Social Capital and Political Advocacy for African American Health

Article excerpt


Social capital, or the concept that social relationships can create a form of capital, has been foundational to successful strategies for bettering communities all across the world. In fact, Robert Putnam, a leading authority in social capital research, has found that "much evidence suggests that where levels of capital are higher, children grow up healthier, safer and better educated, people live longer, happier lives, and democracy and the economy work better" (2007).

Social capital may be considered the ecological analog to individually based social support and is considered a social determinant of health and health behaviors. Unlike social support, which is interpersonal and operates at the individual level, social capital is about resources embedded within groups, that is, it is a collective-level construct that applies to social and physical resources available to groups, organizations, and communities. In essence, it is the product of social networks and relationships at a meso and macro level, not the actual networks or relationships themselves. Consequently, social capital indicators typically capture social participation and social engagement, collective efficacy, perception of community-level structures or characteristics, trust, reciprocity, and social cohesion (Putnam 2007).

Social capital builds on the basis of the geographical location of group members or on the basis of the shared function of group members. Collective efficacy is one such mechanism by which to examine a group's collective competence and capacity to aggregate and use its resources to respond to current and future demands (Lochner et al. 2003). However, collective efficacy may be undermined by the concentration of economic disadvantage, racial segregation, family disruption, and residential instability (Sampson et al. 1999; Sampson et al. 1997).

Public health researchers offer the following suggested mechanisms by which social capital may be related to health outcomes or health policy making: (1) diffusion of information about health-promoting behaviors; (2) maintenance of health behavioral norms or deterrence of risky behaviors through informal social control; (3) promotion of access to services; (4) affective support or other psychosocial pathways that act directly or indirectly; and (5) empowerment to engage political policies that impact community health (Berkman and Kawachi 2000; Kawachi and Berkman 2001; Kawachi et al. 2007). Additionally, public health researchers have suggested that social capital may impact mental health through an interaction between race, psychological sense of belonging, and neighborhood economic deprivation. Feelings of freedom, safety, and stability, which are determined in part by informal social control and social cohesion, may be conducive to cognitive and emotional well-being (Almedom and Glandon 2007, 294).

Social capital in the African American community has been leveraged to address health disparities directly while building political advocacy around activism on the social causes of health disparities like racial residential segregation. Activism in the early twentieth century sought to establish African American communities culturally, economically, politically, and socially. The broader African American community as a form of resistance to discrimination has led to various methods to affirm a sense of African American humanity formally and informally. African American activism has lead to legislative achievements, like the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which gave African Americans the right to be counted as a voting member of society, thereby extending an opportunity for African Americans to have access to both bridging and linking social capital. The formation of mutual benefit associations, fraternities, sororities, African American women's clubs, community-based organizations, churches, mosques, schools, and businesses serves as a type of formal community and collective efficacy building to overcome institutional racism (Fairclough 2001; Jalata 2002), which is linked to health. …


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