Social Capital and Ethnic Harmony: Evidence from the New Brunswick Case

Article excerpt


Recent research in the field of ethnic conflict studies has taken up the theme of social capital. Bridging social capital, the interaction of members of different ethnic groups in associations of various types, is credited with helping to maintain peaceful ethnic relations. This paper evaluates that theory in the case of New Brunswick, using data from the New Brunswick Social Capital Survey (2003 NBSCS). We find no evidence that interethnic interactions in associational life are an important ingredient in explaining the absence of significant ethnic conflict in the province. Instead, other dimensions of associational involvement, including membership in multiple groups, intensive participation, and long-time involvement, have considerably stronger effects on attitudes conducive to social harmony.

De recentes recherches menees dans le domaine des etudes sur les conflits ethniques ont eu pour theme central le capital social. Le capital social, c'est a-dire l'interaction de membres d'appartenance ethnique differente au sein d'associations diverses, aurait l'avantage de maintenir la paix dans les relations ethniques. Ces travaux tentent d'evaluer la theorie, dans le cas du Nouveau-Brunswick, a partir des donnees tirees de l'enquete sur le capital social du Nouveau-Brunswick (2003 NBSCS). Rien n'indique que l'interaction interethnique dans la vie associative soit un element d'importance pouvant expliquer l'absence de conflits ethniques marques dans la province. En revanche, d'autres aspects de la vie associative, dont l'adhesion a plusieurs groupes, une participation intensive et durable, ont des effets bien plus considerables sur les attitudes qui favorisent l'harmonie sociale.


The past decade has seen an explosion of research focussing on social capital, the term used to describe the norms of trust and reciprocity developed in societies where citizens regularly interact with one another through civic involvement, membership in voluntary associations, and the like. The theory holds that social capital contributes significantly to a wide variety of positive social, economic, and political outcomes, including vigorous democratic participation and good government, effective education systems, healthy populations, economic prosperity, and low levels of crime (Putnam 2000).

Ashutosh Varshney recently drew attention to another putative benefit of social capital: its capacity to contain conflict in ethnically diverse societies. Focussing on the tensions between Hindus and Muslims in modern-day India, Varshney demonstrates the significant variation in levels of communal violence in different Indian cities and identifies associational ties at the local level as a critical factor underlying this variation (2001a, 2002). This intriguing account represents a valuable addition to the burgeoning literature on social capital, as well as an innovative approach to the field of ethnic conflict studies.

Varshney's work builds on a distinction central to the broader social capital literature: bonding versus bridging social capital (Putnam 2000, 22). Applying this distinction to ethnically diverse India, he distinguishes between intraethnic and interethnic networks of association. The fundamental point is that in ethnically divided societies, associational ties are most valuable when they cross ethnic boundaries. This observation represents an extension of the more general finding that associations with heterogeneous memberships tend to have more beneficial consequences for society at large than those with homogeneous memberships (Stolle 1998).

A concern that arises in considering the work of Varshney and others, however, is the direction of causality between ethnic interaction in associations and peaceable ethnic relations. Where ethnic tensions run high, the likelihood of people from different ethnic groups coming together in sporting clubs, business associations, and the like is presumably reduced; conversely, where relations are amicable and violence-free, there will be a greater willingness to associate with ethnic others. …