Sport and Social Capital

The literature on sport and social capital is scarce and discussions are fragmented because there are disagreements about the definition of social capital, the role of sport in contributing to social capital, and the forms of social capital that may be generated in the sphere of sport.

Three major approaches to social capital exist in the social science literature. The most dominant is the functional approach, as represented in the work of political scientist Robert Putnam. For Putnam (1993: 167) social capital consists of ‘‘features of social organization, such as trust, norms, and networks, that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated action.’’ Putnam (2000) argues excessive individualism in the US has reduced civic engagement and participation in the electoral process, both of which are marks of declining social capital. This, in turn, undermines the efficacy of public institutions. In the case of sports, declining participation in sport clubs and volunteerism is a sign of declining social capital.

Within Putnam’s framework, three forms of social capital are distinguished: (1) bounding, referring to the relations within homogeneous groups, like sport teams or clubs; (2) bridging, referring to relations across horizontal social divisions, such as across teams within a league; and (3) linking, referring to ties between different strata of society, for example citizens from all social classes who are fans of their local pro football club. Putnam’s work has been criticized (Dyreson 2001), especially by those who argue that the evidence on aggregate measures of social capital and civic engagement may obscure ‘‘a more complex reality’’ and that ‘‘the overall picture is of shifts in civic engagement more than losses, and of only moderate net losses at worst’’ (Curtis et al. 2003).

A second approach is based on the work of Pierre Bourdieu. For Bourdieu (1986: 249), social capital is ‘‘the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to the possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition or, in other words, membership in a group.’’ Moreover, Bourdieu explains that the amount of social capital possessed by an agent depends on a combination of the number of network connections one can mobilize, plus the economic, cultural, and symbolic capital possessed by those comprising the network connections. Bourdieusian studies of sport and social capital are rare, although several scholars who use the two other approaches often refer to his work.

The third approach regroups a wide variety of network based approaches to social capital. Those who use this approach build on Bourdieu’s emphasis on social capital as a resource. For example, Lin (2001: 25) defines social capital as ‘‘the resources embedded in social networks accessed by actors for actions.’’ Within this general social network approach, some researchers are more interested in the networks themselves (the structure of relations within the networks), whereas others focus on the relational aspects of the networks (the resources available and accessible).

Most sport scholars use the functional definition of social capital, although they do not all adopt a functionalist theoretical framework. Jarvie (2003), Maguire et al. (2002), and Smith and Ingham (2003) have focused on the role of sport in the regeneration of community social capital. They argue that there are ways in which sport can positively contribute to community social capital, although it cannot be assumed that sport always increases social capital all the time.

Smith and Ingham (2003) highlight this situation in their exploration of public discussions (i.e., town meetings) over the development of professional sport stadia in the US. Their findings demonstrate that the public subsidization of professional sport stadia does not contribute to or re/generate the sense of a ‘‘community as a whole, but indeed may further divide residents depending upon their situated interests.’’ Dyreson (2001) also notes that there are situations in which sport can promote division, excessive competition, and unhealthy practices among people and communities.

Some scholars are examining sport through the lens of network based social capital. Alegi’s (2000) study of soccer in Africa illustrates Bourdieu’s theory of social capital as resources grounded in network connections, namely with people who are in positions of power or in a position to change things. Alegi examined the importance of soccer to the social experiences of black African workers, entrepreneurs, and political leaders and analyzed how people subject to systemic discrimination and without political rights used soccer as a site for developing social networks based on community identities at a national, regional, and local level. Specifically, while black African workers and youth were generally not interested in seeking personal mobility in the political sphere, they often turned to soccer for self advancement combined with the ‘‘charitable uplift of their community.’’ Litwin (2003) used a network based approach to confirm that physically active older adults are more socially connected. Furthermore, the older adults in diverse networks consisting of connections across the spheres of friends, neighbors, and family were most likely to engage in physical activity.

Overall, research on social capital supports the notion that sport can enhance social capital as well as erode it. Future research will explain the circumstances under which these outcomes occur.


  1. Alegi, P. C. (2000) Keep Your Eye on the Ball: A Social History of Soccer in South Africa, 1910-1976. Doctoral dissertation, Boston University, Boston.
  2. Bourdieu, P. (1986) The Forms of Capital. In: Richards, J. G. (Ed.), Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. Greenwood Press, New York, pp. 241-58.
  3. Curtis, J., Baer, D., Grabb, E., & Perks, T. (2003) Estimation des tendances de l’engagement dans les associations volontaires au cours des dernieres decennies au Quebec et au Canada anglais. Sociologie et Societes 35(1): 115-42.
  4. Dyreson, M. (2001) Maybe It’s Better to Bowl Alone: Sport, Community and Democracy in American Thought. Culture, Sport, Society 4(1): 19-30.
  5. Jarvie, G. (2003) Communitarianism, Sport and Social Capital: ‘‘Neighborly Insights into Scottish Sport.’’ International Review for the Sociology of Sport 38(2): 139-53.
  6. Lin, N. (2001) Social Capital: A Theory of Social Structure and Action. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  7. Litwin, H. (2003) Social Predictors of Physical Activity in Later Life: The Contribution of Social-Network Type. Journal of Aging and Physical Activity 11: 389-406.
  8. Maguire, J., Jarvie, G., Mansfield, L., & Bradley, J. (2002) Sport Worlds: A Sociological Perspective. Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL.
  9. Putnam, R. (1993) Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
  10. Putnam, R. (2000) Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Simon & Schuster, New York.
  11. Smith, J. M. & Ingham, A. G. (2003) On the Waterfront: Retrospectives on the Relationship between Sport and Communities. Sociology of Sport Journal 20(3): 252-74.

Back to Top

Back to Sociology of Sport.