Social capital and effective communities

In my two previous posts about social capital I’ve provided a hopefully useful definition and conceptual map of what social capital is and a brief summary of some interesting findings when it comes to social capital’s causal effect on a range of policy areas, specifically: economic performance, health and wellbeing, and education.

This post gets down into the area I’m really interested in: how the roots of the effectiveness of communities lie in their citizens’ social capital.

Again, the examples and analysis are brief, but hopefully illustrative.

Getting on together (or not)

Clearly, a group of people that gets on better with each other (i.e. a question of how bonding their bonding social capital is) will find it easier to work together and achieve success than a group which doesn’t get on. It could be that people don’t get on because of clashes of personality, or just because everyone in the group doesn’t know each other well enough.

There’s a lovely example of how and why this can matter, as quoted in Halpern:

Following the closure of military bases there are often a number of options for what happens to the land released. A case study contrasted the face of the land from two airforce bases that were closed in the USA, both roughly equal in size and natural resource attributes. At one base, all the significant wildlife habitat was destroyed by real estate development, but at the other, nearly a fourth of the land was preserved as a wildlife refuge. The authors concluded that the most significant factor accounting for the radically difference outcomes was not the strength of any objective case, but the social capital and political culture of the communities surrounding the bases, enabling one community to lobby and act much more effectively than the other.

(For those interested in the case, it is captured in the following: Burton, L. and Williams, T. (2001) This bird has flown: the uncertain fate of wildlife on closed military bases. Natural Resources Journal, 41(4): 885-917.)

A further example is the way in which tenants’ associations managed buildings in New York that were handed over to them to run themselves. Where such ownership arrangements were successful, this was thought to be the result of higher social capital – particularly bonding and linking – found in the buildings.

Finally, another good example of linking social capital in particular is citizens’ committees. These are brought together in order to address specific local issues, and have been shown to be most successful when they ensure several different ways of liaising with and contacting local government. Furthermore, local government views such committees as a key source of valued information.

Getting out (or not)

The issue of bridging social capital and the associated (and controversial) concept of “closure” are a very interesting part of this work.

“Closure” is very tight bonding social capital without any bridging capital. Though the very strong and close relationships between members of a particular community means they can pass on their values and beliefs to their fellow members and next generation, it’s not always the case that these values or beliefs are necessarily good for the group.

To take a counter-example from Halpern:

A longitudinal study of rural American communities found that horizontal linkages of community leaders – their links with other important community figures – [was] particularly important for their communities’ long-term viability.

Those communities that don’t then have those horizontal bridging links, but do have strong bonding links, may find themselves in difficulty as a result. The wider social and political networks from which they are disconnected could leave them vulnerable to decisions being made “about them” without the opportunity to participate or influence them. (If I’m feeling brave enough, I may one day apply the idea of “closure” – albeit “closure” for understandable reasons – to the disability movement.)

The downsides of social capital in effective communities

Even though good amounts of social capital can make for more effective communities, it can have its downsides:

High social capital as manifested in high-trust, frequent meetings and freely flowing information among dense social networks can mean that the whole community is involved in decision-making, but it can also make the process time-consuming and extended. For example, a study of communities affected by the 1997 Red River Flood in Canada found that those with higher levels of social, as well as physical and human, capital were better prepared and more effective in responding to the flood. But such higher levels of social capital also made decision making more complex and brought with them the risk of delays.

Interestingly, the overall pattern of social capital in Britain is one that suggests there has been a significant decline in its presence over the last few decades (though not, it should be said, as wide as the decline in the USA). An interesting detail of this decline, though, is that it is more accurate to say that this decline is not homogenous. Indeed, the UK’s middle classes are most likely to be associated with gently rising social capital – for example, through more memberships of and involvement in more organisations – whilst the manual classes are most likely to be associated with sharply falling social capital.

Thus, what once was a phenomenon at the level of the individual known as the “sharp elbows” of the middle classes – meaning that choice in the system tended to benefit the better off as they navigated various complex systems (such as education and health) – is now also to be found in the context of what makes for effective communities and local government.


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Man of letters & numbers; also occasionally of action. Husband to NTW. Dad of three. Friendly geek.

One thought on “Social capital and effective communities”

  1. An interesting discussion. I’m not a expert at all on social capital, so please forgive me if my question seems a little naive.

    I’m massively interested in social capital as a form of neighbourhood investment, a way for citizens to invest time/effort in their own community. To me it seems that the idea of ‘capital’ even in a nefarious way is about the ‘stock’ of something (how much time is volunteered, how many people are involved in constructing and maintain the ‘social; and so on), and here you explore some of the ways that this investment is reinforced and you also plot its decline.

    In light of this type of framing,ie social capital as an investment, what role does ‘risk’ play in the choice to invest social capital into one’s community?

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