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Progress in Human Geography
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DOI: 10.1191/0309132502ph364ra
2002 26: 191 Prog Hum Geogr
Giles Mohan and John Mohan
Placing social capital

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Placing social capital
Giles Mohan and John Mohan
University of Portsmouth, Department of Geography, Buckingham Building, Lion
Terrace, Portsmouth PO1 3HE, UK
Abstract: This paper reviews the contribution that the concept of social capital might make to
geography, and the contribution geography might make to the analysis of social capital. We
begin by summarizing the conceptual origins and dimensions of social capital, in the process of
which we distinguish it from several other social properties (human and cultural capital; social
networks). We then summarize key criticisms of the concept, especially those levelled at the
work of Robert Putnam. The core of the paper is a discussion of the issue of whether there might
be a geography of social capital. We consider links between geographical debates and the
concept of social capital, and we assess the difficulties of deriving spatially disaggregated
measures of social capital. We illustrate this discussion with reference to literature on three sets
of issues: the question of institutional tissue and its effects on regional development; the under-
standing of health inequalities; and the analysis of comparative government performance. In
conclusion, we argue that the popularity of the concept reflects a combination of academic and
political developments, notably the search for ostensibly costless policies of redistribution on
the part of centrist governments. We therefore conclude with a discussion of the practical appli-
cations of the concept in different contexts.
Key words: social capital, social policy, development, voluntarism, participation, welfare.
I Introduction
According to one reviewer in the Economist, Robert Putnams (1993a) book Making
democracy work, in which he established his framework of social capital, was the most
important book in political economy since Pareto and Weber. Social capital has come to
play an increasingly significant role in academic and policy debates. The concept has a
seductive simplicity in explaining a wide variety of social, political and economic
outcomes. Its use has become commonplace in sociology (Coleman, 1988), political
science (Tarrow, 1996; Hall, 1999) and development studies (Fine, 1999). Furthermore,
social capital is seen as an intangible, but vital, policy ingredient for ensuring the effec-
tiveness of various interventions (Lomas, 1998; Szreter, 1999). For human geographers,
understanding social capital is important not only because it is so pervasive and,
therefore, ideologically problematic, but also because it seeks to explain different spatial
Progress in Human Geography 26,2 (2002) pp. 191210
Arnold 2002 10.1191/0309132502ph364ra
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192 Placing social capital
patterns. We therefore felt that a review of the burgeoning social capital literature was
needed and we attempt to assess its relevance for human geographers.
We begin by reviewing the conceptual origins of social capital and by considering
some definitional points; these are important as a ground-clearing exercise. We then
consider the ways in which social capital has been defined, measured and applied,
noting a number of criticisms levelled at Putnams work. The bulk of the paper then
discusses the relevance of social capital to geography. We link discussions of social
capital to other debates in the discipline, consider reasons why there might be a
geography of social capital, discuss applications of the concept within geography, and
analyse the difficulties of developing spatially disaggregated measures of it.
II Conceptual origins, dimensions and criticisms
Discussion of social capital is now inextricably linked with the work of the American
political scientist Robert Putnam, but antecedents of his work can be traced through the
writings of sociologists such as Coleman at least as far back as 1920. Putnam
emphasizes that social capital is a property of a collectivity; he refers to features of
social life networks, norms and trust that enable participants to act together more
effectively to pursue shared objectives (1995a: 66465).
He further contends that if these norms and networks link large proportions of the
community, and succeed in spanning underlying social divides, then enhanced
cooperation is likely to serve broader interests. Such norms and networks are created
through participation in various forms of associational and civic activity which involve
face-to-face interaction, producing greater disposition towards trust. In more function-
alist readings, social capital can, like other forms of capital, be treated as a stock from
which future benefits flow (Krishna, 2000), but, unlike most other stock resources, it
does not wear out with use (Ostrom, 2000). Rather, as we shall see, it is enhanced by
usage (though this does not mean that it cannot be depleted through disuse, misuse or
external influence).
Defined in this way, social capital needs to be distinguished from other properties of
individuals, families or communities. First, it should be distinguished from human
capital, because the latter should be conceived of as the endowments of individuals in
the form of skills and competencies in performing productive tasks. Ostrom (2000)
argues that social capital may be developed as a byproduct of other activities in a
community, while human capital tends to be generated through the more reflexive and
purposeful efforts of individuals. It does not automatically follow that human and
social capital are correlated.
Social capital should also be distinguished from cultural capital, in the sense in which
Bourdieu conceives of it, as possession of the cultural resources and skills necessary to
participate in lite social interactions. There are likely to be connections, but cultural
capital is largely thought of as a property of individuals. Others prefer the concept of
social networks: these systems offer access to resources of a material or (possibly) non-
material kind. However, while both social capital and social networks may enable
individuals to gain access to other resources, the former is characterized as a public
good, to which all residents of an area have access, in contrast to social networks, which
almost by definition rely on exclusion.
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By way of further clarification, social capital is not synonymous with social equality
or inequality, nor with social cohesion. The former very clearly refers to disparities in
the material and cultural resources available to individuals. The latter is usually taken
to refer to perceptions of community solidarity, or simply to community spirit (e.g.,
Burrows and Rhodes, 1998), but this is not the same as assessments of the degree of
interaction with and trust in ones fellow citizens which are implicit in the idea of social
Social capital is simultaneously an economic, sociological and political concept
(Szreter, 1999). It is also a geographical concept. If social capital is created through inter-
actions between individuals, it would seem reasonable to argue that the quality of rela-
tionships between individuals is shaped by, and itself shapes the character of, the
contexts in which they live. This is the core of Putnams (1993a) work. He suggests that
networks of civic engagement are said to: foster norms of generalized reciprocity, by
creating the expectation that spontaneously given favours will be reciprocated; foster
coordination and communication, by producing channels through which information
about the trustworthiness of individuals and groups can flow; embody past success at
collaboration, thus serving as a template for future cooperation on other issues; and,
finally, increase potential risks to those who act opportunistically that they will not
share in benefits of current or future transactions (Sirianni and Friedland, 1999).
Social capital is alleged to have beneficial effects on both individuals (promoting better
health, social interaction; increasing the probability of successful job search; providing
a favourable climate for entrepreneurship) and communities (generally, stimulating
economic development by making certain resources available that otherwise would be
lacking (e.g., microcredit schemes or sharing of capital equipment)). It cannot simply be
appropriated by individuals or particular groups.
There are many examples of the use of the concept. Coleman (1988) showed that, in
the wholesale diamond market, merchants will hand over for examination bags of
diamonds worth many thousands of pounds. This is done without formal regulation
because years of face-to-face interactions between merchants have established sets of
norms which individuals would transgress at their peril. In less formal circumstances,
Coleman shows marked differences between countries in certain expectations of
generalized reciprocity. For example, in Israel children were allowed to travel
unescorted on public transport at a much younger age than in the USA because of the
expectation that adults would look out for them.
Putnams work on democratic institutions in Italy emphasized these points. The most
successful regional governments and regional economies were those possessing high
levels of participation in associational life and those in which citizens displayed high
levels of trust in social and political institutions. The enthusiastic reception of his work,
by both policy-makers and academics, is something to which we return below; suffice
it for now to say that it is not unconnected with a search for ostensibly progressive
policies which are in a sense costless. This is despite Putnams warning that high levels
of participation and trust in Italy had evolved over centuries, and could not, therefore,
easily be replicated.
Putnam has subsequently investigated trends in participation and social capital in the
contemporary USA (1995a; 1995b; 2000). His suggestion that both are declining speaks
to a wider national unease that the forms of voluntary participation famously identified
by the nineteenth-century commentator, Alexis de Tocqueville, are no longer evident,
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194 Placing social capital
robbing American democracy of its vitality. This is why his work has attracted
substantial attention. It is encapsulated in his famous image of the lonely bowler: rather
than participating in bowling leagues as members of teams, the trend now appears to
be towards participation as individuals or in family groups. More specifically, Putnam
believes that because of the close link between civic connections and social trust [his,
and others, preferred index of social capital] (Putnam, 1995a; 666) there are grounds for
concern that social capital is in decline, since measures of participation indicate a steady
downward trend. These measures include memberships of a diverse range of organi-
zations which have traditionally mobilized voluntary effort in the USA, surveys of time
budgets, and measures of collective participation and group membership. Putnam lays
the blame for this apparent decline squarely on one culprit television but this view
has been disputed (Norris, 1996).
Hall (1999) argues that the British evidence both confirms and undermines some of
Putnams central contentions. He believes that levels of social capital in Britain have not
declined significantly; that television need not, therefore, corrode social capital; and
that two dimensions of social capital (patterns of sociability; attitudes of trust) may not
be as closely correlated as is often held to be the case. Moreover, he contends that
government can and does play a significant role in fostering social capital, and claims
that the distribution of social capital across the population appears to be neglected.
III Criticisms of Putnam
There are a number of criticisms of Putnams general thesis, and of its application in
particular contexts. First, there is scepticism about whether social capital is produced
through the kinds of activities in which Putnam is interested. The problem here lies
both in connecting patterns of associational activity, or community involvement, to
social capital, and in demonstrating that social capital has beneficial outcomes.
Putnams argument is that social capital is produced through participation in a range of
voluntary associational activities through which individuals encounter their fellows on
equal terms and learn to interact with and trust them. Precisely how social capital is
created through participation in what are, after all, somewhat mundane associational
activities, is not made clear. Levi expresses concern about the mechanisms by which
membership in such groups as bird-watching societies and soccer clubs leads to a high
level of civic engagement, democratic politics, and high-quality government
performance (1996: 4748; Tarrow, 1996: 393).
Critics also challenge Putnams choice of measures of participation, pointing to new
forms of participation (e.g., coaching/administering sports clubs hence Lemanns
(1996) ironic article Kicking in groups rather than solitary bowling) and to the
growth in chequebook participation (Jordan and Maloney, 1997). There are also
suggestions that participation involving face-to-face interaction becomes less
significant (Paxton, 1998; Rich, 1999; Rotolo, 1999). For example, debates abound on the
new imagined communities created through the disembodied internet and the possi-
bilities this holds out for cyber-democracy (Chin and Mittelman, 1997). Not all associ-
ations are alike, not all associations are open to all, and people may join them for a
variety of reasons. The terms on which people join or participate must, therefore,
condition the nature of the ensuing interactions (Stolle and Rochon, 1998). Furthermore,
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motivations for participation vary greatly: volunteering is often used by individuals as
a way of accumulating human capital by gaining relevant experience and skills (Brown,
1997). Thus, not all associational activity may have the outcomes predicted by Putnam.
More generally, there are questions about the novelty of his argument: that
involvement and participation in groups can have positive consequences for the
individual and community is a staple notion . . . [which] simply recaptures an insight
present since the beginning of the discipline (sociology) (Portes, 1998: 2). Putnam
would probably contend that the emphasis on social capital as both an emergent
property and a public good is novel. However, a further weakness of his argument is the
implicit assertion that causal connections between associational activity, social capital
and beneficial socioeconomic outcomes can be found consistently from an era of
medieval city states through to the present day (Tarrow, 1996).
Furthermore, it is said that Putnam emphasizes the beneficial features of social
capital while ignoring its down side. Rubio (1997) refers to perverse social capital:
criminal gangs or organized crime, such as the Mafia, involve the salient characteristics
of the Putnam conceptual triad (networks, norms and sanctions) but these are both
internal to the group in question and have undeniably negative effects. There can also
be circumstances in which rival groups in society may exhibit high levels of social
capital within groups but low social capital between them (e.g., strongly sectarian
societies). It could be argued that the stronger the social capital within the group, the
greater the hostility to outsiders (Halpern, 1999). However, against this there are
examples of regions which have overcome such divisions (some of Putnams most
successful regions in Italy), and there is no necessary link between social capital and
Putnams account is also society-centred and therefore neglects the ways in which
social capital can be created (and destroyed) by structural forces and institutions. It thus
provides a warrant for a deficit model of the causes of decline of the American inner
city, of the comparative failure of the peripheral regions of western Europe, or the
continued underdevelopment of the third world. Indicators of malaise may be civic
while causes of decline are structural. One corollary of this is that the state is relatively
under-theorized. Putnam is criticized for his neglect of the states role in suppressing
associational life in the Italian South (Bagnasco, 1996; Tarrow, 1996; Putzel, 1997).
Similarly, Putzel (1997) adds that in areas identified by Putnam as having high social
capital other organizations were involved in producing it, but he ignores them. This
lack of attention to the states role and other forms of political organization prompted
Evans (1997) and Ostrom (1996) to talk of state-society synergy as a more useful
approach to theorizing the formation of social capital. Skocpol (1996; 1997) emphasizes
that American associational life has been carefully nurtured, not least by government
action, and argues that if there is a decline in social capital it results not from individual
choice but from changes in the character of American politics, including the decline of
local campaigning and the proliferation of lobbyists and special interest groups
organized nationally. Among lites, she suggests, new kinds of connections are alive
and well (Skocpol, 1997) but these lites are now arguing that the nations social con-
nectedness must be repaired from below, with little help from government.
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196 Placing social capital
IV Geography and social capital
Here we deal with four issues. First, we consider why human geographers might want
to draw on a concept like social capital, and for this reference is made to broad intel-
lectual and political trends in geography (and in the external environment). Second, we
review evidence which implies that accepting the causal account of social capital
developed by Putnam there might be spatial variations in patterns of associational
activity, which have consequences for social capital formation. Third, we raise questions
concerning the definition and measurement of social capital, and the spatial scale at
which it operates. Fourth, we conclude by assessing some applications of concepts of
social capital within geography.
1 Social capital and contextual explanations in geography
It is a truism of contemporary geographical thought that place makes a difference to
the outcome of social processes. Social capital might thus have much to contribute
to contextual explanations of geographical phenomena. There are connections here
with previous and current geographical work, such as the localities debates of
the 1980s, and to attempts at contextual explanations informed by structuration theory
and, more recently, actor-network theory. Here we simply highlight convergences
between such accounts and the ways in which social capital might be relevant to
The localities programme of research on uneven development in Britain might best
be understood as an attempt to move away from a deterministic reading-off of social
and political events from the productive base. Instead, the intention was to show how
the social complexion of places affected forms of economic restructuring. Now, social
capital per se was not referenced in the localities debates, but the implication of the
studies that the character of social relationships in a locality could, in some circum-
stances, be more than the sum of its parts has obvious resonance with discussions of
social capital. The clearest statement of this is probably Savage et al.s (1987) contention
(see also Urry, 1987) that the locality may be a site of emergent causal powers
(Lovering, 1989: 213).
The second connection is with structuration theory, which suggests that the actions
of individual agents may or may not serve to reproduce social structure according to
context. Furthermore, actions not only have unintended consequences but may also
have unexpected consequences. Thus, the dense interpersonal networks of voluntary
associations studied by Putnam could produce (and/or reproduce) a degree of social
capital which was qualitatively different from that available in other places. Equally, it
is possible that the stock of social capital in a place is not reproduced or replenished, but
is instead depleted. These arguments suggest, in line with much contemporary theory,
that what goes on in a place is not fixed but is a contingent outcome of the interactions
between agency and structure.
Giddens attempts to link structure and action by arguing that the former is not only
an external constraint on action, but is also the continually reproduced medium
through which action is enabled (Murdoch, 1997: 324). Social capital might be seen as
part of these continually reproduced media in so far as it is generated by an unending
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sequence of human actions; for Putnam, social capital is to be found in any form of
social relation that provides a resource for action (Foley and Edwards, 1997: 552).
There are also connections here with actor-network theory (ANT). In relation to
human geography, its advocates have concentrated on its utility for overcoming
divisions between the natural and the social. However, we would see the value of ANT
in this context as part of what Murdoch (1997) terms a trend towards associationalist
thinking, evident in an empirical and theoretical focus on networks or associations in
economic and political geography. Afurther advantage claimed for ANT is its relational
treatment of geographical scale simply as an outcome of the heterogeneous links
established between actors (Murdoch, 1997: 322); this is in opposition to a static view
of space for example, of administrative units as spatial containers which we argue
still besets studies of social capital (see below).
2 Is there a geography of social capital?
If participation in various forms of associational activities contributes to the formation
of social capital, then there are good reasons to expect geographical variations in social
capital. The main literature drawn on here is that relating to political cultures, civic par-
ticipation and patterns of membership of voluntary associations, as well as work on the
geography of the voluntary sector.
First, political participation and volunteerism vary (by age, class, ethnicity and
gender) and so, at a minimum, one would expect compositional effects to produce
spatial variations. However, as shown by national surveys in the UK, variations in vol-
unteering are too great to be explained by compositional factors alone (Davis-Smith,
1998; Lynn, 1997).
Second, there is evidence from intensive studies of particular localities that the extent
and character of participation varies from place to place. There is ample historical
evidence of memberships of friendly societies or contributory welfare arrangements, or
of the formation of charitable or voluntary associations. Contemporary studies of
political participation indicate substantial place-to-place variations (e.g., Miller et al.,
1996; Parry et al., 1992; Verba et al., 1996).
Third, the voluntary sector exhibits uneven development, as is well illustrated by the
many extensive statistical analyses that have been carried out in the USA(e.g., Wolpert,
1990; Wolch, 1989; Wolch and Geiger, 1983). Other national and international
comparisons confirm these variations (Kendall and Knapp, 1996; Salamon, 1995). Such
variations are often related statistically to the fortunes of local economies and/or to
compositional effects. Expressed in this way, such studies apparently contradict
Putnams causal mechanisms, since according to Putnam high levels of voluntary
activity precede (rather than follow) economic development.
Fourth, several commentators argue that institutional structures can make a
difference to levels of participation and, thereby, influence the formation of social
capital. Examples might include the former Greater London Councils populist
programmes aimed at enlisting a rainbow coalition (MacKintosh and Wainwright,
1987) and the many other efforts by central and local government to stimulate
voluntary activity (Hall, 1999; Maloney et al., 2000). In Mexico, Fox (1999) details the
relationship between the governments decentralization programme and local
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198 Placing social capital
community organizations. He argues that structures of local governance in turn
influence the capacity of grassroots communities to influence social investments (1999:
48). In many other developing countries, NGO activity, and the voluntarism which
surrounds it, has largely been in response to the actions of foreign NGOs and donors
who have placed faith in civil society over the state (Chabal and Daloz, 1999). While
generalizations are dangerous, the externally funded NGO activity follows patterns of
uneven development whereby poorer regions attract greater attention and local NGOs
develop in response to the inflows of money. Hence, the spatiality of voluntarism is
further complicated by non-local interventions.
Fifth, contemporary processes of uneven development are likely to have an impact
on the quality of social relationships and, therefore, on levels of social capital. The flight
of capital from certain locations has certainly been associated with a decline in civility
and increasing levels of crime (e.g., Campbell, 1993). However, this does not apply
everywhere and the result may be an increase in the dispersion of levels of social
capital, rather than a generalized decline. In so far as the affected neighbourhoods may
be relatively small areas, this raises the question of the spatial scale at which social
capital operates. Putnam does not commit himself on this point, and as we shall see,
different writers adopt a pragmatic approach to this problem. Finally, there are
examples of deliberate localized efforts to stimulate community development in neigh-
bourhoods evacuated by capital, as a strategy of economic and social renewal. In
Nigeria, for example, the Naira boom followed by the stringent IMF-sponsored
Adjustment Programmes caused great economic hardship and the breakdown of trust.
One response was the re-creation of social capital within the confines of Born Again
churches where trust relations were formed and, crucially, the state was unable to
suppress political debate (Laakso and Olukoshi, 1996; Marshall, 1991).
In short, then, there are good reasons to suppose that there is a geography of social
capital; the evidence implies substantial variation in the presence of, or participation in,
organizations credited with producing social capital. However, this in turn raises the
question of how one devises spatially disaggregated measures of social capital.
3 Developing spatially disaggregated indicators of social capital
There are obvious difficulties in operationalizing a fluid, relational concept such as
social capital, especially given the extensive conceptual disputes about the term. These
problems become still more acute when one attempts to devise geographically disag-
gregated measures. Data on the dimensions of social capital are not captured through
sources such as the census and one has to rely on other direct or indirect measurements
of the concept. Putnams causal model suggests a sequence in which, broadly speaking,
participation in associational activity produced greater levels of trust and civic
engagement. We will follow that sequence here.
Several authors have followed Putnams lead in using data on levels of associational
activity as proxies for social capital. An example would be Narayan and Pritchetts
(1997) use of group or association membership at the village level in Tanzania: increases
of one standard deviation led to household incomes increasing by 2030% per person.
Similarly Veenstra and Lomas (1999) utilize a range of measures of participation in civic
and associational life in their study of Canadian provinces. The problems of relying on
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such data are well rehearsed by Paxton (1998) and Rich (1999). Membership statistics
are available for a long time-series for some key organizations, but simply counting
aggregate numbers and presenting trends on one indicator does not tell us very much.
For example, what are the ramifications of associational membership for one
individual, or for the area in which he/she lives? To explore this one would need
individual-level data about other aspects of participation by individuals and how such
participation was related to the formation of social capital. For temporal comparisons,
as indicated above, associational membership may not always be a helpful indicator,
because of changes in the character of associational life, as old organizations are
supplanted by new ones.
Social capital perhaps ought to be regarded as the outcome of associational activity
and so researchers have been much exercised by measuring a range of indicators of
trust. Halpern (1999) believes that the level of trust people have, in institutions or their
fellow citizens, is the best way to measure social capital. He therefore recommends
inclusion of a measure of trust as part of routine government social surveys. The
problems to which this might give rise are well illustrated by Knack and Keefers (1997)
use of a measure of trust (from the World Values Survey, which covers 29 countries)
derived from responses to the phrase most people can be trusted. This highly
ambiguous phrase (does it include family, friends and strangers?) produces a very
elastic measure of social capital (p. 1283). As Schuller (2000: 32) points out, the danger
here is that overmuscular measurement applications will result in a still-nascent
concept becoming so waterlogged that it sinks.
Whether one measures participation or trust, there are difficulties in obtaining disag-
gregated data on dimensions of social capital. Most indicators are derived from national
studies, which permit little disaggregation. There are few international studies which
attempt to ask comparable questions across a number of states. For those that attempt
this (such as the World Values Survey) it is at least plausible that responses are context-
dependent. This issue is exemplified by influential ecological studies of the impact of
social capital on health (e.g., Kawachi and Kennedy, 1999; Kawachi et al., 1997) which
claim to discern statistically significant relationships between levels of trust and health
standards at the state level in the USA. It is clear that there are interstate differences in
levels of trust, but it is debatable how meaningful these are as explanations of health
inequalities. There are important arguments on health inequalities concerning the scale
at which social capital might operate. The suspicion is that operational opportunism
has led scholars to use whatever data happen to be available (state-level surveys, in this
case) and correlate them with mortality data. Instead, we suggest, indicators should be
derived which allow us to examine the effects of social capital at and across several
different scales. Unfortunately, direct measures of trust involve costly surveys if they
are to be replicated. Alternative possibilities are thus direct measurement of associa-
tional activity at a small-area level, and indirect measures using synthetic estimation
techniques. On the former, we can regard Richard Titmuss famous (1970) dictum that
arrangements for blood donation represented one of the best measures available of the
quality of social relationships in a society as a strong argument for using blood
donorship rates as a small-area surrogate for social capital. On the latter, it is possible,
using multilevel modelling techniques, to produce synthetic estimates of proportions of
the population engaged in voluntary activity (Barnard et al., 2001). These techniques
offer scope for developing and testing measures of social capital at various spatial
Giles Mohan and John Mohan 199
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200 Placing social capital
scales, rather than simply accepting data that happens to be available for fixed spatial
These questions of scale, process and measurement have fostered other studies which
take a more qualitative route, or which focus on a limited set of small areas. Onyx and
Bullen (2000) surveyed five areas in contrasting urban and rural environments in
Australia, in rather more depth than would be possible in a national sample survey, and
found statistically significant differences. Rural environments were characterized by
higher levels of participation and mutual support, and, though levels of social capital
were higher in rural than urban areas, it appeared that on some dimensions (e.g.,
tolerance of diversity) rural areas scored lower than urban areas. It may be that such
broad generalizations are all that is possible in terms of disaggregation. Maskell (2002)
argues that if social capital as a general endowment is, by definition, locally contingent,
it may not be possible to develop uniform measurements that allow comparison
between localities. Krishna and Shrader (1999) pursued a similar line in developing a
Social Capital Assessment Tool (SCAT). They argue that while the scale of social capital
may have to be constructed separately for each different context, instruments can be
devised that will assist in the construction of such a scale among different contexts
(Krishna and Shrader, 1999: 7; emphasis in original). The SCAT consists of a community
profile, a household survey and an organizational profile which allow policy-makers to
more effectively deliver participatory projects, because the levels and types of social
capital will not be known a priori. In this regard, Moser and Holland (1998) used a
Participatory Urban Appraisal, an adaptation of PRA, in Jamaica to assess the effects of
urban violence on levels of social capital. They showed that investment in local
community projects might well deliver the greatest social and economic benefits,
because it would reconstitute trust relationships and thereby stimulate economic inter-
Finally, we suggest that one profitable line of inquiry might be the extent of
dispersion in levels of social capital. Much urban policy is concerned with small areas
which, it appears, have gone past a threshold at which traditional behavioural codes do
not apply. This is a theme of Campbells (1993) work on the collapse of a sense of
community. However, anecdotal observation from our own work reveals traditional
forms of voluntarism are alive and well in other places (e.g., through largely middle-
class, church and womens organizations). If so, we may be dealing with not a
generalized but a localized decline in social capital, the contours of which need to be
4 Applications of social capital
Given these significant conceptual problems, one wonders why social capital has
become so popular over the past decade. The answer necessarily entails examining
wider questions of political-economy and ideology. At the most general level, scholars
are interested in it because it apparently offers the power to explain residual variance
in models of several kinds of activity. More specifically, there are three principal areas
in which concepts of social capital have been applied: explaining uneven development
at various scales; understanding the comparative performance of governments; and
accounting for spatial variations in health experience.
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Giles Mohan and John Mohan 201
First, social capital is used in explaining economic growth and uneven development.
There is evidence at the level of nation states that nations with high social capital tend
strongly to be wealthier (as measured by GDP per head), or enjoy more rapid economic
growth. Some models suggest that social capital is more important to economic growth
than human capital (despite the importance attached to the latter in theories of
endogenous growth) (Halpern, 1999, quoting Whiteley). This might be because social
capital increases trust and this lowers transaction costs (by reducing the need for
expensive contractual arrangements and facilitating transmission of information), or
because it has positive effects on the operation of government (greater legitimacy leads
to stability and the pursuit of greater investment in public goods). However, the precise
form social capital takes may be important; for example, public trust (i.e., between
relative strangers) may be more beneficial to economic growth than trust within
Social capital may also be relevant to the explanation of intrastate patterns of uneven
development. Given the declining significance of physical resource endowments and
(some) convergence in human capital (as measured in terms of levels of qualifications),
the different economic fortunes of regions within advanced capitalist societies require
explanation. One response has been to synthesize research in the economic and cultural
spheres, in an attempt to discover the reasons why certain regions perform better than
others. Here, the focus is usually on institutional tissue which permits networking and
facilitates a disposition towards trust, promoting the exchange of ideas and contacts,
and thereby enhancing a regions collective capacity for innovation. The work of Cooke
and Morgan (1998) on Wales exemplifies this. The idea of networks of untraded inter-
dependencies is also relevant. In the literature on new industrial spaces, the case is
made that tacit knowledge is exchanged between firms on the basis of unwritten
informal rules (Pinch and Henry, 1999a; 1999b), relying on conventions established
through face-to-face interaction. Whether the concept of social capital la Putnam
applies to these processes is somewhat debatable. The institutional tissue in some of
Europes old industrial regions has not always been an inclusive one (Hudson, 1994);
rather, it has almost designedly excluded certain interests and promoted a narrow
development agenda. Nor is it clear that knowledge-intensive industries necessarily
cluster in places with high levels of social capital, at least in the sense in which Putnam
understands it. If social capital is engendered through participation in face-to-face asso-
ciational activity, the gated communities of California would not appear to be likely
sources of social capital. In fact, it may be that the issue here is a distinction between
two aspects of social capital: the dense interfirm relationships in which economic
geographers have explored, and the interpersonal networks of associational life which
have attracted Putnams attention.
Second, and closely related to these institutionalist formulations are those concerning
the effectiveness of government institutions. Subsequent studies have apparently
provided more support for Putnams argument showing that, after controlling for
GDP per head, higher social capital was associated with lower levels of corruption
and higher levels of performance on the part of government institutions (a point
which Putnam is apt to argue rather deterministically; Putnam, 2001: 153). Examples
here might be Bayart et al.s (1999) study of corruption, or the World Banks
analysis of the failure of privatization schemes (
scapital/scwhyrel1.htm). Critics question the direction of causality and contend that
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202 Placing social capital
interdependencies between state and voluntary organizations make it impossible to
determine which should have causal priority. On this view good government could be
either, or both, of a cause or consequence of high social capital. Recent theorists
(Ostrom, 1996; Evans, 1997) hedge their bets on this issue and talk of the co-production
of beneficial social schemes such that the relationships between government and asso-
ciations are mutually reinforcing which provides the normative underpinnings for
Third, social capital is used in understanding health inequalities, because of the
evidence that, despite rising living standards, substantial disparities exist. Narrowly
materialist accounts cannot deal with this satisfactorily. The focus has shifted to levels
of inequality between and within nation states, the suggestion being that in more
egalitarian societies disparities in health are less great and overall levels of health are
higher. The most widely cited author in this context is Wilkinson (1996), who has
argued two basic propositions: within the developed world, highest health standards
are found in the most egalitarian societies (and not the richest ones); and the most
important links between disease and income inequality are psychosocial ones, which
operate through the pathway of social cohesion. Thus, the explanatory emphasis is on
relative, not absolute, income effects, which operate through psychosocial (not material)
causal processes. Wilkinsons work has inspired many ecological analyses which relate
aggregate statistics on health outcomes to a range of measures of inequality, social
cohesion or social capital. In these, social capital is viewed as a mediating link,
connecting relative incomes to mortality experience in two ways. First, there are associ-
ations between income inequality and indicators of crime levels or education standards,
viewed by some as symptoms of underinvestment in social capital (Kaplan et al., 1996)
though human capital might be more accurate. Second, there is the argument that
income inequality disrupts social cohesion; thus declining levels of social trust and civic
participation would symbolize this breakdown, and we might therefore expect health
standards to be associated with income inequality and social capital. Kawachi et al.
(1997) have quite bluntly asserted, on the basis of ecological analyses, that income
inequality leads to increased mortality via disinvestment in social capital. Others
counsel caution. Although it does appear remarkable that indicators of trust at the state
level should apparently explain much of the variance in mortality levels, there is
scepticism about the underlying causal processes, with Muntaner and Lynch (1999)
advocating the linkage of social capital to class.
These are disparate areas of study, but we might summarize the common threads
between them by saying that the interest in social capital results from a critique of
overdetermined theorization of links between structural forces and individual
experiences, a recognition that contexts matter to the outcomes of social processes, and,
in particular, a critique of the excesses of free-market capitalism and failures of state
intervention. However, considerable disagreement exists as to the operationalization
and use of the concept. This has not prevented politicians and institutions from priori-
tizing it in public policy and we conclude this article with a discussion of some practical
and policy implications.
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Giles Mohan and John Mohan 203
V Social capital in practice: political attractions and socioeconomic limitations
In conclusion, we might well ask why social capital has attracted so much attention
when there are substantial arguments about just what it means. Put bluntly, one
argument is that it is a form of revisionist neoliberalism, a political response to the
alleged constraints imposed by globalization and the consequent reduction in scope for
state intervention. In its earliest, Thatcherite incarnation neoliberalism sought to
remove the state from economic life. With the Clinton and Blair revolutions, we see a
slightly more positive role for the state, albeit a more lean and focused one; reformist
intentions are circumscribed by the contours of a polarized social landscape, and so
there is a search for policies which appear to be costless (Mohan, 1999: 11552; 2002).
The combined effect of these changes has been a move towards multiple stakeholder
approaches involving partnerships between state, private capital and civil society. This
is epitomized in various searches for a third way, a key element of which is a discourse
combining rights and responsibilities. The clearest illustrations of this are probably John
Grays (1996) apostatic rejection of Thatcherism, the communitarian-inspired prescrip-
tions of Etzioni (1996), Fukuyamas (1995) work on trust and the writings of Mulgan
(1997) and Leadbeater (1999). These authors have all had the ear of government and, in
addition, Tony Blair claims to have been influenced by the philosopher John
MacMurray, whose key text was entitled Persons in relation. We now draw on our
own research specialisms (the politics of third-world development, and social policy in
the core) to show how public policy might be orientated towards the production of
social capital.
1 Social capital and development studies: local networks and poverty alleviation
Over the past five years, social capital has become an important analytical concept and
policy tool within development (see, for example, Brown and Ashman, 1996;
Bebbington, 1997; Bebbington et al., 1997; Wilson, 1997; Evans, 1997; Uphoff, 2000).
First, analytically, researchers have tested the extent to which social capital underpins
social development and/or poverty alleviation programmes. Brown and Ashman
(1996) examined 13 cases of multiparty cooperation across Africa and Asia and found
that The creation and strengthening of social capital in the form of local organizations
and networks is an essential task in building intersectoral cooperation that mobilizes
and utilizes local resources and energies for problem solving (p. 1477). Similarly,
Bebbington et al. (1997) argue the nature of relationships among plural actors, and the
consolidation of social capital in the form of local organizations and networks,
constitute part of the explanation of these successes in sustainable forestry (p. 31).
These researchers are, however, aware that the actual mechanisms which link these
networks and organizations are poorly understood. From a sociospatial perspective,
these analysts see social capital as an essentially local endowment leading to local
The second use of social capital is rather more prescriptive. If social capital is
necessary for localized developmental success, and the lack of success points to the lack
of social capital (or at least the right sort), then the inference is that policies should
attempt to build it (Wilson, 1997). Such efforts challenge the path dependency of
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204 Placing social capital
Putnam, arguing that investing in locally relevant social capital will initiate a self-
generating and virtuous cycle. However, such a process is difficult, and Governments
are unfortunately still often reluctant to make investments in social capital (Uphoff,
2000: 238).
At the level of macropolicy, the World Bank argues that social capital should ideally
entail horizontal and vertical associations which promote social cohesion on the one
hand and prevent divisive parochialisms on the other (
poverty/scapital/index.htm). The concept leads firmly into their broader agenda of
favouring civil society over the state (Fine, 1999). Social capital has been used by the
Bank to justify the creation of Social Funds and other partnerships. Social Funds have
become an established device for poverty alleviation under Structural Adjustment
Programmes (Stewart and van der Geest, 1995) and, more recently, have been seen as
one way to promote social inclusion (Gillings, 1999). Initially such funds were
channelled through NGOs which acted simply as delivery agencies, but over time
NGOs have become more involved in programme design and monitoring.
This privileging of certain forms of social capital over others serves to normalize a
partial approach to political economy at the expense of alternatives. In this sense it
reflects the colonization of the social sciences by neoclassical economics (Fine, 1999) as
it gives an economic rationale to all non-economic behaviour. It allows the major
lenders to sidestep the state and its relation to the global economy since an absence of
development is attributed not to the global economy but to the inability of local society
to insert itself into economic life in a rational manner. Like modernization theory before
it, the problem lies with the victims of poverty and not the wider political economy.
As Fine (1999) summarizes, social capital allows the World Bank to broaden its agenda
whilst retaining continuity with most of its practices and prejudices which include
benign neglect of macro-relations of power, preference for favoured NGOs and
grassroots movements, and decentralized initiatives (p. 12). It remains to be seen how
social capital can be mobilized as a counternarrative of solidarity and more radical
social movements as Fowler (1998) suggests it can.
2 Social capital and social policy in the core
There are concerns, too, about the ways in which social capital is used to inform public
policy in western nations. Neoliberals tend to argue that state intervention has
destroyed social capital, either by assuming welfarist responsibilities and strangling
self-help initiatives (Green, 1996) or by destroying communities through catastrophic
attempts at planning and urban renewal (Coleman, 1985). Amore balanced perspective
would acknowledge that the relationship between state and civil society is not a zero-
sum one; popular voluntary associations and the state have historically operated in
close symbiosis (Hall, 1999; Lehning, 1998; Skocpol, 1996). In seeking to promote the
creation of social capital, one cannot simply rely on offloading responsibilities from the
state onto the voluntary sector. Three suggested policies are reviewed here.
First, there are proposals for greater state support for the voluntary sector (e.g., Lomas,
1998). Possibilities include putting the voluntary sector on a firmer financial footing
and/or relaxing benefit regulations which inhibit volunteering. As Hall (1999) demon-
strates for the UK (see also Maloney et al., 2000), government action certainly has
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Giles Mohan and John Mohan 205
helped sustain cultures of voluntarism, and greater support for the voluntary sector
seems a prerequisite for enhancing social capital. However, sustained intervention and
support would almost certainly be more necessary in the more impoverished areas; see,
for example, the Commission on Social Justices (1994) ideas for community
development, and various American initiatives (Sirianni and Friedland, 1999) which
propose reinvigorating volunteerism and self-help in disadvantaged localities.
A second context in which social capital is discussed is educational reform: the
potential of schools to form foci for neighbourhoods is often recognized, since neigh-
bourhood schools are institutions in the success of which almost all residents have an
interest. Schneider et al. (1997) believe that a pro-market policy, giving parents vouchers
with which to choose schools, will stimulate voluntary support and therefore social
capital, but it is hard to see why such an individualistic solution would produce these
results (see criticisms, of similar proposals, by Henig, 1994, and Carnoy, 1993). Market
forces, promoting competition between schools, do not seem likely to support anything
other than social segregation (see Gibson and Asthana, 2000, on current tendencies in
Yet it seems inconceivable that the stock of social capital can be improved in the
absence of educational reform and investment. Szreter (1999) contends that the litist,
class-based British education system not only endows a small fraction with the human
and cultural capital they need for success but it also creates dense social networks
among this lite group, from which the remainder are excluded. He argues that only a
good overall education system . . . can lay the necessary foundations for the proliferation
of social capital all across the economy, by providing its basis in common communica-
tive competence and mutual respect (p. 42). This conclusion holds for other social
policies such as health, housing and social security. Although Szreters arguments are
focused largely on human capital, they apply by extension to questions of social capital
and social cohesion.
Third, in the area of industrial policy, some have suggested that it is possible to create
the networks of dense interfirm relationships that are believed to characterize Europes
regional success stories. Policy emphases here are on creating fora in which ideas can
be discussed and disseminated, thus stimulating a collective learning process by
enhancing the networking capacities of regions (Morgan, 1997). Critics, however,
believe that this offers a hopelessly optimistic vision which neglects the structural
challenges facing deindustrialized regions (Lovering, 1999).
Beyond these specific suggestions, authors such as Woolcock (1998) argue that
government agencies should consider the implications for social capital of any
decisions they may take. The analogy might be with the treatment of externalities by the
planning system. An emphasis on social capital also reminds us that there is such a
thing as society and that policies to reduce inequality benefit everybody. However, if
social capital is as path-dependent as implied by Putnam, creating it will be a long-term
and large-scale project. In the policy areas reviewed here, it is also questionable whether
simply promoting social capital makes sense in abstraction from policies to reduce
socioeconomic disparities.
For this reason, we are concerned about the ways in which social capital has come to
be privileged over material inequalities (between people and places) in a way which
may be both analytically weak and practically disabling. We have referred to numerous
difficulties in operationalizing the concept, and we are sceptical as to whether it is
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206 Placing social capital
possible, for analytical convenience, to separate social capital from material circum-
stances. Asimilar point has recently been made by Portes (2000), who regards Putnams
central proposition that a civically involved population will produce good
governance as largely self-evident and circular. He therefore welcomes efforts to
produce novel indicators (newspaper readership, associational membership etc.) since
these mean that social capital is not being measured by its consequences (pp. 45).
Even these indicators need to be tested thoroughly, however, because social capital may
simply be another way of describing social inequalities. Portes therefore believes that
considerable research remains to be done to establish whether or not extraneous factors
(e.g., material prosperity, institutional arrangements) might be responsible for both
high levels of social capital and effective governance. If social capital were shown con-
vincingly to be independent of material circumstances, then policies to increase it might
have some impact. If the converse were true, social capital would be little more than a
flag of convenience, allowing centre-right governments to pretend they are contribut-
ing to the solution of social problems when very little was actually being done to
mitigate fundamental inequalities. The dangers of uncritical application of the concept
are emphasized by Leeder (1998), who warns of the risk of a one-sided obsession with
social capital as the god-thing in a secular power-religion, the one true measure into
which we can empty all that is complex and puzzling, the embodiment of all our
bravest ambitions and secret desires for a society that reflects our very own values.
There is a tendency to wish-fulfilment in discussions of social capital.
Both authors would like to thank their colleagues at Portsmouth who have engaged in
lively and informative debates on the nature and value of social capital to geographers.
They are Craig Duncan, Kelvyn Jones, Vicky Sullivan and Liz Twigg. We are also
grateful to David Halpern, Perri 6 and Simon Szreter for copies of unpublished
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