Measuring dimensions of social capital: evidence from surveys in poor communities in Nicaragua

Andrew David Mitchell, Thomas J Bossert
Social Science & Medicine 2007, 64 (1): 50-63
A dominant perspective in social capital research emphasizes a "structural" dimension of social capital, consisting of network connections, and a "cognitive" dimension, consisting of attitudes toward trust. Correspondingly, membership in organizations (i.e., membership density) and general trust in people (i.e., social trust) are two indicators commonly used to relate structural and cognitive social capital, respectively, to a variety of health and other outcomes. This study analyzed relationships between membership density, social trust and a more comprehensive set of household-level social capital indicators as well as selected civic and health behaviors in the context of Nicaragua. The sample of respondents was drawn from 6 communities and interviews were conducted with 482 heads of households, resulting in data on 2882 individuals. Factor analyses suggest that membership density loaded strongly (loading=0.81) onto an "organizational participation" factor which contained a number of qualitative characteristics of involvement, including bridging social capital. Further, this structural dimension of social capital appears to be a construct consisting of more than just informal social networks. However, factor analyses suggest that distinctions between levels of trust are warranted in Nicaragua: social trust loaded weakly (loading=0.32) onto a factor characterized by institutional trust in a factor analysis of trust items, and well below 0.30 in a factor analysis of both structural and cognitive dimensions of social capital. A nuanced understanding of these household-level indicators of structural and cognitive social capital held implications for civic and health behaviors. While membership density and institutional trust were positively related to an index of political engagement, social trust was either not related or negatively associated (among urban respondents). Similarly, social trust was associated with over 50% reduced odds of an additional childhood vaccinations whereas institutional trust was associated with increased odds (OR=1.7) of an additional vaccination. The findings highlight the complexity of social capital and the importance of exploring more comprehensive indicators.

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