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The Importance of Social Capital

By: Al Condeluci, PhD

The notion of friendship is a critical one to the human condition. In fact, friendship is often a concept that is thought to be so simple that it hardly merits any deep study or discussion. All of us know that friendships are important, but rarely do we ever think we must work at the concept. However, the notion of friendship is a critical one to ponder, and in a way, we should not be pushed by sentiment to become more conscious of our need for friendship.

Sociologists refer to friendship as “Social Capital.” To the academics, the term “capital” is one that speaks to resources that can advance or promote a profit. They talk about physical capital which refers to things like land or machinery. Economic capital might refer to goods, or services that drive an economy. “Human capital” is often thought to be the people needed to do the work to create the goods or services.

Social capital, however, pushes the concept beyond its economic roots and suggests the connectedness among and between people. Research is now convincing that the more social capital people have in their lives, the better their lives become. In fact, in his book, Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam reports that the more social capital people have in their lives the healthier they are, the happier they are and – listen to this – the longer they live. That is right – social capital, or friendship is linked to the 3 highest quality of life indicators know to humankind!

Now this is powerful stuff and has real implications for not just for organizations, but for our society in general. We know, as we listen to the people our agency serves and talk to their families that social isolation (the opposite of social capital) is the greatest challenge that people with disabilities have and that families fear. This has been continually verified in our experience and in the literature.

You don’t have to dig too deep to see the reality of social isolation, or limited social capital for people with significant disabilities. In our work at CLASS we hear over and over again, and see in vivid ways, that the folks we serve have less friends and social opportunities than people without disabilities. Some estimates are showing that people with significant disabilities have nearly two-thirds less – yes, 66% less – social capital than their able-bodied peers!

This is powerful and penetrating stuff – and begs for some basic answers.

And like most vexing questions, the answers are simple, yet complex. Looking at the issues just described, the direction should be clear – all people are better when they have more social capital – people with disabilities have less social capital – how can we help people (all people, with and without disabilities) develop more social capital.

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