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Burning the Bridges and Breaking the Bonds: Social Capital and its Transformative Influence in Relation to Violent Conflict*

BY DR. RICHARD BOWD** | 05.06.2011


Perhaps the most well known academic writing on social capital is Robert D. Putnam who defines social capital as consisting of “the features of social organisation, such as networks, norms and trust, that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit”[1].  Throughout his work Putnam argues that social interaction enables the formation of civic networks that facilitate and reinforce social norms of reciprocity thus constructing an environment of trust.  It is through this environment of trust, embedded in social norms of reciprocity, that effective cooperation and coordination is expedited leading to economic prosperity, political stability and social cohesion[2].  Although this argument may seem simplistic, it is in fact the product of a highly complex analysis of the multifarious aspects of social organisation presented in a cogent manner, and is supported by most academics working in the field.  The work of Putnam provides an ‘umbrella’ understanding of social capital and has subsequently been utilised by many academics as a foundation upon which to further explore and build upon our understanding of social capital.

Robert_PutmanMark S. Granovetter contributes a fundamental element of social capital theory through an analysis of social ties in his paperThe Strength of Weak Ties[3].  For Granovetter, understanding interpersonal ties is crucial for our appreciation of sociological macro phenomena such as diffusion, social mobility, political organisation and social cohesion.  Essentially, interpersonal ties exist between family, friends and associates and can be roughly categorised as strong, weak or absent.  The strength of an interpersonal tie is a “(probably linear) combination of the amount of time, the emotional intensity, the intimacy (mutual confiding), and the reciprocal services which characterise the tie”[4].  According to this definition of the strength of a tie it is evident that more frequent and protracted interaction between individuals will result in a stronger friendship[5].

Interpersonal ties are developed between various individuals and with varying strengths.  Those ties that are strong create dense networks with familiarity, reciprocity and trust permeating between members of these networks.  Such networks “form the primary building blocks of society, uniting nuclear and extended family members and neighbours.  These relations, predominately based on kinship, ethnicity, and religion, are largely protectionist, defence mechanisms that form a safety net for basic survival”[6].  Weak ties, in comparison, create less dense networks that are characterised by their networked and associational nature, for example, civic associations.  It is Granovetter’s premise that weak ties between individuals represent bridges between those dense networks that are characterised by strong ties.

1.1 Bonding and Bridging Social Capital


Since the publication of Granovetter’s ‘The Strength of Weak Ties’ his notion of weak and strong ties, and what such ties represent for the network of which they are a part, has been developed to enable a more sophisticated understanding of social organisation.  The strong and weak ties developed by Granovetter have been reconstituted into what is now known as bonding and bridging social capital.  Bonding social capital is present within dense networks characterised by strong ties, the ties that bind – kinship, ethnicity, religion and profession, among others –, and is “by choice or necessity, inward looking and tend[s] to reinforce exclusive identities and homogenous groups”[7], while bridging social capital is characterised by weak ties – the bridges between networks, associations and communities[8] – and is “outward looking and encompass[es] people across diverse social cleavages”.  As such, “bonding social capital constitutes a kind of sociological superglue, whereas bridging social capital provides a sociological WD-40”[9].  Woolcock  also makes the distinction between bonding and bridging social capital, although he terms them differently with intra-community ties being classified as ‘integration’ (i.e. bonding) and extra-community networks as ‘linkages’ (i.e. bridging)[10].

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* Published in Journal of Conflict Transformation and Security (JCTS) Vol. 1 | No. 1

** Dr Richard Bowd has seven years programmatic and research experience in the general area of post-conflict reconstruction working with a variety of interest groups. Dr Bowd’s experience spans the Europe, Africa and Asia.

© Copyright 2011 by CESRAN

[1] Putnam, R. D. (1993a), Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy, Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. 39.

[2] Putnam, R. D. (1993a); Putnam, R. D. (1993b), The Prosperous Community: Social Capital and Public Life,American Prospect 13: 35-42; Putnam, R. D. (2000), Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, New York: Simon & Schuster; Putnam, R. D. (Ed) (2002), Democracies in Flux: The Evolution of Social Capital in Contemporary Society, New York: Oxford University Press.

[3] Granovetter, M. S. (1973), The Strength of Weak Ties, The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 78, No. 6 (May, 1973), pp. 1360-1380.

[4] Ibid, p. 1361.

[5] Homans, G. C. (1950), The Human Group, New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

[6] Colletta, N. T. & Cullen, M. L. (2000), Violent Conflict and the Transformation of Social Capital: Lessons from Cambodia, Rwanda, Guatemala, and Somalia, Washington D.C: The International Bank for Reconstruction, The World Bank, p. 6.

[7] Putnam, R. D. (2000), p. 22.

[8] Narayan, D. (1999), Bonds and Bridges: Social Capital and Poverty, Policy Research Working Paper 2167, Poverty Reduction and Economic Management Network, World Bank, August 1999.

[9] Putnam, R. D. (2000), p. 23.

[10] Woolcock, M. (1998), Social Capital and Economic Development: Towards a Theoretical Synthesis and Policy Framework, Theory and Society 27: 151-208.