Social Capital and the Care Networks of Frail Seniors

By Keating, Norah; Dosman, Donna | Canadian Review of Sociology, November 2009 | Go to article overview

Social Capital and the Care Networks of Frail Seniors


Keating, Norah, Dosman, Donna, Canadian Review of Sociology


SOCIAL CAPITAL HAS BEEN A KEY framework in conceptualizing the place of social ties in quality of life. The foundational work of scholars like Putnam (1995), Bourdieu (1986), and Coleman (1990) has influenced our understanding of the broad structure of the relationships between social networks, norms, and social trust; the processes through which they work; and the positive outcomes which include various types of mutual benefit. Indeed, social capital has had such widespread appeal that identifying the nature of social relationships and their impact "has become a veritable cottage industry across the social sciences" (Szreter and Woolcock 2004:650).

Such proliferation of work on social capital has lead to criticism that too often it is used as a "multi-purpose descriptor[s] for all types and levels of connections" and thus, lacks the specificity that would add to its theoretical and practical value (Muntaner, Lynch, and Smith 2000:108). In this paper, we endeavor to increase the specificity of social capital as a useful framework through addressing a particular social group (families of frail seniors), and a particular benefit (care to an older family member). We draw on social capital literature to frame our understanding of the social capital inherent in families of frail older adults, and hypothesize their abilities to benefit their family members.

SOCIAL CAPITAL AND CLOSE TIES

Social networks are viewed as the building blocks of social capital (Lauder et al. 2006), the resources or "stock" developed over time through trust and norms of reciprocity (Rankin 2002; Reimer et al. 2008), which "facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit" (Putnam 1995:67). Structural features of such networks provide different types of connections among members and across networks, resulting in varying potential to take collective action. From this perspective, social capital is an asset grounded in social networks (Reimer et al. 2008).

Two structural features of networks viewed as having differential social capital potential are those that connect people within networks and those that link people to other networks or link networks themselves. Bonding social capital is viewed as reflective of relations within homogenous groups that have strong ties among members, characterized by intimate relationships in which the others' needs are known (Kavanaugh et al. 2005; Putnam 2000). Such groups are well suited to provide the social and psychological supports its members need for managing their day-to-day activities (Policy Research Initiative 2003). Families fit the description of groups with strong ties: high amounts of time spent together, emotional intensity, mutual confiding and reciprocal services (Kavanaugh et al. 2005), and a strong sense of shared identity (Reimer et al. 2008).

Bridging social capital is more heterogeneous and is based on weak ties among network members (Granovetter 1973), better suited to providing instrumental resources than emotional support (Kavanaugh et al. 2005). Such ties are useful in connecting people to external assets and to information (Policy Research Initiative 2003) that help them obtain access to community resources (Scharf, Phillipson, and Smith 2005). Families seem less likely to have these network assets given their homogeneous membership and tight bonds may exclude others and create barriers to information exchanges (Zacharakis and Flora 2005). However, nonkin, such as friends and neighbors who comprise an element of social networks, may have more potential to provide links to community support given their structural position as nonkin whose ties are more discretionary and individualistic than those of close kin (Litwin 2001). These relationships could be important to older adults because numerous direct ties to people who have alternative routes to valuable resources increases a person's chances of receiving needed support (Barrett and Lynch 1999; Cornwell, Laumann, and Schumm 2008). …

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