Measuring social capital
Towards a theoretically informed measurement framework for researching social capital in family and community life
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In Australia, as in other nations, ‘social capital’ is being looked to as a means of stemming the tide of perceived community decline and widespread distrust associated with it. The increasingly central role that social capital plays in Australian public policy has fuelled demand for empirical understandings of it. Yet, demand for empirical measures of social capital exceeds supply.
Within this context the Australian Institute of Family Studies is undertaking the Families, Social Capital and Citizenship project. To inform the Institute project, this paper contributes to the development of clear links between theorised and empirical understandings of social capital by: establishing a theoretically informed measurement framework for empirical investigation of social capital, and; reviewing existing measures of social capital in light of this framework. The paper concludes with a statement of guiding principles for the measurement and empirical investigation of social capital in family and community life.
Where social capital has been measured to date, it has often been done so using ‘questionable measures’, often designed for other purposes, and without sufficient regard to the theoretical underpinnings of the concept to ensure validity or reliability. This paper will be useful for critiquing and building on the work that has already been done.
In Australia, as in other nations, social capital is being looked to as a means of stemming the tide of perceived community decline and widespread distrust associated with it. It promises hope for the regeneration of benefits – both social and economic – said to come from those interactions among neighbours, citizens and governments which are characterised by strong norms of trust and mutuality. New roles for government and markets, a focus upon the rights and responsibilities of citizens and the formulation of state-market-community partnerships position social capital centrally in current public policy.1
The Australian Institute of Family Studies is undertaking the Families, Social Capital and Citizenship project to investigate the role of families in the development and sustainability of strong communities, and to identify family circumstances associated with active economic, community and political life. Social capital lies at the core of this project, as it provides a framework for conceptualising and measuring the social resources families can invest in and draw upon in order to actively engage in the communities around them, and address common problems.
Despite its historical roots (for discussion see Putnam 1998; Winter 2000a) and considerable contemporary use, debate has seen the conceptualisation of social capital race ahead of the development of tools for measuring it empirically. The present demand for empirical measures of social capital exceeds supply (Rose 1998: 5). In turn, better understanding of the empirical nature of social capital will promote further conceptual refinement. Public policy, too, cannot aim to facilitate the growth of communities rich in social capital with accuracy until we know, and are able to measure and describe, what such communities look like and what role social capital plays within them.
That there is a gulf between theoretical understandings of social capital and the ways social capital has been measured in much empirical work to date is a criticism which is developed throughout this paper. It is this gulf which leads to empirical confusion about the meaning, measurement, outcomes and relevance of social capital. Paxton (1999: 90) identifies the same problem, noting that previous studies provide little rationale for how measures of social capital connect to theoretical definition. She believes that this has resulted in the use of ‘questionable indicators of social capital’, including single item measures of it, and in inconsistent results. There are many reasons for this gulf, some of which are described below and it is hoped this paper will make a contribution to building a bridge between the understanding of social capital and its measurement.
The aim of this paper is to contribute to the development of clear links between theorised and empirical understandings of social capital. The specific aims of the paper are to establish a conceptually sound and theoretically informed measurement framework for empirical investigation of social capital (both in the Institute’s own study, and in other research); and, to review existing measures of social capital in light of this framework, by drawing upon examples of both secondary and primary social capital research conducted to date. By doing so, the paper aims to identify guidelines for the measurement of social capital relevant for the study of families and society.
A note on the measurement rush
Although not all social capital research has been based on clear definition and theory, much social capital research to date provides a useful starting point to the development of conceptually sound measures.
First are those studies based on secondary analyses. Much social capital research to date falls within this category, yet – not surprisingly – is inherently limited as data gathered originally for purposes other than the study of social capital are unlikely to provide conceptually thorough measures of it. The ad hoc mixture of measures, indicators and outcomes drawn upon in secondary analyses have no doubt contributed to the confusion which exists between social capital theory and measurement, despite providing some early indications of the usefulness of social capital as a concept.
Second are the earliest attempts at primary data collection for the study of social capital. These are fewer in number yet extend what may be learned via secondary analysis as they add sophistication and precision to data collection.
One of the first to pursue the benefits of social capital as a research and development resource was the World Bank. The World Bank’s Social Capital Initiative (SCI), designed to define, monitor and measure social capital, was established specifically to ‘improve our understanding of [social capital] and suggest ways through which the donor community can invest in social capital and create an enabling environment in which social capital can be strengthened’ (World Bank 1998: 3). The SCI and related works inform upon the relationship between social capital and economic prosperity and community development at local and national levels.2
Health researchers and community health professionals have also been quick to embrace the potential benefits of social capital, in line with the long-standing recognition of the importance of social support for public health and community wellbeing. In particular, Marshall Kreuter et al (1997, 1999) have developed and refined a series of measurement tools for understanding the effectiveness of community-based health promotion programs in the US, and which inform upon how social capital is manifest in different communities.
Closer to home, following Eva Cox’s (1995) promotion of the concept, a number of Australian researchers have embarked on its empirical investigation. Notably, Onyx and Bullen in their quantitative study of Five Communities in NSW and related work (1997, 2000) have undertaken what appears to be the first primary data collection of social capital in Australia. Following their lead, a number of projects have also now been conducted, including an Adelaide community health study undertaken by Baum et al (1998, 2000) and a qualitative study of the way 12 Australian households lead their lives, conducted by the Centre for Independent Studies (Stewart-Weeks and Richardson 1998). Other key Australian contributions have investigated aspects of social capital in relation to belief systems (Hughes, Bellamy and Black 1998, 2000) and volunteering (Lyons 2000).
These international and Australian contributions to the measurement of social capital are referred to at relevant points throughout this paper.
It is important to note that the review of social capital measurement presented in this paper refers to measures of a concept which are not long established, and even await empirical testing in some instances. Thus, this review focuses upon how well the measurement of social capital to date informs the conceptual framework developed here. Unlike measurement critiques of more well established concepts, this review is unable to compare standard items or approaches, or to present data in support of one measure over another.3
The survey as a vehicle for social capital research
As stated above, one of the aims of this paper is to inform the measurement of social capital in family and community life for the Families, Social Capital and Citizenship project. The Families, Social Capital and Citizenship project is designed to examine levels of social capital associated with varying family circumstances and to assess the importance of social capital in shaping patterns of family engagement with the economy, polity and community nation wide. In order to ‘map’ social capital in this way, the project relies upon a survey instrument to determine the nature and extent of social capital across Australian families and communities.
One of the implications of using the survey as a vehicle for social capital research relates to ‘social scale’. By definition, social capital is not restricted to particular social networks of one size or another. The literature identifies social capital in local and other community networks (Putnam 1993; Kreuter 1999), at the level of nation states (Knack and Keefer 1997), and, albeit less commonly, within families (Coleman 1988; Amato 1998; Furstenberg and Hughes 1995; Furstenberg 1996).4
The use of the survey as a vehicle for measuring social capital in family and community life means that the data collected is at the level of an individual. Although individuals might be asked questions about the community, region, or nation they are part of, the social capital of communities (or regions or areas) is then measured by collating information gathered from individuals within those communities, rather than by examining a particular community more directly. This approach provides an indication of the level and distribution of social capital within an area, as well as a detailed picture of social capital in the lives of individuals and families.
In contrast, it is important to note that there are alternate approaches to the measurement of social capital, particularly within specified organisations or communities. These include qualitative research and the study of specific localities, via participant observation, surveys of individuals about the local area, and the collection of local documents and histories.5 While making valuable contribution to understandings of social capital, these studies are not reviewed in detail in this paper.
Structure of the paper
Section 2 of this paper presents a conceptual framework for the measurement of social capital, which sets out its separate dimensions and their characteristics.
Section 3 then reviews the ways in which dimensions of social capital and their characteristics identified in Section 2 have been measured to date.
The paper concludes with a summary of guidelines for the theoretically informed measure of social capital in studies of families and society.
1 For an account of the intersection between social capital and Australian policy, see: Winter, I. (ed) (2000b) Social Capital and Public Policy in Australia, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.
2 For details of the World Bank's Social Capital Initiative, including detailed information about the projects reported on here, see http://www.worldbank.org/poverty/scapital/
3 This review is primarily concerned with measures of social capital used in social capital research to date. Occasionally, however, relevant ways of measuring components of social capital which have been developed in other types of research are also referred to.
4 For discussion of 'macro' versus 'micro' measures of social capital, see Grootaert (1998) and Knack and Keefer (1997), who propose that macro measures may include social polarisation, group membership and generalised trust, among others.
5 For an example of a mixed methodology approach to the study of social capital within small communities, see for example Kreuter 1999.
A theoretically informed measurement framework
In order to achieve theoretical rigour in social capital measurement, a clear understanding of the concept, upon which to base an empirical framework, is essential.
Social capital consists of networks of social relations which are characterised by norms of trust and reciprocity. Combined, it is these elements which are argued to sustain civil society and which enable people to act for mutual benefit (Lochner et al 1998; Winter 2000a); it is ‘the quality of social relationships between individuals that affect their capacity to address and resolve problems they face in common’ (Stewart-Weeks and Richardson 1998: 2).
Thus, social capital can be understood as a resource to collective action, which may lead to a broad range of outcomes. In his analysis of social capital and family life, Winter (2000a: 2-6) argues that despite some conceptual confusion in the social capital literature, three of the most notable social capital writers each conceptualise social capital in this way, albeit it in relation to differing outcomes, of varying social scale. Bourdieu (1993), Putnam (1993) and Coleman (1988) each understand social capital as a resource to collective action, the outcomes of which concern economic wellbeing, democracy at the nation state level, and the acquisition of human capital in the form of education, respectively.6
In measurement terms, understanding social capital as a resource to action leads immediately to the need for empirical clarity about measures of social capital, and measures of its outcomes. It is necessary to recognise empirically that understanding whether or not a social process is at work is different from understanding the consequences of such a process. As Newton (1997: 578) states, social capital ‘may indeed generate valuable goods and services … but we should not assume that it does, and we should not include such goods and benefits as part of the definition’. Similarly, Paxton (1999) draws a distinction between measures of social capital and its outcomes, consistent with the approach taken throughout this paper. This is in distinct contrast, however, to the way social capital has been operationalised in much research to date.
Before defining its key components, the distinction between measures, outcomes and indicators of social capital warrants some attention.
Measures, outcomes and indicators
Social capital measurement is considerably complicated by the fact that social capital research has frequently relied upon measures of the outcomes of social capital as indicators of social capital itself. A measure of a norm of trust (for example the extent to which a culture within a family group is trusting), is different from a behavioural outcomes of that norm (for example the extent to which family members trust one another to care for one another’s children).
Indicators used in social capital research can be classified into ‘proximal’ and ‘distal’ groupings. ‘Proximal’ indicators of social capital are in fact outcomes of social capital related to its core components of networks, trust and reciprocity. Examples of proximal outcomes (or ‘indicators’) include the use of civic engagement as an indicator of social networks. This approach was made famous in Putnam’s (1995) analysis of civic decline in America, which was based upon membership of formal associations and groups. Actions associated with a display of confidence in others, an outcome of a norm of trust (see for example Onyx and Bullen 2000), as well as reciprocal acts or exchanges, an outcome of a norm of reciprocity (see for example Rose 1999), are also used as proximal indicators of social capital.
‘Distal’ indicators are outcomes of social capital which are not directly related to its key components. Examples of distal indicators, drawn from a study of social capital and health, include: life expectancy; health status; suicide rates; teenage pregnancy; crime rates; participation rates in tertiary education; employment and unemployment rates; family income; marital relationship formations and dissolutions; business confidence; job growth; growth in GDP; and balance of trade (Spellerberg 1997: 43-44). Such indicators are often relied upon with little or no empirical regard to their relationship with measures of social capital, nor even to more proximal social capital outcomes.
Proximal and distal indicators are relied upon frequently in social capital research, particularly in studies reliant upon secondary analyses, where existing data is limited. While useful in some ways, the mixture, use and misuse of indicators in social capital research to date, and lack of theoretical precision used in the selection of indicators, has led to considerable confusion about what social capital is, as distinct from its outcomes, and what the relationship between social capital and its outcomes may be.
Empirical investigations which rely upon indicators of social capital are rarely supported by direct empirical investigation of the relationship between indicators (proximal or distal outcomes) and the core components of social capital. Hence both proximal and distal outcomes may or may not be valid indicators of social capital for this reason.7 This raises the further tautological problem that research reliant upon an outcome of social capital as an indicator of it, will necessarily find social capital to be related to that outcome, without empirical means to explain why, or indeed whether, this is so. Social capital becomes tautologically present whenever an outcome is observed (Portes 1998; Durlauf 1999).
Slippage between measures of social capital, social relations characterised by high levels of trust and reciprocity, and its outcomes (be they proximal or distal) has not only resulted in empirical mayhem in some instances, but has also muddied the way social capital is understood at the conceptual level. In particular, a focus upon outcomes of social capital has fuelled debate over whether collective action resulting in group rather than public good is social capital at all.8 When social capital is understood as a resource to action, such debates are rendered useful only for understanding the consequences of social capital, rather than existence of it per se.
Separating the measure of social capital from its outcomes enables social capital to be positioned unambiguously within any research design, and be understood clearly in relation to its predictors and/or outcomes. A number of studies present social capital as an independent variable, and ask questions about how social capital influences other variables (such as child wellbeing; community development). Other studies aim to determine what it is that leads to the decline or growth of social capital as a dependent variable. Still others adopt measurement designs which see social capital as both dependent and independent in their models (asking, for example, what makes social capital and what is the impact of it on any given outcome?). These are interesting design questions and highlight the diverse interest in social capital, yet have potential to confuse its measurement unless asked within a clear conceptual framework.
A theoretically informed approach to the measurement of social capital is essential to overcoming empirical confusion and enabling proper investigation of social capital as it relates to a range of outcomes. By linking social capital measurement directly to theoretical understandings of the concept, we are able to: first, recognise that social capital is a multidimensional concept comprising social networks, norms of trust, and norms of reciprocity; second, understand social capital properly as a resource to action; and third, empirically distinguish between social capital and its outcomes.
Operationalising social capital
Once social capital is distinguished from its outcomes, the concept can be operationalised. Starting from an understanding of social capital as networks characterised by norms of trust and reciprocity, the need to identify the structure of social relations between actors, as well as a means of measuring their quality, becomes immediately apparent.
Conceptualising social relations as networks enables us to identify the structure of social relations (for example whether people know one another, and what the nature of their relationship is) as well as their content (for example, flows of goods and services between people, as well as norms governing such exchanges) (Nadel 1957). Network analysis is appropriate for the study of relational data and social network methodologies focus upon the contacts, ties, connections, group attachments and meetings which relate one actor to another and which are therefore not able to be reduced to the properties, or attributes, of individual agents (Scott 1991: 3).9 Classical social network analysis in sociology and anthropology is in many ways concerned with those aspects of networks which are necessary to understand social capital, and forms a rich reference for the study of networks in social capital research. Networks may be understood as the ‘structural’ elements of social capital.
The ‘content’ of these networks in social capital terms refers to norms of trust and reciprocity which operate within these structures. Means of measuring norms of trust and reciprocity are less well developed than are measures of the structural characteristics of networks. Measuring norms involves the study of cultures within particular networks, rather than the properties of individuals within those networks, as is described in more detail in Section 3 of this paper.
Table 1 presents the measurable components of social capital. It identifies networks, trust and reciprocity as the key dimensions. The table also presents a range of network characteristics which previous studies indicate may influence the nature and extent of social capital within a given network. Networks, trust and reciprocity presented at Table 1 form the measurable components of social capital and are discussed in more detail throughout the review of their measurement in Section 3, below.
|Structure of social relations: networks||Quality of social relations: norms|
Norm of trust
Norm of reciprocity
Source: Families, Social Capital and Citizenship project, Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2000.
Recognising social capital as a multi-dimensional concept
Identifying the key components of social capital, as presented in Table 1, demonstrates that social capital is a multidimensional concept. Newton (1997: 575) suggests that to fail to conceptualise social capital’s dimensions in separate terms is ultimately likely to ‘muddle empirical questions’. Unless the separate dimensions are identified, we are unable to ask questions about how these dimensions operate empirically. Inability to pose empirical questions about the nature of the interaction between the separate dimensions of social capital severely limits our understanding of the concept as a whole.
Despite this, numerous social capital studies rely upon unidimensional measures of the concept, often with scant empirical or conceptual regard to the relationship between that dimension and other key elements, nor to the ‘representativeness’ of a given dimension of social capital of the concept as a whole. Most notable among these are studies which use a single item measure of trust, most often drawn from the World Values Survey, as indicative of social capital as a whole (see for example Knack and Keefer 1997). While trust lies at the core of social capital, it is also important to know how that trust inheres within networks, and its relationship to the norm of reciprocity.
6 Despite this, there remains some debate about social capital definition. Other authors, for example, argue that by definition social capital includes notions of 'proactivity' (see for example Onyx and Bullen 2000). For discussion of different understandings of social capital, particularly in the Australian context, see Winter 2000b.
7 In contrast, one of the principle aims of the Families, Social Capital and Citizenship project is to directly measure norms of trust and reciprocity within social networks, and link these directly to proximal outcomes which - if found to be valid - may in turn be useful as indicators of social capital in future work.
8 Much has been written about the 'good' that comes from social capital, including whether the fruits of social capital are for public or exclusive group benefit. Some writers have identified the 'dark side', or undemocratic outcome of social capital (Ostrom 1997; Putzel 1997; Portes 1998) such as the consequences of the collective actions of groups such as the Mafia or the Ku Klux Klan. Others (most notably Cox 1997; Cox and Caldwell 2000) suggest that the outcome of social relations rich in norms of trust and mutuality which do not lead to a 'positive' public good do not infact constitute social capital but rather may simply be described as collective action or solidarity (for a detailed discussion of this idea, see Cox and Caldwell 2000).
9 For a discussion of the origins and technical aspects of social network analysis see Scott (1991). In addition, the contemporary use of social network analysis is also useful for informing the measurement of networks in studies of social capital. For an example of contemporary use of social network analysis of the kind relevant to studies of social capital, see for example Bowling's (1997) study of networks and social support which included measures of the following network characteristics:
- Size: the number of people maintaining social contact; this can include those who are only called on when needed.
- Geographic dispersion: networks vary from those confined by a household, to those in a single neighbourhood, and those that are more widely dispersed. Transport facilities may influence frequency of contact.
- Density/integration: the extent to which network members are in each other's networks.
- Composition and member homogeneity: friend, neighbour, children, sibling, other relatives; similarities between members (age, socioeconomic status, etc).
- Frequency of contact between members
- Strength of ties: degree of intimacy, reciprocity, expectation of durability and availability, emotional intensity.
- Social participation: involvement in social, political, educational, church and other activities.
- Social anchorage: years of residence in, and familiarity with, neighbourhood, involvement in community.
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- Skocpol, T. (1999) ‘Associations without members’, The American Prospect, No. 45, July-August 1999, pp. 1-8. http://www.epn.org/prospect/45/45rosenzweig.html
- Smart, C. and Neale, B. (1999) Family Fragments?, Polity Press, Cambridge.
- Spellerberg, A. (1997) ‘Towards a framework for the measurement of social capital’, in D. Robinson (ed.) Social Capital and Policy Development, Institute of Policy Studies, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington NZ.
- Stewart-Weeks, M. and C. Richardson (eds) (1998) Social Capital Stories: How 12 Australian households live their lives, Policy Monograph 42, The Centre for Independent Studies, Sydney.
- Stolle, D. (1998) ‘Making associations work: group memberships, membership and generalized trust’, Paper presented to the American Political Science Association, 3-6 September 1998, Boston.
- Stolle, D. and Rochon, T. R. (1998) ‘Are all associations alike? Member diversity, associational type, and the creation of social capital’, American Behavioral Scientist, Vol. 42, No. 1, pp. 47-65.
- UK Centre for Applied Social Surveys (1999) ‘UK Voluntary Survey 1991’.
- Uslaner, E. M. (1999a) ‘Trust but verify: Social capital and moral behavior’, Social Science Information, Vol. 38, March, pp. 29-56. http://www.bsos.umd.edu/gvpt/uslaner/working.htm
- Uslaner, E. M. (1999b) ‘Trust and consequences’, Paper presented to the Communitarian Summit, February 1999, Arlington, VA. http://www.bsos.umd.edu/gvpt/uslaner/working.htm
- Winter, I. (2000a) Family Life and Social Capital: towards a theorised understanding, Working Paper No. 21, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.
- Winter, I. (ed.) (2000b) Social Capital and Public Policy in Australia, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.
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Other project publications
- Stone, W. and Hughes. J. (2000) 'What role for social capital in family policy - and how does it measure up?', Family Matters No. 56, pp. 20-27.
- Stone, W. (2000) 'Social Capital, social cohesion and social security', Paper to 'Social security in the global village', the Year 2000 International Research Conference on Social Security, Helsinki, 25 - 27 September. http://www.issa.int/pdf/helsinki2000/topic4/2stone.pdf
- Winter, I. (2000) Family Life and Social Capital: towards a theorised understanding, Working Paper No. 21, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.
- Winter, I. (ed.) (2000) Social Capital and Public Policy in Australia, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.
- Saunders, P. and Winter, I. (1999) Institute holds conference: social capital and social policy, Family Matters No. 52, Autumn
- A theme issue of Family Matters No. 50, Winter 1998, which focused upon social capital and social exchanges.
The assistance of Lixia Qu in the initial gathering, sorting and review of measures of social capital presented in Section 3 of this paper is gratefully acknowledged. Input from Ian Winter, formerly of the Institute, and Jody Hughes, fellow researcher on the project, including comments on drafts of this paper made by each of these colleagues, is also gratefully acknowledged. The paper has also benefited from the helpful comments of Peter Saunders, formerly of the Institute, as well as from Paul Bullen and Philip Hughes who have refereed the paper externally.
Stone, W. (2001). Measuring social capital: Towards a theoretically informed measurement framework for researching social capital in family and community life (Research Paper No. 24). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.