This paper provides a critique of the dominant approach to the study of social capital in political science. Social capital is widely studied in terms of only two variables: general interpersonal trust and formal associational activism. This paper argues that social capital is a multidimensional concept. The measurement of social capital therefore requires a wider range of variables, especially ones that tap into neighbourliness and kin-based networks of association. Trust, especially, is a situational concept, and needs to be analysed in a more nuanced manner. In the South African city of Cape Town, the level of
general interpersonal trust is low, but trust and networks between neighbours are relatively strong. Factor and reliability analyses are used to examine the validity, reliability and independence of different measures of social capital. The application of a multi-dimensional concept of social capital to exploratory data from Cape Town shows that ‘bonding’ forms of social capital appear more widespread than ‘bridging’ forms. This important nuance would not be evident if the standard two-variable approach to social capital was used.
Social capital has generated as much excitement in the social sciences and policy environment as it has ambiguity. It is an exciting topic of study and analysis because it taps into simple facets of life which we can all relate to, such as trusting each other and interacting with others at a sports club or attending a meeting of the parent-teacher association (PTA) at school. Yet, as simple and everyday as these acts of social capital may seem, social capital is said to hold the power to change and sustain entire societies and regimes. The chain reaction argument in favour of social capital works as follows: the more we trust and
actively engage with others, the more likely we are to co-operate, act tolerantly, embrace the fundamentals of democracy and display the type of civic mindedness which helps democratic institutions flourish and societies prosper. It is the seemingly simple functioning of social capital that makes it equally as ambiguous. Because social capital tends to be vaguely described as something that is everywhere at all times, it is a hard concept to define which raises some very pertinent questions. How do we know social capital when we see it? How can we capture and understand social capital using quantitative research methods? How do we decipher between different types of social capital? Indeed, we need to be able to identify social capital in order to understand its relevance and impact. In the framework of political science, attempts have been made to narrow down social capital both in terms of conceptualisation and operationalisation of the concept, in order to simplify the analysis. The critique
and discussions underpinning this paper is written in relation to these conceptual and operational understandings, which are briefly described below.