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University of Minnesota Extension

'Social capital' makes communities better places to live

Have you ever stopped to think about what holds your community together?

"Community glue" isn't something you can rush out to the local hardware store and purchase. You won't find a site to buy it online, but if you look really closely you might see it at the grocery store or at your church or even in the newspaper! This "community glue" that I'm referring to is called social capital.

Social capital is mutually respectful relationships, connectedness and trustworthiness among people. It's also networks and involvement. The term social capital was coined by social scientist James Coleman to describe community ties, and Robert Putnam furthered popularized this research in his book, Bowling Alone.

Social capital takes many different forms. It can be the neighbor down the street who knows all the children and is willing to help out in an emergency. Social capital can be the local police officer who coaches Little League or volunteers who come together each year to organize a Relay for Life event. In fact, this powerful "community glue" can be the bowling league or the families in a local 4-H club. Wherever you find people coming together, building relationships, or networking to get things done, you will see social capital at work improving your community.

There are many benefits to strengthening the social capital of your community. Research has shown that increased social capital can help make our lives healthier, safer and richer. It also makes us better able to govern a just and stable democracy. Here are a few examples:

  • Communities with higher levels of social capital produce children with higher SAT scores and higher performance on a broad range of testing. These communities also have lower dropout rates, higher retention and less youth violence.
  • The more integrated we are with our community, the more likely we are to have reduced incidence of a whole batter of health problems including colds, heart attacks, strokes, cancer, depression, and premature death of all sorts.
  • Representative government is more responsive in communities with more social capital. Tax compliance is higher and blood donations more abundant.

Social capital is built through hundreds of actions, large and small, that we take every day. Consider ways you might work at being part of the "glue" that holds your community together. Build trust in your neighborhood. Build connections to people. Get involved.

Here are a few suggestions to get you started: offer to mow a neighbor's yard, volunteer to serve on a committee, hold lunchtime discussions at your workplace, organize a community garden, sing in a choir, or have a neighborhood barbeque.

Each one of us in our own way can be a builder of social capital. We're part of the solution used for sticking things together, the "glue" that makes communities better places to live.


Jody Horntvedt, Extension educator 

Reviewed in 2012

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