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Measurement of Social Capital

There is considerable debate and controversy over the possibility, desirability and practicability of measuring social capital, yet without a measure of the store of social capital, its characteristics and potential remain unknown (Durlauf 2002b[1]; Falk and Harrison 1998[2]).
Measurement attempts are flawed by problems with separating form, source and consequences (Adam and Roncevic 2003[3]; Onyx and Bullen 2001[4]; Sobels et al. 2001[5]). An example is trust, which is commonly seen as a component of social capital. Some authors equate trust with social capital (Fukuyama 1995[6]; Fukuyama 1997[7]), some see trust as a source of social capital (Putnam et al. 1993[8]), some see it as a form of social capital (Coleman 1988[9]), and some see it as a collective asset resulting from social capital construed as a relational asset (Lin 1999[10]). Collier (2002)[11] identified that social capital is difficult, if not impossible to measure directly and that for empirical purposes the use of proxy indicators is necessary. Social capital has constructs that are inherently abstract and require subjective interpretation in their translation into operational measures, that are invariably indirect surrogates of their associated constructs (Grootaert et al. 2002[12]; Narayan and Cassidy 2001[13]). Callahan (1996) supported this, identifying that while it is hard to measure social capital directly, it can be inferred from its powerful effects. The choice of indicators to measure social capital is also guided by the scope of the concept and the breadth of the unit of observation used (Collier 2002)[11]. Social capital is such a complex concept that it is not likely to be represented by any single measure or figure. The multiple dimensions require sets of indicators to be effective (Cox and Caldwell 2000)[14]. Considerations of measurement of social capital inevitably reflect the conceptual debates about social capital itself, in particular, whether social capital can be measured at an individual or community level (Baum and Ziersch 2003)[15].

Measuring social capital clearly has an intrinsic appeal (Inkeles 2000) however, as Fukuyama (2001, p. 12) states, ‘one of the greatest weaknesses of the social capital concept is the absence of consensus on how to measure it’.] The measurement of social capital and the assessment of its contribution are certainly in their infancy (Fox 1997). Daniere, Takahashi et al (2002a) suggested that existing measures of social capital are subject to criticism because researchers often define terms differently and because it is difficult to develop concrete, tangible evidence of social capital that lends itself to quantitative analysis. Durlauf (2002) supported this, positing that many definitions mix functional and causal conceptions of social capital and that causal definitions of social capital are necessary for successful empirical analysis. Paxton (1999) identified the widening gap between the concept of social capital and its measurement. The popularity of the term seems to have encouraged the use of overly-aggregated, heterogeneous indexes (Knack 2002). Due to the abstract nature of social capital and varying definitions, it is often measured inconsistently between studies (Liu and Besser 2003). Previous studies provide little rationale for how their measures of social capital connect to the theoretical definition of social capital (Paxton 1999). Stone (2001) posited that there are insufficient tools for empirical measurement available and this is an area where further research is required despite the extensive work of the Australian Bureau of Statistics (2002), Bullen and Onyx (1998), Lochner, Kawachi et al (1999), Onyx and Bullen (2000) and Stone and Hughes (2002). Cavaye (2004, p. 13) identified the following issues in the measurement of social capital that remain unresolved:

  • A clear understanding of the context and purpose of the measurement of social capital
  • Understanding the limitations of evaluation and measurement, and ensuring that the interpretation of measures is held within these limitations
  • The practical mechanics of gaining community feedback such as community representation and coverage, feedback to communities, use in local decision making, and resourcing measurement
  • Benchmarking vs. measures of incremental change
  • Dealing with qualitative information, diversity, variation and complexity
  • The nature and rigor of indicators
  • The interpretation and use of measurement information
  • How evaluation itself can contribute to fostering social capital.

Fukuyama (2001) posited that producing anything like a believable census of a society’s stock of social capital is a nearly impossible task, since it involves multiplying numbers that are either subjectively estimated or simply non-existent. Measurement of social capital becomes self fulfilling as one tends to find what one is looking for but does not tend to question the path (Inkeles 2000; White 2002). In fact, the concepts usefulness appears to be limited in that it is difficult to operationalise using proxy measures that are distinct from the predicted effects (Falk and Harrison 1998; Krishna 1999; Sobels et al. 2001; Woolcock 1998). This is further supported by Stone (2001, p. viii) who stated that ‘where social capital has been measured to date, it has often been done so using ‘questionable measures’, often designed for other purposes, and without sufficient regard to the theoretical underpinnings of the concept to ensure validity or reliability’. The act of measuring social capital can and probably will affect the stock of capital that is being assessed, which adds further questions to the suitability of attempts to empirically measure social capital (MacGillivray and Walker 2000; Popay 2000).

Grootaert and Van Bastalaer (2002a) on the other hand posited that it is possible to measure social capital and its impact. Onyx and Bullen (2000b) claimed they have developed a reliable and valid measure of social capital one that is relatively easy to apply. Ideal indicators recognize that social capital can be expressed through attitudes and expectations; through reported, recorded and observed actions and activities; and by comparing people’s interpretations of how things happened or are expected to happen (Cox and Caldwell 2000). Ideally, measures of social capital should be thoroughly based on, and tied to, the conceptual framework for the specific study. Cavaye (2004) described the development of consistent frameworks and that there are no best indicators, rather some key characteristics that guide the choice of indicators such as:

  • specificity targeted to the variable to be measured,
  • measurability – ease of measurement,
  • comprehensiveness – measures of a range of social characteristics,
  • reliability and rigor,
  • continuity ability to translate across situations and be consistent in local state or national frameworks.

The challenge is to develop consistent indicators that can allow conclusions to be drawn across local, state and national frameworks (Cavaye 2004).

A report by the Productivity Commission (2003, p. 25) made the following observation about the measurement of social capital:

Like the theoretical literature, the empirical literature is evolving. Because social capital as a concept is relatively new, multifaceted and imprecise, ‘hard data’ on it are not readily available. Inevitably, many early studies have had to rely on rough proxies for social capital and/or have been somewhat experimental. Hence, the results need to be interpreted with care; in most cases they are ‘suggestive’, rather than definitive.

Some authors have applied various indicators of social capital in different contexts. Examples include:

  • trust (Cox and Caldwell 2000; Falk and Guenther 1999; Glaeser et al. 2000; Guenther and Falk 1999; Kolankiewicz 1996);
  • membership (Baum and Ziersch 2003; O’Connell 2003; Price 2002; Warde et al. 2003; Wollebaek and Selle 2003);
  • membership and trust (Lappe et al. 1997; Lochner et al. 2003; Veenstra 2002);
  • membership, trust and norms of reciprocity (Isham et al. 2002; Skrabski et al. 2003; Staveren 2003); and
  • network resources (Zhao 2002).

Grootaert (2001) identified the indicators detailed in table 4 as having all been used in empirical studies.

Table 4. Indicators of social capital (Source: Grootaert 2001)
Horizontal associations
Number and type of associations or local institutions
Extent of membership in local associations
Extent of participatory decision making
Extent of kin homogeneity within the association
Extent of income and occupation homogeneity within the association
Extent of trust in village members and households
Extent of trust in government
Extent of trust in trade unions
Perception of extent of community organization
Reliance on networks of support
Percentage of household income from remittances
Percentage of household expenditure for gifts and transfers
Civil and political society
Index of civil liberties
Percentage of population facing political discrimination
Index of intensity of political discrimination
Percentage of population facing economic discrimination
Index of intensity of economic discrimination
Percentage of population involved in separatist movement
Gastil’s index of political rights
Freedom House index of political freedoms
Index of democracy
Index of corruption
Index of government inefficiency
Strength of democratic institutions
Measure of ‘human liberty
Measure of political stability
Degree of decentralization of government
Voter turnout
Political assassinations
Constitutional government changes
Social integration
Indicator of social mobility
Measure of strength of ‘social tensions’
Ethnolinguistic fragmentation
Riots and protest demonstrations
Homicide rates
Suicide rates
Other crime rates
Prisoners per 100,000 people
Illegitimacy rates
Percentage of single-parent homes
Divorce rate
Youth unemployment rate
Legal and governance aspects
Quality of bureaucracy
Independence of court system
Expropriation and nationalization risk
Repudiation of contracts by government
Contract enforceability
Contract-intensive money

The relative success and appropriateness of these studies depend on the local context under which the indicators were applied but ultimately, as discussed earlier, such measures do not take into account the multi-dimensional nature of social capital and the inherent source, form, consequence problems. Other more multi-dimensional measures have been undertaken, however the problems discussed above have not been overcome. Studies including:

  • Narayan and Princhett (1997) constructed a measure of social capital from a survey of 87 villages in rural Tanzania, which examined social capital and ‘village-level outcomes’;
  • Onyx and Bullen (1997) sought to measure social capital in five localities in New South Wales using a 68-question survey;
  • Barr (1999) used experimental game theory techniques to measure trust and familiarity in selected black communities in Zimbabwe; and
  • Putnam (2000) see figure 10.
Putnam’s indicators of social capital for the United StatesMeasures of community or organizational life:

  • Percentage of individuals who served on a committee of a local organization in the last year (0.88#)
  • Percentage of individuals who served as an officer of some club or organization in the last year (0.83)
  • Civic and social organizations per 1000 population (0.78)
  • Mean number of club meetings attended in the last year (0.78)
  • Mean number of group memberships (0.74)

Measures of engagement in public affairs:

  • Turnout in presidential elections, 1988 and 1992 (0.84)
  • Percentage of individuals who attended public meeting on town or school affairs in last year (0.77)

Measures of community volunteerism:

  • Number of non-profit organizations per 1000 population (0.82)
  • Mean number of times worked on a community project in last year (0.65)
  • Mean number of times did volunteer work last year (0.66)

Measures of informal sociability:

  • Percentage of individuals who agree that ‘I spend a lot of time visiting friends’ (0.73)
  • Mean number of times entertained at home last year (0.67)

Measures of social trust:

  • Percentage of individuals who agree that ‘most people can be trusted’ (0.92)
  • Percentage of individuals who agree that ‘most people are honest’ (0.84)

The figure in brackets indicates the item’s coefficient of correlation with the final constructed measure across the individual states of the United States.

Figure 10. Putnam’s indicators of social capital for the United States

Source:Putnam (2000) cited in Productivity Commission (2003).

As identified in the literature review, and illustrated in the conceptualization, the operationalization of social capital is made difficult by the problem of separating the source, form and consequences. The nature of social capital means that it is necessary to use a proxy or indicator of social capital, as it cannot be directly measured. Past empirical studies have used indicators that relate to the outcomes of social capital. A useful distinction is the classification into proximal and distal groupings. Proximal indicators of social capital are in fact outcomes of social capital related to its core components (networks, trust and reciprocity). Distal indicators are outcomes that are not directly related to its key components and thus may not be valid measures of social capital itself. There is little empirical evidence to support the relationship between indicators and the core components of social capital. This highlights the tautological problem that research reliant upon an outcome of social capital as an indicator of it, will necessarily find social capital to be related to that outcome, without empirical means to explain why, or indeed whether, this is so (see Stone 2001 for further discussion). Social capital can be seen as the structure and quality of social networks. As such, the core dimensions of social capital are seen to be networks of social relations (structure), which are characterized by norms of trust and reciprocity (quality) (refer to table 6).

Table 6. Core dimensions of social capital and their characteristics
Structure of social relations: networks Quality of social relations: norms

Informal / formal

Size / capacity:

Limited / extensive


Household / global


Open / closed

Dense / sparse

Homogenous / heterogeneous


Vertical / horizontal

Norms of trust

  • Social trust
    • Familiar / personal
    • Generalized
  • Civic / institutional trust

Norms of reciprocity

  • In-kind v in lieu
  • Direct v indirect
  • Immediate v delayed

Source: Stone (2001, p. 7)

Stone (2001, p. 6) stated that ‘by linking social capital measurement directly to theoretical understandings of the concept, we are able to: first, recognize that social capital is a multidimensional concept comprising social networks, norms of trust, and norms of reciprocity; second, understand social capital properly as a resource to action; and third, empirically distinguish between social capital and its outcomes’. This provides a sound basis for developing a measurement framework but much work is required to ensure the indicators relate to this theoretical understanding. If we break down one of the core dimensions, social networks, the complexity becomes immediately evident. In table 7, networks are broken into informal and formal and the types evident at the macro level listed. For each of the types listed in the table a series of questions could be developed. However the problem of how they relate to the theoretical understanding remains unresolved. Other problems also become evident. This macro level analysis of social capital is of little use to the majority of studies that investigate social capital at the meso level. This illustrates the context specific nature of suitable social capital measures. Other issues remain unresolved such as spatial and temporal issues, externalities, feedback loops, and the role of chance in shaping both the structure and the outcomes. It is implausible to add bridging capital to bonding capital and subtract perverse social capital.  Thus an amount of social capital should not be sort, not even qualitatively. Instead, social capital should be analysed in terms of a composite of its disparate, yet interrelated, components. Therefore, social capital building initiatives should aim to improve the structure of social capital rather than increase social capital per se.

Table 7. Types of Informal and Formal Networks
Informal networks Formal networks of social relations
Family household

Family beyond the household

Friends / intimates


Non-group based civic relations

  • Good deeds
  • Individual community or political action

Associations / groups based on relationships

  • Antenatal
  • Childcare
  • Education
  • Sport / leisure
  • Music / art
  • Church
  • Charity
  • Voluntary
  • Self help

Work based

  • Colleagues
  • Associations
  • Institutional
  • State

Source: Stone (2001, p. 7)

Natural resource management applications of social capital can involve micro to macro level analysis. The primary level of interest is the meso level as studies focus on the application of social capital theory to an area of common interest: natural resource management. The focus can be on micro individuals; meso – groups of individuals, groups of like groups, groups of natural resource management groups, or national natural resource management groups; or macro societal (refer to figure 11). This situation is further complicated when taking into account various institutions associated with natural resource management, including voluntary, non-government, government and private sector. The structural elements of social capital will be different depending on the level of study, as will be the relationships between determinants, structure, manifestations and levels, even those levels not under investigation.

Social Capital Levels
Figure 11. Levels at which social capital operates within natural resource management.

An important finding for this study is that social capital application to natural resource management must involve a rigorous conceptualization that accounts for the interrelationships and complexity of the concept.  The above discussion highlights the importance of designing the operationalization of social capital specifically to the application context. It is concluded that there is presently no suitable measure of social capital and thus no suitable measure for application to natural resource management. The adoption of an existing measure for use in natural resource management would contribute to the existing problem of measurement not being linked to the theoretical understanding of social capital.

Citing this article

This article is part of a thesis submitted to the University of Queensland, Australia. You should reference this work as:

Claridge, T., 2004. Social Capital and Natural Resource Management: An important role for social capital? Unpublished Thesis, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia.

Download for reference software: BibTeX | EndNote | RefMan


  1. Durlauf, Steven N. 2002b. ‘Symposium on social capital: Introduction.’ The Economic Journal 112: 417-418. ^
  2. Falk, Ian, and Lesley Harrison. 1998. ‘Indicators of Social Capital: social capital as the product of local interactive learning processes.” Pp. 23. Launceston: Centre for Research and Leaning in Regional Australia. ^
  3. Adam, Frane, and Borut Roncevic. 2003. ‘Social Capital: Recent Debates and Research Trends.’ Social Science Information 42: 155-183. ^
  4. Onyx, Jenny, and Paul Bullen. 2001. “The different faces of social capital in NSW Australia.” Pp. 45 – 58 in Social Capital and Participation in Everyday Life, edited by Eric M. Uslaner. London: Routledge. ^
  5. Sobels, Jonathan, Allan Curtis, and Stewart Lockie. 2001. “The role of Landcare group networks in rural Australia: exploring the contribution of social capital.” Journal of Rural Studies 17: 265-276. ^
  6. Fukuyama, Francis. 1995. Trust : the social virtues and the creation of prosperity. London: Hamish Hamilton. ^
  7. Fukuyama, Francis. 1997. ‘Social capital and the modern capitalist economy: Creating a high trust workplace.’ Stern Business Magazine 4. ^
  8. Putnam, Robert D, Robert Leonardi, and Raffaella Y Nanetti. 1993. Making democracy work : civic traditions in modern Italy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. ^
  9. Coleman, James S. 1988. ‘Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital.’ The American Journal of Sociology 94: S95. ^
  10. Lin, Nan. 1999. ‘Social networks and status attainment.’ Annual Review of Sociology 25: 467-487. ^
  11. Collier, Paul. 2002. ‘Social capital and poverty: a microeconomic perspective.’ Pp. 19 – 41 in The Role of Social Capital in Development, edited by Thierry Van Bastelaer. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press. ^
  12. Grootaert, Christiaan, Thierry Van Bastelaer, and World Bank. 2002. Understanding and measuring social capital : a multidisciplinary tool for practitioners. Washington, D.C.: World Bank. ^
  13. Narayan, Deepa, and Michael F. Cassidy. 2001. “A dimensional approach to measuring social capital: development and validation of a social capital inventory.” Current Sociology 49: 59-102. ^
  14. Cox, Eva, and Peter Caldwell. 2000. ‘Making policy social.’ Pp. 43 – 73 in Social capital and public policy in Australia, edited by Ian Winter. Melbourne: National Library of Australia. ^
  15. Baum, FE, and AM Ziersch. 2003. ‘Social Capital.’ Journal of Epidemiology Community Health 57: 320-3. ^

23 Responses

  1. What are the weights for Putnam’s Index and how it was calculated? Moreover, what are the data sources used?

  2. Dear Tristan
    Thank you for a great overview of the literature on measuring social capital and many other brilliant perspectives on this interesting theory.
    I am a Phd student working with a paper on evaluating whether a policy intervention for spurring rural development in EU also leads to an increase in SC. I am thereby looking at an isolated event and doing an evaluation study on this. I have had difficulties in finding similar studies, where the point of departure is measuring SC on a single intervention. Usually what is being measured is the entire stock of SC in a country, community, school etc but never as an evaluation. Are you familiar with any studies that apply this programme/project evaluative approach? Or perhaps you are familiar with discussions on why this haven’t been done?

    Thank you in advance,

    KR Kasper from Denmark

  3. Thanks for your questions Kasper. I think the best way to do it is to use a thorough conceptualisation of social capital to inform an evaluation of the change of the various characteristics (or structure) of social capital as a result of intervention.

    In different contexts different characteristics are important and these are best identified by the individuals immersed in the context.

    The end result will not necessarily be a ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ change in social capital but changes in the structure of social capital. For example, an increase of bridging relationships with enhanced feelings of belonging. The manifestations of which may be positive or negative.

    Good luck with your project.

  4. Fab website and great to see the discussions mirroring my predicaments of assessing SC benefits to an impact report on the charity where I am currently CEO. ( I am also doing my Dissertation (like Kasper) with the data collected from the 55 groups mainly across Africa and Asia.
    Assessing the interventions and the impact s/m term should be enlightening? Any thoughts appreciated. PS bad luck in RWC today! Andy Berry

  5. Hi Tristan,

    The work you have done on the subject is impressive, well done! I am myself in the process of writing my master thesis and am struggling very much with the application of social capital to the case under study. Your informations are of great help. Thank you so much for making it available!

    I have a question, as I intend to reference your work in my own and would like to be able to reply to any question from the censors: what does it mean that your thesis is unpublished? In my school – if the thesis isn’t confidential – anybody can have access to its content on the Internet, after it has been defended, which is a form of publication. Hence my question.

    Thank you and all the best in the future.

    Nathalie from Denmark

  6. Thanks Tristan for this in-depth overview. Having focused my work on social support and social networks, I wanted to see how it intersects with social capital. And you have given me a good starting place. Now I need to find updates to learn where the thinking is now on social capital since your work in 2004. Any good leads?

    1. Hi Altrena. There has been a huge amount of work done on social capital in the last 9 years since my work was completed. Overall I think the field still has many of the same problems it did in 2004 with a lot of research being published with little rigour. I can’t suggest a recent source that compares to my previous work.

      Perhaps someone else can make some suggestions here?

  7. Can someone simplify step by step as to how Social Capital assessment can be summarized in report. I mean how to do statistical or other calculations???

  8. Pingback: Sustainability Thoughts & Theories, Week Two | SIGMAISM
  9. Great website, thank you!
    I am not a researcher, I am an entrepreneur and quiet activist and very interested in the concept of Social Capital because it closely matches my personal experience. Regarding measurement of Social Capital, has anyone looked at measuring the number, strength, dispersal, diversity, geography, demography etc of people’s relationships to provide an index which could be correlated with all the measures listed above?

    1. Thanks Emma. The approach you describe is similar to the network approach which conceptualises social capital based on the factors you mention. The criticism of this approach is that it doesn’t take into account the norms of trust and norms of reciprocity.

  10. Dear Tristan,

    My background is more business than psychology. So, your website is very interesting and helps me a lot in understanding social capital.
    I understand that measuring social capital on the three dimensions is still quite a challenge. So I would like to start with an exercise to evaluate till what extend social capital (on a more agregated level) is already present within the organisation.
    So here is my question : what questionaire would you recommend to use ?

    Thank you in advance!

    1. There is no easy answer to that question. Most scholars agree that social capital measurement depends on context. I recently did a review of 172 quantitative peer-reviewed publications on social capital and found they cited 124 different instruments, with many including items from multiple different instruments to suit their context. This would suggest you should construct an instrument based on your conceptual framework that is sensitive to your research context.

      1. Hi Tristan,
        I’m PhD student of planning. I’m working on social capital as a part of my PhD’s thesis. Do you have any achieved version of those peer-reviewed publications that you mentioned above? It would be really useful for me.

        1. Hi Atefe, unfortunately, we cannot make available any copyrighted materials. You may be able to find them on Google Scholar or through any literature databases you have access to.

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