Community Psychology Perspectives on Social Capital Theory and Community Development Practice

Article excerpt


Concepts and research from community psychology can inform community development practice by reframing social capital theory. Social capital (SC) is generally defined and measured at the interpersonal, community, institutional, or societal levels in terms of networks (bridging) and norms of reciprocity and trust (bonding) within those networks. SC should be analyzed in a multi-level ecological framework in terms of both individual psychological and behavioral conceptions (sense of community, collective efficacy--or empowerment, neighboring, and citizen participation) and institutional and community network-level conceptions. Excessive concern for social cohesion undermines the ability to confront or engage in necessary conflict, and thus, it dis-empowers the community. Instead of emphasizing social cohesion, "network-bridging" opportunities to increase power, access, and learning should be emphasized. Institutional and community network analysis shows how SC operates at those levels and where to target service resources and develop mediating structures. Psychological and behavioral factors point to factors that motivate individuals to engage in building SC and methods to maintain and improve that engagement.

Keywords: community psychology, social capital theory, sense of community, collective efficacy, empowerment, neighboring, citizen participation, community institutions, networks, mediating structures



We review concepts and research from community psychology, a field still unfamiliar to most practitioners and academics in community development, in order to reframe social capital (SC) theory and community development practice. The SC concept grew out of the sociology of education (Bourdieu, 1985; Coleman, 1988) but quickly spread to the rest of the social sciences and into the community development literature (Falk & Kilpatrick, 2000; Flora, 1998). It has been discussed broadly, but is generally defined and measured at the interpersonal, community, institutional, or societal levels in terms of both bridging and bonding social connections (Gittell & Vidal, 1998; Narayan, 1999; Putnam, 2000; Saegert, Thompson & Warren, 2001). Bridging most often refers to relationships among local institutions, but individuals' connections with those institutions and with each other must not be ignored or taken for granted. Bonding is described by SC theorists as norms of reciprocity and trust within those networks.

Although psychology has been much slower to embrace the SC concept, community psychologists have extensively studied aspects of it at the individual level, but under other rubrics. As we will explain, individual SC consists of both informal, community-focused attitudes (sense of community) and behaviors (neighboring), as well as formally organized behaviors (citizen participation) and attitudes about those organizations and behaviors (collective efficacy--or empowerment). Other, related psychological concepts, such as social support, communitarianism, place attachment, and community satisfaction, pride, and confidence also have relevance to SC and community development practice.

Psychological factors point to what motivates individuals to participate in particular settings and behaviors, how to maintain that participation, and how those motivations and behaviors interact with various setting and organizational characteristics to promote effective SC. Similar to the notion of "learning organizations" (Argyris, 1993) and "learning communities" (Falk & Harrison, 1998), psychosocial/behavioral factors operate simultaneously at individual, organizational, and community levels of analysis. Institutional and community factors point to how SC operates at those levels, where to target service resources, and how to organize and support mediating structures. (1) Our framework helps to distinguish key differences in forms of SC. …