The problem of definition

Friends and family gather for a picnic in Vermont, USA

I was reminded of how problematic – and critical – definitions are in GP when I was doing a Google search for ‘social capital’. My understanding of the term was shaped by a commentary I read some years ago, that social capital was the knowledge, skills and values that are passed from one generation to another. The commentary argued that it is the greatest factor that entrenches social classes and inequality: the knowledge, skills and values passed on by successful parents to their children provide them a formidable advantage that the children from less privileged backgrounds find very difficult to overcome.

But when I searched Google, I found a totally different definition of social capital from the OECD:

networks together with shared norms, values and understandings that facilitate co-operation within or among groups.

So which definition is valid? I would say both are totally valid. The wide divergence in understanding of the term stems from the multiplicity of meaning within the word ‘social’, the word ‘capital’ and the combination of the two words. According to the Oxford Dictionary, capital is “wealth in the form of money or other assets owned by an individual or organisation or available for a purpose such as starting a company or investing”. Hence one’s interpretation of social capital hinges substantially on, among other things, how we interpret ‘social’. The word is the adjectival form of ‘society’, and so it modifies the noun ‘capital’ to inject an element of society.

Thus if we deem ‘social capital’ to be the wealth of society as a whole, our concept of the term would be more like that of the OECD’s. But if we perceive it to be the wealth of an individual in relation to his or her place in society (as knowledge, skills and values help to establish our social status), then we would be inclined towards the first version of social capital mentioned in this posting.

A GP student is entitled to adopt any reasonable definition in her essay, but it is crucial that she provide her definition of all subjective terms in the introduction to her essay. The above mentioned example truly underscores the vital importance of definitions. Can you imagine how confused the examiner would be you didn’t provide a definition, and you and he had two such totally contrasting ideas of social capital in mind?


For enquiries on GP tuition by the blogger, a First Class Honours grad from NUS, please call/text 98392152 or click ‘About the Tutor/Testimonials’ above. All lessons on a one-to-one or two-to-one basis. Secondary English tuition also available.

For GP model essays, click here.


About gptuitionsg

A dedicated English and GP tutor with First Class Honours from the National University of Singapore, Steven Ooi retired from the profession after a 14-year career during which he was one of the most sought-after private tutors in Singapore. He is the recipient of the Minerva Prize from NUS, which is awarded to the top English Language honours student of each cohort. This website, which has consistently ranked among the top 10 on Google and has received over 530,000 hits, has now been converted into a GP resource site cum listing of recommended tutors. If you are a GP or English tutor who wishes to be listed here, please email Steven Ooi at stevenooi18 @ (remove the spaces). Interested parties will be assessed and interviewed by him, and qualifications will be checked. These procedures are necessary to uphold quality standards. DISCLAIMER: While every reasonable effort has been made to assess the competence and verify the qualifications of recommended tutors here, no guarantees are made and you engage them at your own risk. By using this website, you agree that you will not hold the webmaster Steven Ooi responsible for any consequences — direct or otherwise — that occur in relation with your use of this website.
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