MacArthur SES & Health Network
MacArthur SES & Health Network


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Social Capital

This summary was prepared by Ichiro Kawachi in collaboration with the Social Environment working group. It was most recently revised October, 2000.

Chapter Contents

  1. Forms and Functions of Social Capital
  2. Measurement of Social Capital
  3. Citations and Further Reading

SOCIAL CAPITAL refers to those features of social relationships—such as interpersonal trust, norms of reciprocity, and membership of civic organizations—which act as resources for individuals and facilitate collective action for mutual benefit.

Forms and Functions of Social Capital

The concept of social capital was developed in sociology and political science to describe the resources available to individuals through their membership in community networks. In contrast to financial capital, which resides in people's bank accounts, or human capital, which is embodied in individuals' investment in education and job training, social capital inheres in the structure and quality of social relationships between individuals. Coleman (1990) identified several forms of social capital, including levels of trust within a social structure, "appropriable" social organizations, norms and sanctions, and information channels. An example of an appropriable social organization is the case of a resident's association in an urban housing project which formed initially for the purpose of pressuring builders to fix various problems (leaks, crumbling sidewalks, etc). After the problems were solved, the organization remained as available social capital to improve the quality of life for residents.

Social capital has been applied in a variety of contexts to explain the ability of communities to solve the problems of collective action, ranging from the provision of public education, to the maintenance of effective and smooth-functioning government institutions, as well as the exercise of informal control over criminal behavior (see for example, Sampson et al 1997). The concept of social capital has been recently extended to the health field to explain geographic variations in mortality and morbidity. In ecological analyses, U.S. states with low levels of social capital have been shown to have higher mortality rates and worse health status (Kawachi et al. 1997; Putnam, 2000). These findings have been confirmed with multi-level analyses (Kawachi et al. 1998; Subramanian et al. 2001).

The mechanisms linking social capital to health have not been fully elucidated. At the community level, social capital is believed to promote health via stress-buffering and the provision of social support through extrafamilial networks, as well as informal social control over deviant health behaviors such as underage smoking and alcohol abuse. At higher levels of social organization, e.g., states and nations, social capital may enhance health through indirect pathways, such as encouraging more egalitarian patterns of political participation that in turn ensure provision of adequate health care, income support for the poor, and other social services.

Although the literature on social capital has tended to treat it as an unqualified social good, there are obvious drawbacks as well. The negative consequences of social capital include the exclusion of outsiders, excess claims made on group members, and restrictions on individual freedom. Some forms of social capital, such as that provided by membership of criminal gangs, impose negative externalities on the rest of society; that is, they confer benefits to individual members but contribute little to social cohesion.

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Measurement of Social Capital

Compared to other forms of capital (financial, human), social capital is less tangible, and hence more difficult to measure. Two approaches to measuring social capital are direct social observation, and aggregating responses from social surveys. Because social capital can assume a variety of forms (levels of trust, norms and sanctions, density of civic associations), the measurement of this construct calls for the use of a variety of indicators. Examples of such indicators reported in the literature include aggregated responses to social survey items inquiring about the extent of interpersonal trust (e.g., percent of respondents in a community who agree that "most people can be trusted"), or the density of membership in a range of civic associations including church groups, sports groups, hobby groups, fraternal organizations, labor unions, and so on.

There is some debate over the extent to which the concept of social capital represents "old wine in new bottles." For instance, community psychologists have an established tradition of working with concepts such as "sense of community," "community competence," and "neighboring," all of which appear to tap into aspects of social capital (Lochner et al. 1999). Additionally, an extensive literature in health psychology and social epidemiology has documented the stress-buffering effects of social integration, measured by constructs such as social networks, social support, and sociability. However, one important conceptual distinction that could be drawn between social capital and social networks/support is that the former is often operationalized at the ecological level. In other words, social capital is a property of the collective (neighborhood, region, state), analogous to Durkheim's concern with the ability of group forces to combat anomie. Individuals, regardless of their personal social ties, are therefore hypothesized to experience differential health outcomes according to the extent of social capital within the social structures in which they reside.

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Citations and Further Reading

Bourdieu, P. The forms of capital. In: Richardson JG (ed). The Handbook of Theory: Research for the Sociology of Education. New York: Greenwood Press, chapter 9, pp. 241-258, 1986.

Coleman, J.S. Foundations of Social Theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.

Kawachi I, Kennedy BP, Lochner K, Prothrow-Stith D. Social capital, income inequality, and mortality. American Journal of Public Health 1997;87:1491-1498.

Kawachi I, Kennedy BP, Glass R. Social capital and self-rated health: A contextual analysis. Am J Public Health 1999;89:1187-1193.

Kawachi, I., Berkman, L.F.: Social cohesion, social capital and health. In: Berkman, L.F. and Kawachi I. (eds). Social Epidemiology, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Lochner K, Kawachi I, Kennedy BP. Social capital: a guide to its measurement. Health and Place 1999;5:259-270.

Portes, A.: Social capital: its origins and applications in modern sociology. Annual Reviews of Sociology 24:1-24, 1998.

Putnam, R.D.: Making Democracy Work. Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. Princeton, NJ. Princeton University Press, 1993.

Putnam, R.D. Bowling Alone. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2000.

Sampson RJ, Raudenbush SW, Earls F. Neighborhoods and violent crime: a multilevel study of collective efficacy. Science 1997;277:918-924.

Subramanian SV, Kawachi I, Kennedy BP. Does the state you live in make a difference? Multilevel analysis of self-rated health in the U.S. Soc Sci Med 2001.

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