The Diversity of Research on Social Capital
The academic research on social capital can be hard to digest because researchers focus on a wide range of fields, including families, education, civic participation, public health and economic development. There are also diverse perspectives among researchers within each of these fields, and it’s not always clear how to categorize them.
Luckily, Woolcock and Narayan provide some clarity within the field of economic development in their paper Social Capital: Implications for Development Theory, Research and Policy. We’ll break down their classification for you here and look at possible implications.
The Economic Development Landscape
Woolcock and Narayan categorize research on social capital and economic development into four broad perspectives. Let’s first look at how each perspective defines and measures social capital.
- Focuses on social capital as equivalent to the presence of local organizations, where more is always better.
- Measures social capital by looking at the number and density of those organizations.
- Focuses on social capital as the combination of strong intracommunity ties (bonding relationships) and weak extracommunity networks (bridging relationships), where the optimal balance may change over time.
- Measures social capital by looking at the balance of bonding and bridging relationships of individuals within a community.
- Focuses on social capital as a product of the quality of the government, corporate and civic institutions upon which a community relies.
- Measures social capital based on the quality of these institutions and their involvement in society. Some examples of quality include trust, rule of law and civil liberties.
- Focuses on social capital as a factor of the synergy between public institutions and private citizens.
- Measures social capital based on the presence of symbiotic relationships between institutions and citizens, and the depth of ties between them.
Comparing the Four Perspectives
While there are researchers that fall into each of the four categories above, the Synergy View is a recent trend that seeks to combine the Networks and Institutional Views, while both of the latter are older but wider in scope and more influential. The Communitarian View was an earlier perspective that has useful insights, but has been shown to be too narrowly focused (e.g.: research has shown that more community organizations do not necessarily lead to increased economic prosperity).
Beyond those trends, the authors suggest three primary points of difference across the four perspectives:
- The primary unit of analysis. We interpret this as the vehicle for social capital.
- The categorization of social capital as a variable: independent, dependent or mediating. The concept of social capital as a mediating variable was not clear in the context of this paper; however, we interpret it as a situation in which social capital is part of dynamic interaction between multiple variables, instead of a direct cause or effect.
- The incorporation of a theory of state. We interpret this as questioning whether there is inclusion of an analysis of government’s impact on a community’s social capital.
Below, we contrast the four perspective based on our interpretation of these points of difference.
|Primary Unit of Analysis||Social Capital Variable Type||Incorporation of Theory of State|
|Communitarian View||The presence of organizations||Independent
unit of analysis = social capital
sole focus on local organizations
|Networks View||The balance of bonding and bridging relationships in a community||Independent
unit of analysis = social capital
focus on communities and their organizations
|Institutional View||The quality of government, corporate and civic institutions||Dependent
unit of analysis produces social capital
government organizations are a primary focus
|Synergy View||Relationships between public institutions and private citizens||Mediating
unit of analysis and social capital are dynamic
government institutions are of equal importance to communities
Implications Beyond Economic Development
This classification has some conceptual overlaps with other frameworks we have discussed; however, it adds fresh perspective in a couple of areas.
First, the concept of social capital as an independent, dependent or mediating variable is interesting, and not one that we had considered before. Our standing definition of social capital as the resources embedded in relationships leans towards social capital as a dependent variable, since it’s implied that trust converts the human capital of an individual into the social capital of the relationship. However, in light of the authors’ insights, it may be more accurate to say that social capital is a mediating variable in a relationship because it’s part of a dynamic state of trust between two people. We plan to explore this concept further.
Second, the discussion of public institutions and government’s involvement in social capital provides a starting point for analyzing current events and international policies. We plan to expand on the theories in both the Institutional and Synergy Views to support this analysis.
To learn more about the research behind these perspectives, please refer to Social Capital: Implications for Development Theory, Research, and Policy.