Feature Article - Making Social Capital Work for Public Policy

Jeff Frank, Policy Research Initiative

Jeff Frank, Project Director, is the project lead for the PRI’s Social Capital as a Public Policy Tool project.

Can the concept of social capital offer a useful set of tools for the development of policies and programs? This question is at the core of one of the horizontal research projects launched by the Policy Research Initiative (PRI) earlier this year. Through consultations with policy departments and experts, the project on Social Capital as a Public Policy Tool is developing an analytical framework that will offer a consistent approach to social capital and its application to various policy issues.

Work in this area is not entirely new across federal departments. For a few years now, research on social cohesion has been exploring related issues, albeit through a broader lens that covers various forms of social and civic participation, as well as notions of identity and belonging. What is new is the focus on the tighter concept of social capital – understood roughly as networks of social relationships and the resources they embody. These networks can be invested in and drawn upon to facilitate action, and can be beneficial as a resource for individuals and communities. Even with this relatively lean approach to social capital, various dimensions can be drawn into the analysis, depending on the policy question at hand. This article reviews some of these dimensions and potential policy applications, after first exploring the rising interest in social capital within public policy circles.

An idea with legs

Interest in social capital has been mounting in academic circles, in the policy shops of many national governments, and across several international agencies. Scholarly work on social capital in various disciplines has grown dramatically over the past decade. Robert Putnam was already the most cited social scientist of the 1990s, and with 2000’s Bowling Alone: the Collapse and Revival of American Community, he truly catapulted the idea of social capital into a wider public consciousness. In Canada, interest crystallized with an international symposium held in Québec City that same year. Coorganized by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC), the symposium brought together leading thinkers and government officials to consider how human and social capital interact to influence sustained economic growth and well-being. The symposium report remains essential reading for anyone interested in social capital and public policy.1 The articles contained in the Spring 2001 issue of Isuma: Canadian Journal of Policy Research also serve as an excellent primer on the subject.

In December 2001, the closing plenary of the PRI’s National Policy Research Conference, Bringing Communities Together, centred on a riveting presentation by Robert Putnam on the implications of his approach to social capital for public policy – more than 30 deputy ministers and heads of agencies were in attendance. More recently, John Helliwell’s Globalization and Well-Being won the 2002-2003 Donner Prize for best book on Canadian public policy and has gained considerable attention. In it, he includes social capital as a key factor in explaining the persistence of localized economies in the face of globalization, and presents evidence that social capital is more important than income as a determinant of subjective well-being.

Because of the seeming versatility of the concept, critics fear that social capital runs the risk of being rendered meaningless by becoming everything to everyone. Nevertheless, an increasingly impressive body of research demands an assessment of the potential of social capital to contribute to the development of sound public policy. We clearly need to examine, therefore, its potential for Canadian public policy both thoroughly and critically, and to make recommendations for its use in future policy development. These are the objectives of the PRI-led, interdepartmental project, Social Capital as a Public Policy Tool.

A multifaceted concept

Michael Woolcock (2001) notes that the concept of social capital has been criticized in certain quarters for being weak on substance, owing its popularity simply to good marketing. Nevertheless, he rejects this argument, suggesting that the study of social capital would have long since collapsed under its own weight if there were not a sufficiently rigorous empirical foundation supporting it. The downside of the successful marketing of the concept has been that some people have attempted to latch onto the popularity of the term by employing it haphazardly in their own work, even when they have only a vague understanding of how the term has been developed by specialists. Still, Woolcock contends that a coherent and rigorous core of research is emerging.

One major step forward in social capital research has been the identification of three forms of social capital – bonding, bridging and linking – which have proven to be especially helpful in understanding the sources and outcomes of social capital. Putnam emphasizes the distinction between bonding and bridging. Bonding social capital refers to the relations within homogeneous groups, such as within fraternal organizations, among ethnic enclaves or in fashionable country clubs. Putnam likens the strong ties formed within dense homogeneous networks as a sociological super glue, and suggests they are best suited for providing the social and psychological supports its members need for getting by in their day-to-day activities (Putnam, 2000). This strong in-group loyalty, however, can be prone to a number of negative outcomes as identified by Portes, including the potential exclusion of outsiders or a stifling of the freedoms of network members (Portes, 1998).

Bridging social capital, in contrast, is much more heterogeneous cutting across diverse social cleavages. Putnam suggests that this form of social capital is useful in connecting to external assets and for information diffusion. This conception draws on the importance of weak ties first identified by Mark Granovetter in the 1970s. Such weak ties to diverse sources may actually prove to be more valuable to individuals seeking to get ahead than stronger ties to relatives and close friends, depending on the context (as in a job hunt). Putnam is careful to point out, however, that bonding and bridging should not be understood as either-or categories, but rather as more-or-less dimensions along which different networks might be compared.

A number of scholars have found the category of linking social capital to be helpful as well. While this linking might be considered by some as a form of bridging, Woolcock argues that bridging social capital has been largely treated as a horizontal category of interrelations, whereas linking better captures an important vertical dimension of social capital. Thus, linking social capital refers to ties between different strata of wealth and status. Woolcock suggests that such networks are key to leveraging resources, ideas, and information from formal institutions beyond the community, which is particularly important for economic development.

While these distinctions have proven useful to many, they should not be taken to represent an exhaustive typology. Other categorizations of social capital may prove useful for analysis depending on the context. For example, Adler and Kwon (2002) stress the importance of distinguishing between social networks based in market relations, those based in hierarchical relations, and those based on social relations. Given the variety of forms that different networks may take, analysts have only begun to explore the potential analytic uses of various categorizations.

Context matters

One of the key messages to emerge from an interdepartmental consultation held last June was that policy questions should drive the way we operationalize a theoretically informed approach to studying social capital. Those aspects of social capital we wish to study and measure cannot be determined in the abstract, but will depend on the policy questions of interest. We need to ensure, therefore, that government efforts to research and operationalize social capital are connected to the specific contexts of federal policy and program objectives. The policy areas that were identified as most ripe for the application of a social capital approach included immigrant integration and diversity, health, economic participation, and social inclusion.

It is worth reinforcing the notion that context matters when it comes to social capital and policy. Social capital networks are dynamic, not static. Indeed, they can be quite episodic and context-specific. Particular manifestations of social capital may be highly useful in achieving certain outcomes, while of limited value or even counterproductive in achieving others. For example, bonding social capital (homogeneous ties inside a group of belonging) is crucial for new immigrants in getting by on a day-to-day basis, but may later be less useful than bridging social capital (linkages to groups and institutions outside of the ethnic community) for getting ahead. Similarly, different dimensions of social capital (e.g., levels of trust within the network or the gender of the network members) may be critical for determining outcomes in one area, but of only marginal importance in others.

The potential impact of social capital on various outcomes will vary depending on the ways in which its effects are enhanced or diminished by the wider social, political, economic, and cultural environment. One need only think of the differences in both the potential sources and the potential uses of social capital open to women in 1950s Canada as opposed to Canadian women today. Similarly, organizations and institutions may play an important and varied role in facilitating or hindering the development and operation of social capital, and this could prove to be an additional path of worthwhile investigation. Although the importance of context may seem an obvious observation, many approaches to the study of social capital nevertheless fail to recognize that we should not expect to find that prevalent patterns and forms of social capital in one location are to be consistently observed across time and space.

At the same time, distinctions must be made between social capital’s core components, its determinants, and its outcomes. It is the mixing up of these components that is the source of much of the confusion in the literature and in policy discussions about social capital. We may indeed wish to end up talking about any or all of these depending on the policy question and specific context, but they should be kept analytically distinct. This will help us better understand the actual mechanism of social capital formation.

Insights for policy

So how do we apply all this information to the development of solutions to specific policy problems? Even at this early stage, it seems clear that social capital’s greatest potential is as a means to an end, rather than as an end in itself. We should probably not be thinking, therefore, about a national strategy to build social capital or any sort of blanket policy statement aimed at increasing the social capital of Canadians for its own sake. Instead, social capital might be best understood as a means or process for accessing various forms of resources or support through networks of social relations. The idea is to emphasize the potential role of social capital, as a resource and a process, in facilitating the achievement of broader policy objectives, such as immigrant integration, economic participation, or improved education and health outcomes.

Social capital is not a cure-all. More social capital will not necessarily always lead to better outcomes. Nevertheless, while social capital alone may not be enough to achieve objectives, it may prove a useful complement or reinforcement for other policy tools and resources in achieving policy and program objectives. For example, it is particularly relevant in the area of immigrant integration where it can complement other integration tools such as language training.

We will probably never be able to switch social capital on or off by itself and produce desired outcomes. Instead, we need to appreciate that it is only one element in a wider world of complex social processes. Steps could be taken to better integrate a social capital lens into the development and implementation of federal programs and policies. A social capital lens in policy and program development and implementation could start by raising awareness across government about its potential role in achieving, or possibly obstructing, policy objectives.

While many policies and programs are already incorporating elements of social capital (e.g., community partnership initiatives), there could be more systematic tracking of social capital’s role in achieving program outcomes. To this end, we could become more active in developing and refining measurement tools and indicators to register the presence of social capital and assess its impacts on program outcomes. Identifying the effects of social capital on existing program outcomes could facilitate their replication in other program areas. We must ensure that programs and policies across government do not work at cross-purposes in the ways in which they incorporate or affect social capital. Seemingly unrelated government interventions (e.g., in areas of transportation, housing, etc.) might actually undermine the very social capital resources that other programs are counting on to achieve their objectives. And using social capital as a policy tool will inevitably raise some jurisdictional issues and, depending on the policy area in question, coordination across levels of government will often be important.

The way ahead

We already have some understanding of the possible determinants and consequences of social capital. How can this knowledge be translated into action? Discussions with departments indicate a need to find out more about “what works” in creating or facilitating social capital in specific policy contexts. But so far, little has been done to integrate social capital into policymaking. A clear and conceptually rigorous framework for defining and analyzing social capital could potentially spawn a new set of tools for developing evidence-based policy. By proposing, testing, and refining such a framework, the PRI project, Social Capital as a Public Policy Tool, seeks to achieve just that. Through discussions with policy departments, and with national and international experts, what we learn will be incorporated into a comprehensive set of recommendations for measurement, for testing new approaches, and for policy action. Policy groups across departments could then add these social capital tools to their repertoire, and apply them in innovative new ways to a diverse set of problems.


  1. Available online at http://www.hrdc-drhc.gc.ca/sp-ps/arb-dgra/publications/books/oecd/en/oecd_e.shtml. See also the Spring 2001 issue of Isuma: Canadian Journal of Policy Research at http://isuma.net/v02n01/index_e.shtml. Both URLs accessed October 14, 2003.


Adler, Paul S. and Seok-Woo Kwon. 2002. “Social Capital: Prospects for a New Concept.” Academy of Management Review 27, no. 1: 17-40.

Portes, Alejandro. 1998. “Social Capital: Its Origins and Applications in Modern Sociology.” Annual Review of Sociology 24: 15-18.

Putnam, Robert. 2000. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster, pp. 22-23.

Woolcock, Michael. 2001. “The Place of Social Capital in Understanding Social and Economic Outcomes.” Isuma 2, no. 1: 11-17.


Policy Challenges

At present though, it can be difficult for policy analysts to know the extent to which a particular policy may provide beneficial increases in social capital. This reflects the conceptual ambiguities and measurement difficulties that surround the concept, and the fact that, in some instances, social capital can have perverse effects. Even where there is reasonable certainty about what constitutes a beneficial increase in social capital, multiple and mutually reinforcing policies may be required to bring it about – complications which could test the competence and coordination of government, or which may have other impacts that would need to be considered. The need for localized solutions in some cases can also complicate policy analysis. This suggests that further research may be warranted to deepen understanding of the sources of social capital and how they operate, to better conceptualise social capital itself, and to improve on current measures and measurement methodologies. In the short term, there may be merit in smallscale policy experimentation to gather experience and data on different policies aimed at supporting and enhancing social capital.

Commonwealth of Australia, Productivity Commission. July 2003. Social Capital: Reviewing the Concept and its Policy Implications. Canberra: AusInfo. This research paper can be found at http://www.pc.gov.au/research/commres/socialcapital/socialcapital.pdf. Accessed October 28, 2003.