Social capital is the mutual trust and cooperation that arises from the web of connections among people involved in organizations and community groups. For the most part, private activities, not government ones, foster social capital. The term civil society is sometimes used as a synonym for the relationships that create social capital. In a civil society, social capital flows easily between people.

Creating Social Capital

Activities that can build social capital include the following:

  • Participating in the local parent-teacher association
  • Joining a civic organization, such as the Elks or the Kiwanis Club
  • Volunteering in the neighborhood or around the community
  • Forming a neighborhood watch
  • Donating old clothes or goods
  • Contributing to a food bank
  • Joining a church or synagogue group
  • Belonging to a bridge team, craft club, or other type of common-interest group

Social Capital and Democracy

In a democratic society, people must be willing to trust others and tolerate those with whom they disagree. Without these attitudes, democracy can fail, because democracy is ultimately a cooperative form of government. Many political scientists regard social capital as essential to democracy because social capital forges bonds between members of the community. These bonds enable people to readily join together. Also, working with others helps build a sense of community and trust among citizens, which, in turn, creates more social capital.

Social Capital and Democratization

One of the most difficult tasks for any democratizing country is the building of civil society. Authoritarian regimes discour-age civil society because civil society can form the basis of resistance to the government. These governments instill fear and mistrust within their citizens, often turning groups and individuals against one another. New democracies sometimes have trouble building community trust and tolerance because their citizens are not used to working together in civil society. For this reason, nations that seek to help other nations democratize must focus much energy on creating social capital and building civil societies.

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