here’s the framework with some minor adaptations:
|High Bridging||Low Bridging|
|High Bonding||A confident, creative community. Value is generated both inside and outside its walls.
Example: “a country that welcomes immigrants yet upholds strong historical national norms.”
|A comfortable, homogenous, inwardly-focused community. Value is generated inside its walls, but is constrained.
Example: an exclusive club in which members have close ties, but “display suspicion and hostility towards outsiders.”
|Low Bonding||A fissile community, not likely to endure. Value is generated outside its walls, but is short-lived.||A suspicious, low energy community. Little value is generated.|
What’s the Right Balance?
We can certainly argue that a high level of both bonding and bridging relationships is important for many types of groups and networks to maximize social capital. For example, in business, a team can be cohesive and strongly disciplined, but if it does not seek out new ideas or inspiration from outside the team, it will lose energy and creativity.
However, Schuller poses two interesting questions along with the unsettling insight that “…‘healthy’ social capital can wither—or turn into a ‘dark’ version.” He poses these questions:
- At what point do bonding relationships begin to need to be complemented by bridging relationships?
- At some point, does the growth of bridging relationships lead to a transformation in the identity of the network?
These questions seem fairly easy to analyze within the context of business. We propose that teams of all ages, sizes and types should incorporate at least some emphasis on developing bridging relationships at all times. This focus will foster creativity and connectedness. For example, a new sales organization within a small company must simultaneously cultivate team-level relationships (bonding) as well as relationships with other corporate teams and valuable connections outside the company (bridging).
We also propose that within this context, the growth of bridging relationships does have the potential to turn “dark” unless proactively and thoughtfully managed. The same sales team could over-emphasize the development of bridging relationships with a specific vendor and find themselves building processes around an unsustainable or even toxic group of people and values.
A Real-World Example
The Choir School of Delaware is an incredibly impactful organization that is clearly doing something right with regard to helping at-risk students develop their social capital.
During our discussion with Arreon Harley, we observed that the program excels at developing bonding relationships between students and adults in the community by cultivating a mentorship program and an intergenerational environment where adults can get to know many different facets of a child.
(This could also be considered bridging if we looked at the context of the students instead of the context of the Choir School.)
Arreon also explains how he recognized the need to develop bridging relationships between the Choir School and other organizations in the Wilmington, Delaware area. These bridging relationships give students and their families access to an incredible array of resources they would not have otherwise taken advantage of.
In contrast, the Choir School needs help in developing bridging relationships with people and programs across the country who share a common mission to serve at-risk students. Arreon’s wish is to replicate the successful Choir School model in other cities around the country, but he does not currently have the bridging relationships needed to accomplish this goal.
Proactively monitoring the balance of bonding and bridging relationships is essential for any team or community. Taking a passive approach to this could, at best, limit a group’s ability to identify what dynamics are working. At worst, it could lead to a preventable implosion. Understanding the success of the existing balance and looking for opportunities for improvement does take some focused analysis because there are many contexts to use as a frame of reference. However, an active awareness of this balance can help a team or community maintain the creativity and energy that’s essential for success, allowing them to uncover opportunities that unlock untapped social capital.