Spinuzzi (2003) argues that “community implies more than simply information swapping” but notes that some communities “lack the sort of infrastructure necessary to do more” (p. 217). He contends that successful communities require a wide range of civic mechanisms not just communication mechanisms and notes that these civic mechanisms share information but also investigate and evaluate past efforts and current actions as well as deliberate on future developments.
This means that successful communities do more than share information – they are learning organisms. Information sharing is an important function of a community, and often a primary reason for its formation, but in order to be successful the community must also exert social control so the community’s resources (information) are utilized in the best way possible for the community as a whole. Even more important, the future success and health of the community requires that new resources must be cultivated and developed. That is why it is important to understand social capital as this theory offers important insights to further understanding of how a community functions.
Portes (2000) calls social capital one of the most successful “exports” from sociology in recent decades. Social capital is comprised of the collective features of a social organization that enables mutual cooperation for mutual benefit (Gargiulo & Benassi, 2000; Burt, 2001; Portes, 1998; Onyx & Bullen, 2000; Kawachi, Kennedy, & Glass, 1999; Hofman & Dijkstra, 2010; Fukuyama, 2001). Hofman & Dijkstra (2010) say social capital gives us access to different resources through our social connections. An individual’s willingness to act on behalf of the common good depends greatly on their sense of community (Lochner, Kawachi, & Kennedy, 1999) and the mutual advantage of belonging to that community (Onyx & Bullen, 2000). Lochner, Kawachi, & Kennedy (1999) argue that social cohesion plays an important role in individuals’ willingness to intervene on behalf of the common good. They suggest social capital is an ecological characteristic of the social structure.
Not every community, group, or organization develops social capital. Portes (1998) argues that social networks are not “a natural given” but instead “must be constructed through investment strategies.” The community must have a number of features in order to develop social capital. First, membership must be voluntary and offer equal opportunity. This is essential to fostering the trust that is necessary for social capital. Onyx & Bullen (2000) also stress the notion of reciprocity or the combination of short-term altruism and long-term self-interest. Community members must also trust in the community and that the social norms embraced by the community will provide sufficient social control. Onyx & Bullen (2000) stress it is the combined effect of trust, networks, norms, and reciprocity which creates a strong community that is mutually advantageous.
So why do community members engage in the difficult and challenging work necessary to build a community and establish social capital? As Spinuzzi notes, many communities form out of an initial need to share information but Portes (2000) argues they persist for the benefits that they will bring later. Burt (2001) points out that building social capital is a form of investment and those with higher social capital experience higher returns. Portes (1998) makes the case that social capital offers three basic benefits: social control, support, and connections. Hofman & Dijkstra (2010) says organizations use social capital to coordinate actions without relying on formal authority or traditional influences. Garguilo & Benassi (2000) argue that social networks facilitate access to information, resources, and opportunities. Portes (1998) also points out that social capital also comes with disadvantages such as exclusion of outsiders, excessive claims on members, restriction of individual freedom, and downward leveling norms.