How Does Social Capital Contribute to Health?

In the latest in a series of topical blog pieces, Sherman Folland examines the relationship between social capital and wellbeing.

Robert Putnam’s definition of social capital includes most of the features usually assumed for it.

“Social capital refers to connections amongst individuals in social networks and norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.”

(Putnam, 2000, p. 19).

While Putnam is a political scientist, social capital effects have stimulated research in virtually all of the social science disciplines. Loury (1977) an economist published early work, Bourdieu (1985) was a prolific French philosopher, Coleman (1988) a sociologist, Lindstrom (2000) an epidemiologist. These researches usually identify the central variable, health, in objective measures such as mortality rates and medically identified maladies and such data. Social capital proves more difficult to define in objective terms, yet individual experiences and connections with others are found in bonding and bridging social groups for example, families, ancestral affinities, religious groups, and so on. Trust and empathy reasonably arise in these group participations which statistically support their assumed effects (Ljunge (2018). Community social capital effects are demonstrated by the community norms in equitably treating the diversity of its individual members. The percentage of people voting in community elections suggests the valuing of the community as a whole (Lindstrom et al, 2018; Sundquist et al 2016), similarly volunteering in community projects (Anderson, 2018) and the public’s support of these norms. Unfortunately immigration temporarily disrupts the homogeneous nature of the population, historically this has occurred in many places, throughout the experience of the USA for example. The benefits in the long run, however, improve and help develop diversity in the community (Islam et al, 2006; Putnam 2017).

These researches suggest five ways in which social capital growth in communities improves community health:

1. Social capital reduces people’s stress levels and lowers rates of serious mental problems as well as other stress related disorders, for example troubles in sleeping (Islam et al, 2017);

2. Provides information on and encourages healthy habits, such as good diet and exercise;

3. Improves responsibility to others, within the social groups as well as in the wider community;

4. Reduces risky behaviors like smoking, taking illicit drugs, or excessive alcohol consumption (Islam, et al 2017); and

5. Stimulates and supports health-related infrastructure in the community.

Causality assessments are a key research objective for supporting these ideas. Some of the effects of improvements in social capital are directly measurable, for example, reductions in smoking, mental distress and so on. Time series panels help to identify the causality of the effects, we can then tell if the social capital growth comes prior to assessed benefits (Lindstrom, 2018) And other statistical approaches help greatly, though even so the process is complex, for example, when reverse causality also exists: Does better health bring better social capital? (D’Hombres and Rocco (2010). The determinants of health are themselves complex including many more influences than social connections. Finally social capital growth might be encouraged by many developments, such as when cities build or encourage social connections by developing or encouraging parks, pools, sports, pleasant cafes and bonding and bridging meeting places.

Sherman Folland is Professor of Economics Emeritus, at Oakland University, Michigan, USA.

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

Read chapter one free on Elgaronline

Related blog pieces:

Why Trust is Good for your Health by Martin Ljunge. Read Martin Ljunge’s chapter Trust promotes health: addressing reverse causality by studying children of immigrants 

The Importance of being Social –Sherman Folland investigates the influential role social capital plays in mental health and physical wellbeing.

Religious Capital, Social Capital and Health Ephraim Shapiro and Chen Sharony explore the link between religion and health

Does Health Affect Social Capital Hope Corman, Kelly Noonan, and Nancy E. Reichman examine the relationship between health and social capital.

Social Capital in Epidemiology, Martin Lindströ mexplores the link between religion, social capital and health.

Social Capital and Aging Brain Health Nicole Anderson explores the relationship between social capital and the health of the brain as it ages.

, ,


Subscribe to our RSS feed and social profiles to receive updates.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: