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What is social capital? (Trust us — you want to know!)

By Brian Fairbanks
July 08, 2021 • 4 minute read

Social capital is about more than being popular. To build social capital, a person connects to other professionals in their field of interest and develops social ties. This can be through a mutual exchange of information and opportunities. It can also be through career advice, mentoring, or coaching in career development.

Social capital can be built through one-on-one interactions, social relationships, and even group activities. The latter might involve a shared experience, such as going out for a happy hour or attending a company event. It can also be an individual pursuit, like taking a career development course.

Learning how to build social capital can be difficult for many people, particularly introverted or younger people who haven’t been in the working world very long. There are, however, some simple ways to build various types of social capital that will encourage career growth down the road.

What is social capital?

Encyclopedia Britannica defines social capital as the professional or personal relationships people develop to “secure benefits and invent solutions to problems through membership in [these] social networks.”

Social capital can be categorized in three ways, according to Social Capital Research:

  1. Bonding – This is usually found between members of a tight social group, hence their social bond. As research says, “Bonding social capital is often associated with local communities where many people know many other people in the group (network closure). Bonding social capital is often associated with strong norms, mores, and trust which can have both positive and negative manifestations and implications for social exclusion.”
  2. Bridging – Many types of social capital are found between people who are not part of the same general circles. For instance, you may hang out with co-workers and also with friends who live in your city but aren’t part of the same industry. Each of you is technically connected to other people within the groups of the people you know. You can visualize these connections like a bridge, where your connection might lead to a new one.
  3. Linking – Although this is similar to bridging social capital, it differs in one key way. Social Capital Research says this type is formed via “networks of trusting relationships between people who are interacting across explicit, formal or institutionalized power or authority gradients in society.” For example, an elected official might have ties to the local community. They may also have deep roots in education, activism, or the entrepreneurial world.

If you have professional social capital with someone, you may be able to ask them to “put in a good word” for you with their employer. If you’re traveling to a foreign country and you have social capital with someone who lives there, they may provide you with a personalized list of hotel and restaurant recommendations. Or if you have an even higher level of social capital, or “cache” with that person, they may agree to play tour guide for you.

How can relationships enhance career development?

With enough social capital, you might be able to:

  • Apply for a new job
  • Pursue new opportunities at your current job (think job shadowing or joining an employee resource group)
  • Transition into a new career
  • Identify a mentor for advice and guidance to develop new skills and knowledge
  • Collaborate on a work project with co-workers or other professionals in your field
  • Gain exposure to career development opportunities others in your network might discover

Not all relationships with fellow workers offer the same value. “A work organization with hierarchical relationships contains status differences that facilitate or constrain access to others,” according to the Career Research blog. “A senior executive is likely to have more immediate access to the expertise of individuals throughout the company than a floor manager. The status provides authority, which is social capital that has value.”

In addition, individuals from underrepresented communities and first-generation graduates are more likely to have limited social capital as it relates to providing access to career development opportunities.

Social capital can really benefit overall career development. However, like any other advantage, it’s only useful if you know how to leverage it. The Career Institute™ at University of Phoenix (UOPX) explores these types of broad, persistent and systemic barriers to career advancement to find research-based solutions.

How to build social capital

Saray Lopez, the director of student diversity and inclusion at UOPX, suggests several easy ways to build social capital:

  • Join professional organizations in your field or ones connected to your career of interest. “If you are a current student or alumni of a higher education institution, engage with its student organizations,” Lopez advises. “These offer a fantastic way to connect with others in your field of interest.” Benefits of such organizations may include opportunities for leadership development, mentorship, interview coaching, and resumé writing to name a few, Lopez adds.
  • Join LinkedIn groups and actively engage in conversations — or start one of your own by asking for help.
  • Find events you are interested in attending. Choose ones that challenge your growth and understanding of the world around you. Some will be available in your city or nearby. Plenty of others will be online through virtual event companies and ticketing agencies. While you’re “in attendance,” says Lopez, “make sure to connect with speakers and attendees and follow up with them either via email or a personalized message on LinkedIn.”
  • Build your network while understanding the importance of sharing knowledge, expertise, and diverse experiences. Continued learning is crucial in today’s working environment. Information and technology constantly evolve. You never know — someone could become an informal career coach for you or vice versa!
  • Be authentic with people, Lopez says. “When building your network, it’s crucial to be intentional and genuine in your interest to connect with other professionals. As far as career development, invest time in developing meaningful relationships that benefit from a diverse network.” While expanding your network, it is also crucial to bring others with you and to help them develop as well. Make introductions to contacts in your networks as well as with mentoring or coaching.

Improve career success

Are you interested in launching a new career, enhancing your current one, or just improving your professional life in general? Building social capital isn’t the only way to achieve your goals. Career coaching may offer real benefits as well. (Bonus: University of Phoenix offers Career Services for Life™ for current students and graduates of our degree programs.)

Whether you call it friendships, relationships, or networking, connecting with other people in your field offers many benefits. However, to reap its rewards, you simply have to be curious, be helpful — and be yourself.

Ready to reach out? Learn how to optimize your LinkedIn profile first.

Get started on your degree program today at University of Phoenix!