Family demography social theory, and investment in social capital

Nan Marie Astone, Constance A. Nathanson, Robert Schoen, Young J. Kim

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


To date, family demographers who have employed the social capital concept have not placed it within the larger framework of social exchange theory. Substantively, they have focused almost exclusively on the consequences of having or not having adequate amounts of social capital. To fully exploit the concept's potential for framing demographic research on the family, researchers must turn their attention to the question of how social capital comes into being. In this essay, we advance and defend two major contentions. First, in the context of social exchange theory, investing in social capital emerges as a major motivation for human behavior. Second, the formation of sexual partnerships, the birth and rearing of children, and both intragenerational and intergenerational transfers constitute major forms of investment in social capital in virtually all societies. In this essay, we reintegrated the concept of social capital with classical social exchange theory from which it originated. In the context, social capital can be a valuable concept for family demography because it illuminates why individuals manifest particular family-building behavior, why such behavior exhibits systematic variation across populations, and why such behavior within populations changes over time. The social capital concept directs attention to the benefits of family life for individuals, above and beyond the day-to-day dyadic exchanges that are its content. In so doing, it can show how family bonds transform and endure under conditions of rapid social change or material deprivation. Such a focus encompasses both the structural characteristics of the family as an institution and the intangible rewards of human relationships, without resorting to the misuse of norms or preferences as an analytic deus ex machina. The work of family demographers can make an important contribution to the understanding of change in the components of social capital and in its deployment over time. Not only does the possession of social capital influence individual outcomes, but the desire to possess social capital shapes individual participation in the familial and nonfamilial institutions that constitute society.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-31
Number of pages31
JournalPopulation and Development Review
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1999

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Demography
  • Development
  • Sociology and Political Science

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