Like cholesterol, “social capital” comes in bad and good types.
Elusive to define, social capital consists of those bonds created by belonging to a group that instills trust, solidarity, and cooperation among members. We know that good social capital has an enormous development potential, positively influencing economic growth, democracy, cognitive development, and adoption of farming practices, among others.
In a recent study on crime in Colombia1, a colleague from American University, Erik Alda, and I show that high rates of crime help destroy social capital (victims trust less). But social capital can also reduce crime when it effectively increases the involvement of all of us in the prevention and management of crime and violent behavior and when it reduces the temptation of each individual to let others solve the problem of crime.
Stronger interpersonal trust, however, also allows an easier exchange of information and know-how among criminals, reducing their costs of committing a crime. Because bonding and trust within these groups demands the exclusion of others, a perverse social capital may lead to the kind of extreme violence and hatred seen in the Mafia, the Ku Klux Klan, maras, or genocides.