Building social capital

How do we measure social capital?

First steps to building social capital


  • the level of TRUST between people and the amount of reciprocal help and SUPPORT within a community

  • the behavioural patterns and social relations in social structures of societies that enable people to co-ordinate ACTION to achieve desired GOALS

We looked briefly at Social Capital in the economic model for sustainability. Its definition as being community support (see box) is in keeping with our understanding of the ethos of Permaculture. However, as with the word sustainability, there are a number of different explanations of social capital, some related to outcomes and some to mechanisms (see box again). These definitions combined take the concept of social capital on from an element of nurturing of the first and into the positive social progression of the second. And you may conclude that they are complimentary - one doesn’t happen without the other when delivering on the common good. But we have to be cautious about buying in to a narrow view of social capital. We could regard it as a set of horizontal associations between people, consisting of social networks and associated behavioural patterns (norms) that have a positive effect on community productivity and well-being. There are, however, communities, groups or networks that exhibit high social capital through these horizontal associations, but are isolated, parochial, or working at cross-purposes to society's collective interests (e.g. drug cartels, corruption rackets) and which can actually hinder social development.

We need to think of developing social capital that has both horizontal and vertical associations. A broader understanding of social capital accounts for both the positive and negative aspects by including vertical as well as horizontal associations between people, and includes behaviour within and among organisations. This view recognises that horizontal ties are needed to give communities a sense of identity and common purpose, but also stresses that without bridging ties that transcend various social divides (e.g. religion, ethnicity, socio-economic status) the horizontal ties can become just a basis for the pursuit of narrow interests. As we saw with health inequalities, long-term solutions to the problems of inadequate resources and social exclusion require connecting the poor to mainstream resources and services. While the social capital that there already is amongst among the poor is critical for daily survival, it is only by accessing increased resources that poor people will be able to lift themselves out of poverty.

The broadest and most encompassing view of social capital includes the social and political environment that shapes social structure and enables norms to develop. Thus the capacity of various social groups to act in their best interest depends crucially on the support (or lack of it) that they receive from the state as well as the private sector. Similarly, the state depends on social stability and widespread popular support. In short, economic and social development thrives when representatives of the state, the corporate sector and civil society create forums in and through which they can identify and pursue common goals. Idealistic as this may be, it shows yet again how important equable and meaningful participation is to social progress. The effectiveness and accountability of community-based organisations is seen to be due in part to local decision-making. Local participation in project design, implementation and evaluation ensure that projects and policies make sense within the local context and fosters the support and ownership necessary to sustain the project once, for instance, development workers and initial grant funding are gone (i.e. the vertical association).


Social capital has been measured in a number of ways, but getting a single true measure is probably not possible. The problem is with the variety of definitions of social capital and with the ambiguity sometimes of what constitutes a community, network or organisation. In the end, you have to compile indexes from a range of approximate items such as: confidence in public institutions (i.e. level of trust in different levels of government, voter turnout), degree of civic involvement (membership of civic organisations, hours spent volunteering), newspaper readership, membership in local societies and football clubs. What you are trying to do is build up a picture of the strength of civic associations and social cohesion.



Here is a guide:

  • IDENTIFY EXISTING POCKETS OF SOCIAL CAPITAL and take care not to destroy them by dismembering partnerships and breaking down social cohesion. Old heads once provided wisdom and guidance to the young, but their advice today is being increasingly ignored as respect for the elderly declines, and as communities continue to fragment.

  • USE LOCAL-LEVEL SOCIAL CAPITAL AND PARTICIPATION TO DELIVER PROJECTS For example, a co-operative credit system may function more smoothly among women who already have relationships and a history of networking together to reach common goals.

  • CREATE AN ENVIRONMENT WHICH ENABLES SOCIAL CAPITAL TO THRIVE by providing infrastructure that helps people to communicate better and by promoting lawfulness, mediation and conciliation. On a local level, people who have informal relations with their neighbours can look out for each other and police their neighbourhoods. In addition, inter-family social capital provides support networks for family members overwhelmed by such stresses as poverty and unemployment. This support can help to reduce drug abuse and violence within and outside the home. Fear of violence eats away at stocks of social capital.

  • INVEST IN SOCIAL CAPITAL directly and indirectly through participatory project design and implementation and fostering cross-sectoral partnerships for development. Schools are more effective when parents and local citizens are actively involved. Teachers are more committed, students achieve better exam results, and better use is made of school facilities in those communities where parents and citizens take an active interest in children’s educational well being. Information technology has the potential to increase social capital – and in particular bridging social capital which connects people to resources, relationships and information beyond their immediate environment

  • PROMOTE SOCIAL CAPITAL RESEARCH AND LEARNING Many believe interactive learning is a major determinant of increasing social capital in communities (the more we learn, the more resources and experiences we can draw on for progress). We need to continue to study and develop systems of learning that have high accessibility and which are effective in promoting social cohesion in civil society. Permaculture education may just be one method.

Mark Fisher - Permaculture Design course handout notes