Community Development Versus Community Economic Development: An Analysis of Social Capital and Its Myths

Lindsey Bender
School of Public Administration, Liberty University

Author Note

Lindsey Bender
I have no known conflict of interest to disclose.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Lindsey Bender.


Public administration has grappled with the stagnation of local economic growth and the disappearance of the middle class since the mid-1980’s. Many political, sociological, and economic theorists have speculated on the causes and solutions to this issue. Robert D. Putnam speculated that communities stagnated in growth because their social capital was waning. Social capital, from his point of view, is defined as “features of social organization, such as networks, norms, and trust, that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit” (Putnam, 1994). In contrast, James DeFilippis argued that Putnam’s link between social capital and economic success was overinflated, poorly defined, and unwarranted. This article will review Putnam’s application of social capital through the lens of DeFilippis’ critique and evaluate how each author’s analysis withstood 20 years of economic and social development. In this paper, it is important to note that social capital’s existence is assumed. In addition, this paper seeks to properly contextualize social capital and its place within community and economic development.

Community Development Versus Community Economic Development 1

Keywords: social capital, community development, economic development, community economic development

Community Development Versus Community Economic Development: An Analysis of Social Capital and Its Myths


Social capital and its injection into economic development strategies have increased drastically with Robert D. Putnam’s work in the late 1990’s. Putnam theorized that social capital operated as a bridge that connected communities to economic growth. In addition, Putnam believed that these networks built through social capital led to increased civic engagement and fostered a culture of “generalized reciprocity (Putnam, 1994). With these networks of civic engagement, Putnam believed that communities could facilitate greater trustworthiness of individuals and local businesses and utilize momentum built from previous collaboration to drive future collaboration. In Putnam’s worldview, poor communities were poor simply because they lacked the social capital to develop economic partnerships within their community. Hypothetically, as a community developed a trust of its individuals, social capital would grow. With the growth of social capital would come economic growth. This understanding of social capital skyrocketed in popularity. As DeFilippis highlights, the theory was so widely spread that the Urban Affairs Association of Louisville adopted this ideal as the backbone

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