The Importance of being Social

iStock-1125268244-smile-friend-balloonsSherman Folland investigates the influential role social capital plays in mental health and physical wellbeing.

Social interaction between people who trust one another is widely thought to benefit their health. Yet scientific study of this hypothesis is very recent. The modern term, social capital, was first mentioned in the early 20th Century, and experiments with the hypothesis began to appear in the literature only in the last 30 to 40 years (M.K. Islam).

“Social Capital refers to connections amongst individuals in social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.”
 (Puttnam, 2000, p.19)

The Elgar Companion to Social Capital and Health provides new research from 28 contributors representing the wide range of intellectual disciplines with expertise on social capital: sociology, epidemiology, psychiatry, public health, economics, public policy and pediatrics. They also represent an extraordinary geographic and cultural range: North America, Europe and the Middle East. This discussion focuses on a few selected examples of the work presented in the Companion.

Approaches to the Empirical Work
Sociologists and many others draw from Bourdieu (1986), focusing on network structures and the ties that connect people to each other. L. Song, C. Frazier and P. Pettis further develop the effects of the resources and experiences of the network on health outcomes. S. Moore, S. Child, Y-H. Wu and J. Mandelbaum place emphasis on designs and mechanisms. M. Lindström explains the role of network theory in epidemiology.

Economists draw from Glaeser, Laibson and Sacerdote (2002) on capital theory, how it lasts and depreciates; and also how it can be invested in by individuals, communities, and governments. Social interaction affects health in several ways:  reducing stress, providing information, gains in responsibility, encouraging risk reduction, and encouraging healthcare infrastructure.

A Variety of Empirical Findings
The empirical work developed by a variety of authors suggests that the benefits of social capital are experienced in many different settings. E. Shapiro and C. Sharony review the empirical literature that distinguishes religious capital from social capital effects, reporting that the beneficial effects of religious attendance are common across religions: Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Anderson reports that social factors, such as low social support, living alone, and low social activity, affect the aging brain’s health and add greater risk of dementia. M.K. Islam, S. Folland and O.M. Kaarboe measured the effect of social capital on the incidence of 13 diseases using multivariate probit analysis of American and Norwegian data sets. Their results support the view that social capital’s effect is strongest on stress-related diseases and disorders. S. Folland shows that gains in social capital may persuade you to reduce your risk-taking behaviors such as cigarette smoking and alcohol drinking, but other applications may be more complex.

Causality Issues
Researchers in this field understand that social capital variables are also affected by other factors, and some have sought to find and apply independent, exogenous social capital examples to verify causality.  M. Ljunge tested the effect of the mother’s generalized trust level on the health of her children. Access to immigration data permitted him to measure her trust level in her original country, which made it independent of present day influences, suggesting that the benefits found by Ljunge were causal. M.K. Islam and L. Rocco asked whether social experience in the workplace affects health-related absenteeism. They used instrumental variables chosen because these exogenous variables had no independent effect on absenteeism but a known direct effect on social capital. Finding an indirect effect could and was interpreted as evidence of the effect of social capital.

Finally, H. Corman, K. Noonan and N. Reichman turned the causality question around and asked whether health affects social capital. They looked at unexpected shocks of infant health and appearances of post partem depression in the mother, choosing these events because they appear to be random and therefore exogenous. These were found to have little effect on the parents’ interactions with other people though they had negative effects on the parents’ relationship with each other.

Drawing on these Articles
It is hoped the methods and findings here stimulate continued social science work on the benefits of developing social capital. A strong interest in social capital as well as anticipation of potential benefits is already seen in the popular literature and media reports. Governments and communities are looking at ways to implement programs to increase social capital. Social scientists have an important role to play by using their tools and experience to build a sound basis for these efforts.

Sherman Folland is Professor of Economics at Oakland University in Rochester,  Michigan.

Folland Comp Social

Elgar Companion to Social Capital and Health edited by Sherman Folland and Eric Nauenberg is out now.

Read chapter one free on Elgaronline


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