Social Capital

Social Capital and Agency

Social capital is about human relationships with one another, individually, and collectively as a member of clubs, groups and networks. We are biologically driven social animals and having the space and place to connect with others is essential to building social capital. A thriving community has strong social capital, both bonding (more personal trust) and bridging (centred on broader interests). As Putman (1998) asks, “do we want more police on the street or more people knowing their neighbours”?

Why are networks important

Networks are vital to sustainable communities as they are most often mobilized for social action, change and social innovation. They are embedded with a defined community, and may be communities of place or communities of interest (i.e. an online chat room). Networks are important as they help to build trust, lubricate the flow of information and knowledge, and also empower individuals to act collectively.


What makes one community collapse from an economic downturn while another transforms itself? And equally, what makes one individual able to transcend a personal tragedy while others hit the street? Our work in the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver showed us there seemed to be something prior to the mobilization of social capital: agency (the will or intent to act). Agency is the ability to respond to events outside of one’s immediate sphere of influence to produce a desired change. Both agency and social capital must be available in a community to effect social change.

Research Goals

1. To characterize the properties of networks that generate social capital and network formation.
2. To analyze the ways social capital contributes to sustainable development.

Our case study communities included: Broken Hill, Australia; Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, British Columbia; Merritt, British Columbia; Maleny, Australia; and Salt Spring Island, British Columbia. We also explored network formations around anti-urban sprawl in Canada as well as anti-war blogs.


1. Networks that are open rather than closed allow greater diversity and innovation.
2. Human agency appears to be a critical a priori condition to the formation of network capital into social capital.
3. Government policies, programs and incentives can either hinder or enhance existing social capital in a community.
4. There is a dynamic relationship between individual agency, social capital, open network formation and sustainable community development.
5. People identified as active agents embody the following traits: self-directed; goal-oriented; high levels of integrity; unafraid to take on challenges; flexible, open personalities; strong values on diversity; adaptive; highly collaborative; strong feeling of connectivity to others and community; involved in a diversity of networks and groups; actively informed; highly communicative, with high levels of self-efficacy.