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Volume 6, Number 1
Spring 2008

Household Bridging and Bonding Social Capital:  Do "New Urbanism" Characteristics Make a Difference?


David E. Redburn 
Kenneth Peterson 

Furman University

    Interest in the concept of social capital has, in recent years, exploded with articles in both the popular and academic press.  Perhaps the most influential of these works is that of Robert Putnam whose 2000 Bowling Alone is probably the most cited of the recent works on the topic.  Significant work by Coleman (1987, 1988, 1990) predates Putnam but didn't receive as much attention.  But Portes (1998) and others have argued that the concept of social capital is not really a new idea.  They point to Durkheim's work on anomie and social cohesion and Marx's writings on class as examples of historical work in sociology which can be seen to be as the forerunners of the more contemporary notion that "participation in groups can have positive consequences for the individual and the community (Portes 1998:2)."  More specifically, he suggests that Durkheim's emphasis on group life as an antidote to anomie and self-destruction and Marx's distinction between an atomized "class-in-itself" and a mobilized and effective "class-for-itself" are prime examples of this classical intellectual background.  So it is probably best to talk about the "reemergence" of the idea.

     Now, there are a number of definitional and conceptual issues that are associated with the more contemporary concept of social capital.  They include, but are not limited to, questions about the definition, which include issues of micro versus macro perspectives and social trust versus social structural approaches and questions as to whether social capital should be employed as an independent or dependent variable.  There have also been discussions about how social capital is or may be related to other types of capital, more specifically economic, human and cultural capital and issues of at least two types of social capital, those being "bonding" and "bridging" social capital.  We will briefly discuss each of these and then discuss a number of measurement issues before moving on to our own data. 

Definitions of Social Capital

    Defining social capital is one of the most difficult aspects of doing research on the topic.  There are at least two major traditions in the use of the term social capital.  The first of these tends to be more sociological in orientation and traces its roots to Bourdieu (1985) and Coleman (1988).  There is however an economist, Lowry (1977), who also has written in this tradition.  The second tradition is more the purview of the economists and political scientists and is seen more in the work of Putnam (1995, 1996).

    The sociologists tend to see social capital as being social structural in nature.  That is, they see it as social networks, organizations and linkages between those networks and organizations.  They focus more on the community rather than the national level and suggest that social capital is not an individual attribute but rather an attribute of communities. So it is not an attitude, one that would be held by an individual, rather it is a structure.  Bourdieu (1985) defined it as "the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance or recognition (p. 248)."   This definition focuses on "the benefits accruing to individuals by virtue of participating in groups (Portes 1998)."  Portes goes on to say that he believes that a consensus is emerging in the literature that suggests that social capital "stands for the ability of actors to secure benefits by virtue of participating in social networks or other social structures (p. 6)."

    In contrast to the sociologists, the political scientists and most economists tend to see social capital as an attitude.  More specifically, they talk in terms of trust, reciprocity and tolerance.  So it is seen to be a more individual attribute and they then argue that greater social capital leads to more civic engagement.  For example, Putnam's definition focuses on three key elements: civic engagement, norms and trust, and effective collective action (Rohe 2004).  In all fairness, Putnam and others writing in this tradition do talk about "social organization" but there is greater emphasis placed on trust and reciprocity as attitudes possessed by individuals.  Foley and Edwards (1999) argue quite forcefully against this interpretation of social capital.  They say that they "find little to recommend the use of 'social capital' to represent the norms, values and attitudes of the civic culture argument (p.141)."  Nevertheless this tradition has a considerable following. 

Two Types of Social Capital

    Woolcock (2001:13) and many others argue that there are two major types of social capital.  The first is "bonding" social capital and refers to "relations among family members, close friends and neighbors," whereas the second is the "bridging" type and refers to "more distant friends, associates and colleagues."  As we will see below, we have developed measures which we think tap both types.

Other Types of Capital

    A number of writers have couched their discussions of social capital in terms of comparisons with the other "types" of capital.  Light (2004), for example, defines capital as “a store of value that facilitates action” (p. 2) and suggests that in addition to the types of capital identified by Marx and others, financial and physical, social scientists have identified three "new" forms.  They are human, cultural and social (Bourdieu 1986).  He goes on to say that even though these types are distinct, they are "best understood in their reciprocity and interdependency (p. 2)."  He further asserts that in order to understand social capital one needs to understand the nature of these other forms of capital and how social capital "transmutes" into them.

    Becker (1993:17) was one of the first to use the term human capital and argued that education and training were "the most important investments" in human capital.  So human capital “means investment in training, education, or even work experience that increase one's productivity and therewith earns a money return (Light 2004:2)."  Persons possess more or less of this type of capital and those with more are, generally speaking, more successful economically.  Human capital resides in individuals, whereas social capital resides in relationships.

    Cultural capital, a concept most often attributed to Bourdieu (1979a; 1979b) refers to "high cultural knowledge" and like human capital can be seen to reside in the individual and result in greater economic success.  One usually acquires one's cultural capital as children as they grow up in affluent households.  In contrast, social capital is said to reside in the social networks that people inhabit. 

Social Capital as an Independent or Dependent Variable

    In their 1999 piece, Foley and Edwards reviewed 45 recent articles on social capital.  They assert that the "literature is roughly equally divided between those who treat social capital as an independent variable and those who consider it as a dependent variable, and those who operationalize the concept principally in terms of norms, values and attitudes and those who choose a more structural operationalization, invoking social networks, organizations and linkages (p. 147)."  So it seems that there is no consensus on whether it should be seen as an independent or dependent variable.  Add to this the fact that the literature explores what leads to the development of social capital as well as what are the results of having it or not and we have a very confusing landscape indeed!

Measurement of Social Capital

    So, in the end how do we define social capital and then how do we measure it?  As we have said, one of the major problems in the literature is a lack of a generally accepted definition.  For our work however, we have settled upon a definition that is derived from Bourdieu and Portes and suggests that social capital refers to the extent to which neighborhoods and communities have networks that connect their residents.  In addition, it suggests that the extent of these networks is important but also the quality of the connections.  As we will see, the extent is easier to measure than the quality. 

    Before we get to our actual measure of social capital we should point out a number of difficulties with measures of the concept.  First, some of the research that has been done on social capital has relied on proxy measures of the dimensions of the concept.  More specifically, data collected for other purposes has been used to test hypotheses on social capital.  These "proxy" measures probably suffer from validity problems.  Second, survey data really reflect how people perceive their networks and network participation rather than their actual participation.  Third, there is a problem with the use of "inverse" measures as proxies for social capital.  For example, a high crime rate in a neighborhood or community is taken as an indication of low social capital but there are certainly other reasons for a high crime rate.  We are certain that our measures do not address all of these issues but we certainly are aware of them. 

Our Measures of Social Capital

    Our measures of social capital were composite ones made up of questions that we believed tapped the network/linkage characteristics of households and ultimately neighborhoods.  The "internal" one focuses on questions about the respondent's connections and interactions with neighbors and the neighborhood.  The "external" index focuses on the respondent's connections with the larger community.  We think that to some extent this captures the distinction that some have made between what has been referred to as "bonding" and "bridging" social capital. Notice that we have tried to capture both the quantity issue with regard to networks as well as the quality one.  For example, number 2 below on "really good friends" is possibly an example of this. 

    The questions that we included in our "internal" index were as follows:

  1.  How often does your household participate in neighborhood activities?   (Activities included sports teams, clubs, etc.)
  2. Of your "really good friends," how many live in your neighborhood?
  3. How often do you visit your neighbors?
  4. How often do you borrow or exchange things with your neighbors?
  5. Within the last year, have people in this neighborhood helped you or have you helped them with small tasks such as yard work, repair work, etc?
  6. If you had flu or a similar illness and needed assistance, would you ask for help from a neighbor?
  7. How many neighbors would you be willing to ask?
  8. Does a member of your household belong to an organization such as a neighborhood association?
  9. During the past year, have you talked to any of your neighbors about conditions in your neighborhood that bothered you?
  10. If you were bothered by conditions in your neighborhood would you normally talk to anyone in the neighborhood about it?
The questions that we included in our "external" index were as follows:
  1. How often do you visit with friends outside of your neighborhood?
  2. If you had flu or a similar illness and needed assistance, would you ask for help from someone outside the neighborhood?
  3. About how many friends residing outside the neighborhood would you be willing to ask for help?
  4. Some people belong to organizations such as PTA's, social clubs and unions.  How many of these organizations do the members of your household belong?
  5. Approximately how many hours a month do members of your household spend doing volunteer work?
    Responses to the questions were summed and an index score was assigned to each household.  We then looked at how those scores varied across demographic categories.  We are aware that the validity of these measures could be questioned and were we able we would have performed a factor analysis on them.  However, six of twelve of the items that comprise the external index and one of five of the internal index are nominal level so a cluster analysis was not feasible.  In the end, we simply had to conclude that the indexes measured what they purported to as they were derived from items suggested by the literature to measure bridging and bonding capital. 

New Urbanism

    New urbanism (also called Smart Growth, New Community Design and Neo-traditional Design) is a set of development practices to create more attractive, efficient and livable communities.  This urban design movement began in the 1960's but interest in it increased dramatically in the 1980's and early 1990's.  It is seen as a reaction to sprawl.

    There have been many statements concerning what elements in a neighborhood define it as new urbanist in character.  One of those is by two of the founding members of the Congress for the New Urbanism (1999), Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk.  They articulated the following elements among others:

  1. The neighborhood has a discernable center
  2. Most of the dwellings are within a five minute walk of the center
  3. There are a variety of dwelling types
  4. There are shops and offices to supply the weekly needs of a household
  5. An elementary school is close enough to walk to
  6. Playgrounds are within a walk able distance
  7. Streets form a connected network to disperse traffic
  8. The streets are relatively narrow which slows traffic and allows walking and biking
  9. Parking lots and garages rarely front the street
  10. Certain buildings or sites are set aside for community meetings, education and religious or cultural activities
  11. The neighborhood is organized to be self-governing
    The movement is not without its critics from both the left and the right and some argue that it is simply a new form of sprawl as the current new urbanist communities still rely on the automobile as their major form of transportation.  In any case, we wondered whether those communities that had some new urbanist characteristics would show higher levels of social capital.  Obviously the neighborhoods in our study were not designed by smart growth architects.  However, we did ask questions in our survey that were designed to ascertain the extent to which these neighborhoods had some of those characteristics.  These included questions regarding the following:
  1. Whether they were gated or not
  2. The neighborhood loyalty level of residents
  3. Total number of services within a 10 minute walk
  4. A cul-de-sac within 500 feet of the home
  5. Feel comfortable walking in the neighborhood
  6. Total clubs in the neighborhood
  7. Organizations within a 10 minute walk
  8. Is work within a 10 minute walk
  9. Is spouse's work within a 10 minute walk
  10. Is there an elementary school within a 10 minute walk 
The Data

    The data for this paper were collected during the summer of 2004 through the spring of 2005 and consisted of a Web based survey (N=235) and a telephone survey conducted by the Center for Social Research at Furman University (N=735).  Questions were adapted from a number of sources and a number of research questions were posed.  Among those were: Which, if any household characteristics influence levels of social capital?  Does social capital vary with neighborhood characteristics, more specifically; do those neighborhoods with "New Urbanism" characteristics exhibit higher levels of social capital?  Do housing values vary with different levels of "neighborhood" social capital?  This paper is first an attempt to see if there were any discernable differences in social capital across our demographic variables. And second, we try to answer the question about New Urbanism characteristics


    This first analysis focuses on households but we have geo-coded our data and it is our intention to draw boundaries around our neighborhoods and compare them in the future.  ANOVA's and t-tests were run and a number of significant differences in social capital and our demographic variables emerged.  See Table 1.

Table 1

Looking for Work
Spouse Looking
Worked Last Week
Spouse Worked
Spouse FT/PT
Children <18
Spouse Education
Marital Status
Registered Voter
Voted in Last
Attended Meetings

    As can be seen from the above table, we found a number of significant relationships between the demographic characteristics and the internal (Bonding) and the external (Bridging) social capital indices.  More specifically, those who owned their homes, males, registered voters and those who had either donated to a political campaign or volunteered for one had higher levels of both types of social capital.  Whites had higher levels of bonding capital.  Those who had higher levels of bridging capital included persons who reported working last week, families with children under the age of 18, those in the age group 41-55, those who had educational levels above high school, those who were married, those with incomes above $30,000, and those who had voted in the last election and attended political party meetings. 

    We then constructed an index of "New Urbanism-ness" from the 10 variables listed above and ran ANOVAs to see if those characteristics led to greater or lesser amounts of "bonding" and "bridging" social capital.  We split the urbanism index into three categories high, medium and low, based on percentages in the distribution (Roughly 33% in each).  The ANOVAs revealed that indeed there were significant differences between the low and the medium groups and the low and the high groups in terms of bridging capital (F=14.086, p<.001) but no difference between the medium and high groups.  With regard to bonding capital (F=9.432, p<.001), the medium and high groups were significantly different as well as the low and high groups.

    We further analyzed the data by looking at the relationship of each of the “New Urbanist” characteristics in our index and both social capital indices.  T-tests revealed that those who claimed higher loyalty to their neighborhoods had higher levels of bonding capital (t =-3.490, p<.001) while those who did not live on cul-de-sacs had higher levels of bridging capital (t =-2.471, p<.05).  Both bonding (t =-2.543, p<.05) and bridging (t =-2.420, p<.05) capital were higher for those who were comfortable walking in their neighborhoods.  Significant correlations were also found between the number of services within a ten minute walk in the neighborhood and both bonding (r =.122, p<.01) and bridging (r =.115, p<.01) social capital, as well as the number of clubs in the neighborhood and the bonding (r =.123, p<.01) and bridging (r =.100, p<.01) indices.  The variable "organizations within a ten minute walk" was also significantly correlated with bonding social capital (r =.122, p<.05). 


    We believe that we can draw a number of conclusions from our data. 

    First, household characteristics do seem to be related to different levels of both "bonding" and "bridging" social capital.  For example, it is not surprising that those who own their homes have higher levels of both types of capital since owning one's house would probably tie one to one's community more strongly and connect family members to more neighbors and community organizations.  Of course alternatively, we might also argue that those with greater ties decide to purchase a house rather than renting one. The fact that males exhibit greater levels of both types may be related to patriarchy in our society.  Males tend to be dominant in many organizations in our society and in the work place.    We know, for example, that labor force participation is approximately 27% higher among males in Greenville County so it was not a surprise that external capital was higher but we were a little surprised that the level of internal capital was higher as well.  One might argue that this is also consistent with the patriarchal nature of our society. The relationships found in the political variables (being a registered voter, having voted in the last election, having volunteered for a campaign and having attended party meetings) also make sense in light of the fact that such participation probably connects household members to the local as well as the larger community.  Some of the other differences are also logical.  For example, households with children under the age of 18 were higher in bridging capital.  This may be the result of the connections that these families make in taking their children to various activities such as music and dance lessons and sport's practices.  The differences that we see in age and income also make sense as those in the 41 to 55 age group are in their peak career years and those with higher levels of education are more likely to be in occupations that bring them into interaction with a variety of people in the larger community.  The higher levels of bridging capital with regard to marital status and income follow a similar logic.  Married persons have wider networks of friends and acquaintances and those with higher incomes, like those with higher levels of education, are more likely to have connections with the larger community.

    Second, it appears that households in communities that have more "New Urbanist" characteristics have more social capital.  Those communities that exhibit the lowest and the highest amounts of these characteristics had the lowest and highest amounts of both types of social capital.  Why this is the case for "bridging" capital is unclear, but if the "New Urbanist" theorists are correct these characteristics foster more and better local community connections, thus higher levels of "bonding" capital.  Of course, this leads us to a causal order question about whether people with high degrees of social capital select themselves into new urban neighborhoods, or whether the new urban characteristics promote social capital accumulation.

    Finally, a number of the individual items in the "New Urbanist" index were associated with higher or lower levels of one or both types of social capital.  Not surprisingly higher levels of loyalty to one's neighborhood were associated with higher levels of bonding capital.  These higher levels of loyalty probably mean that these households have more, and possibly higher quality, connections with other households and organizations in the community.  The fact that those who do not live on streets with cul-de-sacs have higher levels of bridging capital is possibly the result of less interaction in the local community and more with the larger one.  The interpretation of the "comfortable walking in the neighborhood" higher bridging capital finding is difficult to interpret but the bonding capital result is less so.  Those who are comfortable in their neighborhoods are more likely to have contacts in those neighborhoods, thus the higher level of this type of capital. The final three results with regard to the number of services, clubs and organizations within a ten minute walk and bonding capital also make sense because all of these would likely connect people to other people and organizations in the community.  The fact that two of these, the number of services and clubs, are also significantly correlated with bridging capital, but the number of organizations is not, is also somewhat difficult to interpret.


    Research on social capital has, in recent years, expanded to include a wide variety of topics but we found nothing that explored the relationship between this type of capital and the "New Urbanism."  These results suggest that there is indeed a relationship between the two and that further work needs to be done.  More specifically, we believe that additional research should be done to refine the measures of "bonding" and "bridging" capital and additional work on defining and measuring the new urban characteristics.  In addition, we suggest that more effort needs to be put into sorting out the causal relationship between social capital and the new urbanist traits. 


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