In an effort at theoretical clarification, the authors reviewed 45 recent articles reporting empirical research employing the concept of ‘social capital’. The literature is roughly equally divided between those who treat social capital as an independent variable and those who consider it as a dependent variable, and between those who operationalize the concept principally in terms of norms, values and attitudes and those who choose a more social structural operationalization, invoking social networks, organizations and linkages. Work on social capital as a mainly normative variable is dominated by political scientists and economists, while sociologists and a wide range of applied social scientists utilize more social structural understandings of the term. We find little to recommend in the use of ‘social capital’ to represent the norms, values and attitudes of the civic culture argument. We present empirical, methodological and theoretical arguments for the irrelevance of ‘generalized social trust’, in particular, as a significant factor in the health of democracies or economic development. Social structural interpretations of social capital, on the other hand, have demonstrated considerable capacity to draw attention to, and illuminate, the many ways in which social resources are made available to individuals and groups for individual or group benefit, which we take to be the prime focus and central attraction of the social capital concept. The paper concludes by elaborating a context-dependent conceptualization of social capital as access plus resources, and cautions against ‘over-networked’ conceptualizations that equate social capital with access alone.