Measuring the immeasurable? Operationalising social capital in health research

DOI: 10.4236/health.2012.49087   PDF   HTML   XML   4,481 Downloads   6,687 Views   Citations


During the last decennia, social capital has been a popular topic in social sciences. However, the concept is often used as a “catch all” for divers social characteristics. Consensus on how the concept should be measured is lacking. This keeps health researchers from drawing firm conclusions on the influence of social capital on health and hampers the decision on which social capital indicators to use in health research. This study compares five ways to operationalise social capital (generalized trust, a social network index, an expanded social network index, bonding, bridging and linking social capital and a multidimensional social capital index) in their ability to explain self-rated health and pain. To evaluate the models’ capacity to explain health, two logistic regression models were built, resulting in Nagelkerke R2 measures. Data were collected in a cross-sectional study in eight neighbourhoods in the region of Ghent (Belgium) by randomly sampling 50 adult inhabitants per neighbourhood. Findings show that the explanation of the observed variance in health by the studied social capital models ranges from 1.9% to 23.1%, but is more pronounced for self-rated health than for pain. The multidimensional social capital index explains most of the variance in health, but poses an important strain on the respondents due to a large number of surveyquestions. With some prudence, we presume that the explanatory added value of the more extended social capital models is rather limited from a practical point of view as the addition in explained variance of the other models seems not in relation to the number of questions needed. Researchers should weigh up the pros and cons of different manners to measure social capital carefully, taking the goals and focus of their study into account.

Share and Cite:

Vyncke, V. , Peersman, W. , Maeseneer, J. and Willems, S. (2012) Measuring the immeasurable? Operationalising social capital in health research. Health, 4, 555-566. doi: 10.4236/health.2012.49087.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflicts of interest.


[1] Halpern, D. (2005) Social capital. Polity Press, Cambridge.
[2] Kawachi, I. and Berkman, L.F. (2000) Social cohesion, social capital and health. In Berkman, L.F. and Kawachi, I. Eds., Social epidemiology. Oxford University Press, New York.
[3] Morrens, B. (2008) Sociaal kapitaal en gezondheid: Een overzicht van de recente onderzoeksliteratuur. Tijdschrift voor Sociologie, 29, 138-157.
[4] De Silva, M.J., McKenzie, K., Harpham, T. and Huttly, S.R.A. (2005) Social capital and mental illness: A systematic review. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 59, 619-627. HUdoi:10.1136/jech.2004.029678U
[5] Ferlander, S. (2007) The importance of different forms of social capital for health. Acta Sociologica, 50, 115-128. HUdoi:10.1177/0001699307077654U
[6] Kawachi, I., Kennedy, B.P. and Glass, R. (1999) Social capital and self-rated health: A contextual analysis. American Journal of Public Health, 89, 1187-1193. HUdoi:10.2105/AJPH.89.8.1187U
[7] Mansyur, C., Amick, B.C., Harrist, R.B. and Franzini, L. (2008) Social capital, income inequality, and self-rated health in 45 countries. Social Science & Medicine, 66, 43-56. HUdoi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2007.08.015U
[8] Poortinga, W. (2006) Social relations or social capital? Individual and community health effects of bonding social capital. Social Science & Medicine, 63, 255-270. HUdoi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2005.11.039U
[9] Macinko, J. and Starfield, B. (2001) The utility of social capital in research on health determinants. The Milbank Quarterly, 79, 387-427. HUdoi:10.1111/1468-0009.00213U
[10] Szreter, S. and Woolcock, M. (2004) Health by association? Social capital, social theory, and the political economy of public health. International Journal of Epidemioliogy, 33, 650-667. HUdoi:10.1093/ije/dyh013U
[11] Kawachi, I., Kim, D., Coutts, A. and Subramanian, S.V. (2004) Commentary: Reconciling the three accounts of social capital. International Journal of Epidemiology, 33, 682-690. HUdoi:10.1093/ije/dyh177U
[12] Poortinga, W. (2006) Social relations or social capital? Individual and community health effects of bonding social capital. Social Science & Medicine, 63, 255-270. HUdoi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2005.11.039U
[13] Putnam, R. (1995) Bowling alone: America’s declining social capital. Journal of Democracy, 6, 65-78. HUdoi:10.1353/jod.1995.0002U
[14] Portes, A. (1998) Social capital: Its origins and application in modern sociology. Annual Review of Sociology, 24, 1-24. HUdoi:10.1146/annurev.soc.24.1.1U
[15] Hean, S., Cowley, S., Forbes, A. and Griffiths, P. (2004) Theoretical development and social capital measurement. In Morgan, A. and Swann, C., Eds., Social capital for health: issues of definition, measurement and links to health. Health Development Agency, London, 41-68.
[16] Derose, K.P. and Varda, D.M. (2009) Social capital and health care access: A systematic review. Medical Care Research and Review, 66, 272-306. HUdoi:10.1177/1077558708330428U
[17] Lin, N. and Erickson, B.H. (2008) Theory, measurement, and the research enterprise on social capital. In Lin, N. and Erickson, B.H., Eds., Social capital. An international research program. Oxford University Press Inc., New York. HUdoi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199234387.003.0010U
[18] Stone, W. (2001) Measuring social capital. Towards a theoretically informed measurement framework for researching social capital in family and community life. Australian Institute of Family Studies—Commonwealth of Australia Melbourne.
[19] Subramanian, S.V., Kim, D.J. and Kawachi, I. (2002) Social trust and self-rated health in US communities: A multilevel analysis. Journal of Urban Health, 79, S21-S34. HUdoi:10.1093/jurban/79.suppl_1.S21U
[20] Onyx, J. and Bullen, P. (2000) Measuring social capital in five communities in NSW. Journal of Applied Behavior Science, 36, 23-42. HUdoi:10.1177/0021886300361002U
[21] Flap, H. (2004) Creation and returns of social capital. A new research program. In Flap, H. and V?lker, B., Eds., Creation and returns of social capital. A new research program. Routledge, London.
[22] Durkheim, E. (1897) Le suicide. Etude de sociologie. Félix Alcan, Paris.
[23] Berkman, L.F. and Syme, S.L. (1979) Social networks, host resistance, and mortality: A nine-year follow-up study of Alameda County residents. American Journal of Epidemiology, 109, 186-204.
[24] Cohen, S., Doyle, W.J., Skoner, D.P., Rabin, B.S. and Gwaltney, J.M. (1997) Social ties and susceptibility to the common cold. Journal of American Medical Association, 1997, 1940-1944. HUdoi:10.1001/jama.1997.03540480040036U
[25] Lin, N. and Dumin, M. (1986) Access to occupations through social ties. Social Networks, 8, 365-385. HUdoi:10.1016/0378-8733(86)90003-1U
[26] Van der Gaag, M. and Snijders, T. (2004) Proposals for the measurement of individiual social capital. In Flap, H. and V?lker, B., Eds., Creation and returns of social capital. A new research program. Routledge, London.
[27] Ellaway, A. (2004) Commentary: Can subtle refinements of popular concepts be put into practice. International Journal of Epidemiology, 33, 681-682. HUdoi:10.1093/ije/dyh184U
[28] Muntaner, C. (2004) Commentary: Social capital, social class, and the slow progress of psychosocial epidemiology. International Journal of Epidemiology, 33, 674-680. HUdoi:10.1093/ije/dyh200U
[29] Navarro, V. (2004) Commentary: Is capital the solution or the problem? International Journal of Epidemiology, 33, 672-674. HUdoi:10.1093/ije/dyh179U
[30] Derose, K.P. (2008) Do bonding, bridiging, and linking social capital affect preventable hospitalizations? Health Services Research, 43, 1520-1541. HUdoi:10.1111/j.1475-6773.2008.00856.xU
[31] Putnam, R. (2004) Commentary: “Health by association”: some comments. International journal of epidemiology, 33, 667-671. HUdoi:10.1093/ije/dyh204U
[32] Van Oorschot, W., Arts, W. and Gelissen, J. (2006) Social capital in Europe. Measurement and social and regional distribution of a multifaceted phenomenon. Acta Sociologica, 49, 149-167. HUdoi:10.1177/0001699306064770U
[33] Putnam, R. (2000) Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. Simon and Schuster, New York.
[34] Granovetter, M. (1973) The strength of weak ties. American Journal of Sociology, 78, 1360-1380. HUdoi:10.1086/225469U
[35] Bjorner, J.B., Fayers, P. and Idler, E. (2005) Self-rated health. In Fayers, P. and Hays, R., Eds., Assessing quality of life in clinical trials. Methods and Practice. 2nd Edition. Oxford University Press, New York.
[36] Idler, E.L., Hudson, S.V. and Leventhal, H. (1999) The meanings of self-ratings of health. A qualitative and quantitative approach. Research on Aging, 21, 459-476. HUdoi:10.1177/0164027599213006U
[37] Simon, J.G., De Boer, J.B., Joung, I.M.A., Bosman, H. and Mackenbach, J.P. (2005) How is your health in general? A qualitative study on self-assessed health. European Journal of Public Health, 15, 200-208. HUdoi:10.1093/eurpub/cki102U
[38] Manderbacka, K. (1998) Examining what self-rated health question is understood to mean by respondents. Scandinavian Journal of Social Medicine, 26, 145-153.
[39] Borawski-Clark, E., Kinney, J. and Kahana, E. (1996) The meaning of older adults' health appraisals: Congruence with Objective Indicators and as Determinants of Mortality. Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, S51, S157-S170.
[40] Nummela, O., Sulander, T., Karisto, A. and Uutela, A. (2009) Self-rated health and social capital among aging people across the urban-rural dimension. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 16, 189-194. HUdoi:10.1007/s12529-008-9027-zU
[41] Delaney, L., Wall, P. and O’Haodha, F. (2007) Social capital and self-rated health in the Republic of Ireland: evidence from the European Social survey. Irish Medical Journal, 100, 52-56.
[42] Nakhaie, R. and Arnold, R. (2010) A four year (1996-2000) analysis of social capital and health status of Canadians: The difference that love makes. Social Science & Medicine, 71, 1037-1044. HUdoi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2010.05.033U
[43] Carpiano, R.M. (2006) Toward a neighborhood resourcebased theory of social capital for health: Can Bourdieu and sociology help? Social Science & Medicine, 62, 165-175. HUdoi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2005.05.020U

comments powered by Disqus

Copyright © 2020 by authors and Scientific Research Publishing Inc.

Creative Commons License

This work and the related PDF file are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.