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Family, friend or foe? Critical reflections on the relevance and role of social capital in health promotion and community development


  • Wakefield, Sarah E.L.
  • Poland, Blake


Social capital has been the focus of considerable academic and policy interest in recent years. Despite this interest, the concept remains undertheorized: there is an urgent need for a critical engagement with this literature that goes beyond summary. This paper lays a foundation for a critical dialogue between social capital and health promotion, by examining problematics in the conceptualization and practice of social capital building and linking these to models of community development, a cornerstone health promotion strategy. In so doing, the paper contributes to the existing literature by providing a theoretical exposition and critique of various threads in social capital discourse, and linking these threads explicitly to community development practice. Distinctions between communitarian, institutional and critical approaches to social capital are elaborated, and the relationships between these three approaches and three models of community development--social planning, locality development, and social action--are discussed. The existing social capital literature is then critically examined in relation to three key themes common to both literatures: community integration, public participation, and power relations. This examination suggests that social capital cannot be conceived in isolation from economic and political structures, since social connections are contingent on, and structured by, access to material resources. This runs counter to many current policy discourses, which focus on the importance of connection and cohesion without addressing fundamental inequities in access to resources. This paper posits that approaches to community development and social capital should emphasise the importance of a conscious concern with social justice. A construction of social capital which explicitly endorses the importance of transformative social engagement, while at the same time recognising the potential negative consequences of social capital development, could help community organizers build communities in ways that truly promote health.

Suggested Citation

  • Wakefield, Sarah E.L. & Poland, Blake, 2005. "Family, friend or foe? Critical reflections on the relevance and role of social capital in health promotion and community development," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 60(12), pages 2819-2832, June.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:socmed:v:60:y:2005:i:12:p:2819-2832

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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. repec:cog:socinc:v:5:y:2017:i:2:p:91-100 is not listed on IDEAS
    2. Martina Menon & Ravi Pendakur & Federico Perali, 2015. "All in the Family: How Do Social Capital and Material Wellbeing Affect Relational Wellbeing?," Social Indicators Research: An International and Interdisciplinary Journal for Quality-of-Life Measurement, Springer, vol. 124(3), pages 889-910, December.
    3. Oksanen, Tuula & Kouvonen, Anne & Kivimäki, Mika & Pentti, Jaana & Virtanen, Marianna & Linna, Anne & Vahtera, Jussi, 2008. "Social capital at work as a predictor of employee health: Multilevel evidence from work units in Finland," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 66(3), pages 637-649, February.
    4. Carpiano, Richard M., 2008. "Actual or potential neighborhood resources and access to them: Testing hypotheses of social capital for the health of female caregivers," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 67(4), pages 568-582, August.
    5. Sirven, Nicolas, 2006. "Endogenous social capital and self-rated health: Cross-sectional data from rural areas of Madagascar," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 63(6), pages 1489-1502, September.
    6. Giulia El-Dardiry & Christine Dimitrakaki & Chara Tzavara & Ulrike Ravens-Sieberer & Yannis Tountas, 2012. "Child Health-Related Quality of Life and Parental Social Capital in Greece: An Exploratory Study," Social Indicators Research: An International and Interdisciplinary Journal for Quality-of-Life Measurement, Springer, vol. 105(1), pages 75-92, January.
    7. Hampshire, Katherine Rebecca & Matthijsse, Mathilde, 2010. "Can arts projects improve young people's wellbeing? A social capital approach," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 71(4), pages 708-716, August.
    8. Pronyk, Paul M. & Harpham, Trudy & Morison, Linda A. & Hargreaves, James R. & Kim, Julia C. & Phetla, Godfrey & Watts, Charlotte H. & Porter, John D., 2008. "Is social capital associated with HIV risk in rural South Africa?," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 66(9), pages 1999-2010, May.
    9. Mulvaney-Day, Norah E. & Alegría, Margarita & Sribney, William, 2007. "Social cohesion, social support, and health among Latinos in the United States," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 64(2), pages 477-495, January.
    10. Chen, Lijun & Parcell, Joe L & Chen, Chao & James, Harvey S. Jr & Xu, Danning, 2016. "Consumer preference for supermarket food sampling in China," 2016 Annual Meeting, July 31-August 2, Boston, Massachusetts 236043, Agricultural and Applied Economics Association.
    11. Rhona F. Barr & Salvatore Di Falco & Susana Mourato, 2011. "Income diversification, social capital and their potential role in uptake of marine Payments for Environmental Services schemes: a study from a Tanzanian fishing community," GRI Working Papers 65, Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment.
    12. Bisung, Elijah & Elliott, Susan J., 2014. "Toward a social capital based framework for understanding the water-health nexus," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 108(C), pages 194-200.


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