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Measuring Social Capital
in Five Communities in NSW

The full report Measuring Social Capital in Five Communities in NSW A Practitioner's Guide (101pp) FULL REPORT Practitioners Guide

Overview of a Study

Paul Bullen & Jenny Onyx
with Neighbourhood and Community Centres March 1998

See Also: Social Capital: Family Support Services and Neighbourhood and Community Centres in NSW


1. What is Social Capital?

2. The Study: Measuring Social Capital in Five Communities in NSW

3. Principal Findings

4. The Elements of Social Capital

5. Practical Uses of the Social Capital Measure

6. More Information?

The paper provides a brief overview of the study "Measuring Social Capital in Five Communities in NSW". The full findings from the study are published in two reports. See section 6. More Information for details.

A useful site for social capital resources and background information is the World Bank Social Capital Site. It includes numerours articles and a discussion group.

Copyright Paul Bullen and Jenny Onyx

(New South Wales (NSW) is a State of Australia)

1. What is Social Capital?

Social capital is the raw material of Civil society. It is created from the myriad of everyday interactions between people. It is not located within the individual person or within the social structure, but in the space between people. It is not the property of the organisation, the market or the state, though all can engage in its production.

Social capital is a "bottom-up" phenomenon. It originates with people forming social connections and networks based on principles of trust, mutual reciprocity and norms of action.

The term social capital was first used in the 1980s by Bourdieu and Coleman.

Robert Putman

Wide discussion of social capital was prompted after the publication in 1993 of Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy by Robert Putman. Putnam summarises some of his work:

Similar to the notions of physical and human capital, the term social capital refers to features of social organization -- such as networks, norms, and trust that increase a society's productive potential....

Beginning in 1970, Italians established a nationwide set of potentially powerful regional governments. They were virtually identical in form, but the social, economic, political, and cultural contexts in which they were implanted differed dramatically ranging from the pre-industrial to the post-industrial and from the inertly feudal to the frenetically modern.

Some of the new governments proved to be dismal failures inefficient and corrupt. Others have been remarkably successful....

Contrary to our expectation, we were unable to explain the differences on the basis of such obvious factors as party politics, affluence, or population movements....

The historical record strongly suggests that the successful communities became rich because they were civic, not the other way round. The social capital embodied in norms and networks of civic engagement seems to be a precondition for economic development as well as for effective government. Civics matters. (PCD Forum March 6, 1995)

Eva Cox

In Australia Eva Cox generated considerable discussion of social capital through the 1995 Boyer Lectures. She said:

There are four major capital measures, one of which takes up far too much policy time and space at present. This is Financial capital. Physical capital makes it onto the agenda because of the environmental movement. So there are fierce debates on trees, water, coal and what constitutes sustainable development. Some types of physical capital and financial capital deplete with overuse, or become scarce or too expensive. We occasionally mention human capital - the total of our skills and knowledge but rarely count its loss in unemployment.

There has been too little attention paid to social capital... Social capital refers to the processes between people which establish networks, norms, social trust and facilitate co-ordination and co-operation for mutual benefit. These processes are also known as social fabric or glue, but 1 am deliberately using the term 'capital' because it invests the concept with the reflected status from other forms of capital. Social capital is also appropriate because it can be measured and quantified so we can distribute its benefits and avoid its losses.

We increase social capital by working together voluntarily in egalitarian organisations. Learning some of the rough and tumble of group processes also has the advantages of connecting us with others. We gossip, relate and create the warmth that comes from trusting. Accumulated social trust allows groups and organisations, and even nations, to develop the tolerance sometimes needed to deal with conflicts and differing interests....

Social capital should be the pre-eminent and most valued form of any capital as it provides the basis on which we build a truly civil society. Without our social bases we cannot be fully human. Social capital is as vital as language for human society.

Themes in the Literature

In the growing literature on social capital, a number of themes are emerging:

1. Participation in networks.

Key to all uses of the concept is the notion of more or less dense interlocking networks of relationships between individuals and groups. People engage with others through a variety of lateral associations. These associations must be both voluntary and equal.

Social capital cannot be generated by individuals acting on their own. It depends on a propensity for sociability, a capacity to form new associations and networks.

2. Reciprocity.

Social capital does not imply the immediate and formally accounted exchange of the legal or business contract, but a combination of short term altruism and long term self interest (Taylor, 1982). The individual provides a service to others, or acts for the benefit of others at a personal cost, but in the general expectation that this kindness will be returned at some undefined time in the future in case of need. In a community where reciprocity is strong, people care for each other's interests.

3. Trust.

Trust entails a willingness to take risks in a social context based on a sense of confidence that others will respond as expected and will act in mutually supportive ways, or at least that others do not intend harm.

4. Social Norms.

Social norms provide a form of informal social control that obviate the necessity for more formal, institutionalised legal sanctions. Social norms are generally unwritten but commonly understood formulae for both determining what patterns of behaviour are expected in a given social context, and for defining what forms of behaviour are valued or socially approved.

Some people argue that where social capital is high, there is little crime, and little need for formal policing.

Where there is a low level of trust and few social norms, people will cooperate in joint action only under a system of formal rules and regulations. These have to be negotiated, agreed to, litigated and enforced, sometimes by coercive means, leading to expensive legal transaction costs (Fukyama, 1995).

5. The Commons

The combined effect of trust, networks, norms and reciprocity creates a strong community, with shared ownership over resources known as the commons.

The commons refers to the creation of a pooled community resource, owned by no-one, used by all. The short term self interest of each, if unchecked, would render the common resource overused, and in the long term it would be destroyed. Only where there is a strong ethos of trust, mutuality and effective informal social sanctions against "free-riders" can the commons be maintained indefinitely and to the mutual advantage of all.

6. Proactivity

What is implicit in several of the above categories is a sense of personal and collective efficacy. The development of social capital requires the active and willing engagement of citizens within a participative community. This is quite different from the receipt of services, or even of human rights to the receipt of services, though these are unquestionably important. Social capital refers to people as creators, not as victims.

2. The Study: Measuring Social Capital in Five Communities in NSW


The study Measuring Social Capital in five Communities in NSW attempts to answer two questions:

  • Is there such a thing as "social capital", is, does the concept have an empirically meaningful reality? And if so,
  • Can we develop a valid practical measure of social capital?

The study suggests the answer to both questions is "yes".

The study measured social capital in five communities in NSW: Deniliquin, Greenacre, Narellan, Ultimo & Pyrmont and West Wyalong. These include rural, outer metropolitan and inner city communities. Over 200 people in each of the five communities (1211 people in all) were surveyed.

The study was a cooperative venture and has attracted support from many people and organisations. We would like to express our appreciation of the many individuals and groups who contributed. As well as the work of the authors, it has included support from:

  • University of Technology Sydney (which provided partial funding for the project through a Faculty of Business Research Grant)
  • The Local Community Services Association of New South Wales
  • Neighbourhood and Community Centres especially the five Centres that undertook the survey in their areas:
Bankstown Community Services (Greenacre)
Camden Area Community Resource Centre (Narellan)
Deniliquin Council for Social Development (Deniliquin)
The Harris Centre (Ultimo&Pyrmont)
West Wyalong Neighbourhood Centre (West Wyalong)
  • The many Academics and Practitioners who contributed to the development of the instrument and provided comment on the various drafts of this report.

Getting Started

The study began in October 1995 with exploratory discussions between a small group of academics and practitioners at a Centre for Australian Community Organisations and Management (CACOM) Advisory Committee meeting. The Faculty of Business at UTS provided partial funding for the project in 1995/96 as a research grant.

The conceptual framework and key concepts were clarified by the researchers in the latter part of 1995 and the first half of 1996.

Drafting and Piloting the Questionnaire

A draft questionnaire was developed and was piloted by students at UTS (Sydney) and workers attending community services training sessions in Penrith, Taree and Tamworth (mid 1996).

The final questionnaire included several elements to tap each of the dimensions of:

Attitudes (value of self)
Trust/ perceived safety
Participation in the local community
Personal empowerment
Diversity/ openness
Relations within the workplace
Attitudes to government
Demographic information.

Questionnaires - Out and Back

The questionnaire was finalised and each of the five Neighbourhood Centres involved was asked to obtain completed surveys for a reasonably random sample of 250 people in their community between the ages of 18 and 65.

The Sample

The Centres collected 1211 completed questionnaires from November 1996 to March 1997.

Data Analysis

The questionnaires were analysed independently by both authors using SPSS and Statistica. The goals of the statistical analysis were to:

a) Identify which sets of attitudes, behaviours and knowledge were related to social capital (and which ones were not)

b) Identify the elements of social capital (factors)

c) Identify a good set of questions for future use in measuring social capital in other communities

d) Identify whether or not social capital was correlated with gender and other demographic variables

e) Describe the five communities in terms of the findings from a) to d) above.

The main statistical tool used was Factor Analysis. Factor Analysis tries to identify statistically the underlying dimensions of the set of questions, by locating clusters of questions that are related to each other. See: Measuring Social Capital in Five Communities In NSW, An Analysis for full details of the statistical analysis and study methodology..

3. Principal findings

Some of the principal findings from the study are:

  1. Social capital is an empirical concept.
  2. It is possible to measure social capital in local communities.
  3. There is a generic social capital factor that can be measured.
  4. There are also eight distinct elements that appear to define social capital. They are:
A. Participation in local community
B. Proactivity in a social context
C. Feelings of Trust and Safety
D. Neighbourhood Connections
E. Family and Friends Connections
F. Tolerance of Diversity
G. Value of Life
H. Work Connections

5. Four of the elements are about participation and connections in various arenas:

A. Participation in local community
D. Neighbourhood Connections
E. Family and Friends Connections
H. Work Connections.

6. Four of the elements are the building blocks of social capital:

B. Proactivity in a social context
C. Feelings of Trust and safety
F. Tolerance of Diversity
G. Value of life.

7. Social capital is not generally correlated with the demographic variables such as age, gender, etc. There are some exceptions, for example women are less likely to feel safe in their local communities than men; people with more children are likely to participate more in the local community than those with less children.

8. There are significant differences in levels of social capital between the five communities that were surveyed.

For example, Deniliquin and West Wyalong have higher levels of social capital overall than the other three communities.

4. The Elements of Social Capital

In the study we identified 8 elements of social capital. Some of the questions that contributed to each of the elements are listed below. The questions are included here so you can gain a feel for the content of each of the eight elements.

A. Participation in the Local Community

  1. Do you help out a local group as a volunteer?(16)
  2. Have you attended a local community event in the past 6 months (eg, church fete, school concert, craft exhibition)?(29)
  3. Are you an active member of a local organisation or club (eg, sport, craft, social club)?(31)
  4. Are you on a management committee or organising committee for any local group of or organisation?(44)
  5. In the past 3 years, have you ever joined a local community action to deal with an emergency?(46)

B. Proactivity in a social context

  1. Have you ever picked up other people's rubbish in a public place?(14)
  2. Do you go outside your local community to visit your family?(37)
  3. If you need information to make a life decision, do you know where to find that information?(41)
  4. If you disagree with what everyone else agreed on, would you feel free to speak out?(54)
  5. If you have a dispute with your neighbours (eg, over fences or dogs) are you willing to seek mediation?(56)
  6. At work do you take the initiative to do what needs to be done even if no one asks you to?(65) (This question was only asked of those in paid employment)

C. Feelings of Trust and Safety

  1. Do you feel safe walking down your street after dark? (17)
  2. Do you agree that most people can be trusted? (18)
  3. If someone's car breaks down outside your house, do you invite them into your home to use the phone? (19)
  4. Does your area have a reputation for being a safe place? (24)
  5. Does your local community feel like home?(33)

D. Neighbourhood Connections

  1. Can you get help from friends when you need it? (21)
  2. If you were caring for a child and needed to go out for a while, would you ask a neighbour for help? (26)
  3. Have you visited a neighbour in the past week? (28)
  4. When you go shopping in your local area are you likely to run into friends and acquaintances? (39)
  5. In the past 6 months, have you done a favour for a sick neighbour? (45)

E. Family and Friends Connection

  1. In the past week, how many phone conversations have you had with friends?(34)
  2. How many people did you talk to yesterday?(35)
  3. Over the weekend do you have lunch/dinner with other people outside your household?(36)

F. Tolerance of Diversity

  1. Do you think that multiculturalism makes life in your area better? (57)
  2. Do you enjoy living among people of different life styles? (59)

G. Value of Life

  1. Do you feel valued by society? (1)
  2. If you were to die tomorrow, would you be satisfied with what your life has meant? (3)

H. Work Connections

Note: These questions were only asked of people in paid employment.

  1. Do you feel part of the local geographic community where you work? (61)
  2. Are your workmates also your friends? (62)
  3. Do you feel part of a team at work? (63)

(The numbers in brackets indicate the question number in the original questionnaire.)

5. Practical Uses of the Social Capital Measure

The Social Capital Scale

The social capital scale developed in the study, like all empirically derived scales, is simplistic. That is both its strength and its weakness. Its weakness lies in the fact that no scale can deal adequately with the subtleties and complexities of human life, and what basically refers to the quality of life. It is nonsense to try and reduce the value of connectedness in the life of the community, to a number!

However, its strength lies in just this simplicity. In an economic rationalist world where ideology says "if you can't measure it, you can't manage it" some form of quantitative indicator of social capital is essential. The social capital scale provides just such a reliable and valid indicator of the underlying health of the community (for people who speak English as their first or second language within an Australian cultural context).

The social capital scale is but one simple indicator, and needs to be fleshed out with other, more qualitative methods such as the use of case studies and "thick descriptions" and reference to macro-social indicators such as crime or morbidity rates.


Some of the questions that different groups may wish to consider are:


  1. What are the impacts of policy changes on the social capital in the community?
  2. What are the economic implications of increasing or reducing social capital?
  3. Is the social capital in communities changing over time? Why?

Community Service Providers

  1. Are human services being delivered in such a way that they not only deliver the service but also increase the community's social capital?
  2. To what extent are the current service users connected into the fabric of the community and participating in the local community? How does their connectedness compare with the general level of connectedness in the local community?
  3. Is the social capital in the local community changing over time? Why?
  4. Does community development make a difference to the level of social capital in the community?


  1. Are businesses and other organisation's culture and structures effective both in economic terms and in increasing the social capital in the community?
  2. How can the workplace be changed so the way the workplace works supports the development of social capital?


  1. Are the social capital elements identified in this study culturally specific? Are the questions in the questionnaire culturally specific?

Practical Uses

These general questions can give rise to more specific practical questions. For example:

  1. A community organisation could undertake surveys of the local community every two years to monitor the change in the level of the community's social capital over time.
  2. A community organisation could measure the level of social capital of the local community (or a particular group in the community) before and after the implementation of a major community development project.
  3. A community centre may wish to see how the levels of social capital in the local community compares with other communities, for example, the five communities that have been measured in this study - and so measure the social capital in their community and compare it with the results in this report.
  4. An ethnic community organisation may wish to measure the level of social capital within its community and compare this with the levels of social capital in other communities?
  5. A service provider may wish to measure the social capital in the local community and then compare this with the connectedness of a particular target group the service provider is working with. For example: Are Neighbourhood and Community Centres working with those who are already well connected into the fabric of the community or with those who have little connections (or both)?
  6. An employer may wish to get a before and after measure of the connectedness of its employees in the social fabric of their communities before and after implementing an employee program designed to support the employees in their family and community connections.

In all these situations a questionnaire could be used as one strategy. A sample questionnaire is included in the Reports.

The report Measuring Social Capital in Five Communities: A Practitioners Guide provides the detailed information you would need to measure social capital in the situations above.

The 1997 LCSA Census of Neighbourhood and Community Centres has been designed to start to answer the question:

Are Neighbourhood and Community Centres in NSW working with those who are already well connected into the fabric of the community or with those who have little connections (or both)?

Exploring the answer to this question will help Neighbourhood and Community Centres examine their role in the Community.

The data from the LCSA 1997 Census will be analysed in conjunction with the data from the Study Measuring Social Capital in Five Communities in NSW.

A separate report on the findings from the 1997 LCSA Census will be available by mid-1998 from LCSA Tel: (02) 9211 3644.

6. More Information

The complete write-up of the study is in two reports. Report 1 is titled Measuring Social Capital in Five Communities in NSW: an Analysis (59 pages) and includes the material most likely to be of interest to an academic audience. It is published as a CACOM Working Paper Series (No 41) . It focuses on the conceptual and statistical analysis of the data as a whole. It is available from:
Centre for Australian Community Organisations and Management (CACOM)
University of Technology, Sydney
Kuring-Gai Campus

Report 2 is titled Measuring Social Capital in Five Communities in NSW: A Practitioners Guide (101 pages) and includes the material most likely to be of interest to community workers and government bodies. It is published by Management Alternatives Pty Ltd. The Practitioners Guide focuses on the findings for each of the five communities. It provides sufficient detail for practitioners to measure social capital in their own communities and have comparative data from other communities available in interpreting the results. The full report Measuring Social Capital in Five Communities in NSW A Practitioner's Guide (101pp) is available for on-line purchase and download for A$20.00.

Management Alternatives Pty Ltd
PO Box 181
Coogee, NSW, 2034 Australia.

Others are welcome to use this study, its findings and the questions that we have developed to further our understanding of social capital in our communities. There are many avenues to explore (see for example, the questions in Section 5 above).

We ask of those wishing to use the material, that:

You acknowledge the source of the materials/ questions/ etc that you use.

You send a copy of any findings, reports, etc to both authors.

Paul Bullen,
PO BOX 181, Coogee NSW 2034 Australia
Jenny Onyx, CACOM, UTS,
Box 222, Lindfield NSW 2071 Australia