Eulàlia Sanz Armengol

Image: First 3 of 10 of the Colla Vela Xiquets de Valls in the Blat Square (Valls). Source: Ara Castells available at folre-manilles-arriba-Valls_0_1455454665.html


Although human tower[1] building provides a perfectly suitable example to materialize what social capital implies, an intriguing paradox comes to light: how come in a context of thriving individualism, where the economic crisis has been wreaking social trust at every level, the casteller phenomenon is reaching a without precedents succeed?

In general terms, the concept of social capital argues that the social relationships amongst human beings can provide sources to achieve certain goals. However, deepening into de literature, it can be appreciated that not every theoretical approach fits as well the studied phenomenon.

Firstly, P. Bourdieu (1930-2002), trying to comprehend its relation with economic capital, presents social capital in a rather negative way; defending that it is distributed unequally among the society perpetuating social class and power differences. This thesis totally contradicts the role colles castelleres[2] have developed: in human tower building a very assorted range of people is required, therefore, the phenomenon is able to arrive to all levels of society, being very inclusive towards immigrants and disabled people[3].

Secondly, from the social election theory, J.S. Coleman (1926-1995) understands social capital as how the individual uses the features of the social structure: reciprocity, social norms, information channels… to reach her own particular objectives. For Coleman, social capital is a neutral resource that facilitates any manner of action but society only can benefit from it entirely depending on the individual uses to which it is put. This selfish start point neither can frame the phenomenon: the colles castelleres are mighty political actors hence they are able to move large amounts of people and lead them to further political participation both in the local and in the national sphere. For example, an important amount of colles castelleres have declared themselves in favour of the Catalan Independence Process, as it can be seen by its participation in every mass demonstration[4]. This use of a feature of the social structure to achieve the communities’ democratic aims (even though the democratic legitimacy of the Catalan Independence Process may be a controversial issue) tightly links with the last main thesis, which also happens to be the prevailing one.

R. Putnam (1941), from the communitarianism perspective, beliefs social capital to be advantageous, defining it as: the features of social life that enable participants to act together more effectively to pursue shared goals, arguing that this does not only benefit the democratic and economic development but also individuals’ health and happiness (Putnam, 1995:664-665).

Jumping to the methodology, the presence of social capital is usually accounted for membership in associations, informal networks, social trust, shared values… The amount of people, commitment, practice and trust required to build human towers can be appreciated just by looking at the picture. Furthermore, the colles castelleres have singular features (uniform, chants, a local, festivities…) which help to create a strong but open sense of identity, while figuring them as authentic tribes that also happen to be important social dynamizers amongst the whole community.

Logically, different approaches would lead to different methods of ponderation. Nevertheless, the available data, does not contradict itself: economic crisis times match with dramatic decreases in social capital. Whereas in the period 2000-2007 social capital in Spain raised almost 11%, between 2007 and 2011 it dropped over 23% (Fundación BBVA, 2015:45). Placing Spain as the OCDE’s country with the worst decline, underneath Greece and Ireland, fact that reinforces  the correlation between  social capital   and economic uncertainty. Membership association indicators point to the same direction: the start of the financial crisis also lead to down turning rates, as it can be seen in the graph.

Share of Spanish people who say to belong to any type of association during the period 2007-2016. Source: CIS available at


On the total opposite, whereas in 2010 the registered colles were 56, the phenomenon draws itself in 2017 with a record number of around a hundred colles. With the crisis in one of its peak points (2013-2014), twenty new colles were being created[5]. Within this context of absolute loss of social capital, which could have been the determining factors of this paradoxical expansion?

Increase in the amount of colles castelleres between 2001 and 2017. Source: Revisa Castells available at


Economically, as falling incomes affect mostly the margins of people’s budget constraints that meant a switch to more affordable leisure habits[6]. Politically, 2010, already mentioned as the turning point year, it is also pictured as the start of the Catalan Independence Process; which has been coming in hand with a general claim for the Catalan traditions and more specifically for human towers. On the one hand, as an easy metaphor of the Process and on the other, for its growing international echoing since the UNESCO had declared them to be amongst the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity that same year. Those reasons build an increasing interest of the media in the phenomenon, accentuated by the diffusion through internet social networks, making it day after day more appealing.

All in all, it is probably not an attraction to the main phenomenon of human tower building but mainly an attraction to the values it intrinsically brings. The factual reasons probably came in the best context: a society in serious economic trouble which was able to find in a shape of social capital, oldest than the main concept, a space for cooperation, solidarity, compromise, trust… to fill up a nonstop growing void of hope. Nevertheless, if so far human towers have been winning the fight against individualism, as every rising phenomenon in a capitalist system, they now face themselves in front of the tempting path of commodification[7].

Although existing approaches to social capital would probably cheer that (as they account social capital just for its positive influence in economic capital), once any type of organization forgets its essence and, above all, its propose, it automatically stops contributing to people’s inclusiveness and wellbeing in the same way it used to. For sure commodification would bring economic gains, however, while society is already full of niches for economic profit there are few spaces like this: where the market it has not been yet able to arrive, where the community can just bloom.




  • Coleman, J. (1988). Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital. University of Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • IV Simposi Casteller. (2015). Castells, immigració i concurs. Valls: Cossetània edicions.
  • Juan Fernández de Guevara, F. P. (2015). Crisis Económica, Confianza y Capital Social. Bilbao: Fundación BBVA.
  • Magarolas, J. (9 de september de 2017). Obtenido de Les colles del ‘SÍ’ al referèndum d’independència: al-re-endum-dindependencia
  • Meulen, T. V. (2015, october 25). Ara Castells. Retrieved from El tres de deu amb folre i manilles arriba a Valls:
  • Putnam, R. (1995). Tuning In, Tuning Out: The Strange Disappearance of Social Capital in America. Harvard Universiy: American Political Sciences Association.
  • Ramírez, J. (2005). Tres visiones sobre capital social: Bourdieu, Coleman y Putnam. Acta Republicana.
  • Revista Castells. (2016, desembre 29). El mapa Casteller es fa gran. Retrieved from



[1] The often used translation of the Catalan term castells, which are an over three hundred years old Catalan tradition that consists of human tower building in popular festivities, as it can be seen in the picture.

[2] Crews of human tower builders that not only include the ones that physically compose them but a very wide range of people which collaborates voluntarily in many fields like public relationships, social media, accountability, photography, events organization…

[3] IV Simposi Casteller. (2015). Castells, immigració i concurs. Valls: Cossetània edicions.

[4] Over 40 colles castelleres took part in the demonstration of the last Diada ( September 11th of 2017) in Barcelona. Magarolas, J. (9 de september de 2017). available in de Les colles del ‘SÍ’ al referèndum d’independència:

[5] Revista Castells. (2016, desembre 29). El mapa Casteller es fa gran. Retrieved from

[6] Even though there is no data putting on correlation the change of leisure habits and the growth of the studied phenomenon, as it is not a money-spending hobby, this seems a very plausible reason.

[7] This issue’s discussion is not the main objective of but it is not avoidable. Clear examples of commodification in the human towers world are the increasing rate of private actuation, the growth and diffusion of the Concurs de Castells de Tarragona and the birth of the Xiquets de Hangzhou: a colla which a Chinese entrepreneur created in his textile colony to improve their workers relationship so for pure business reasons and which works with economic incentives.