Community Social Capital Research

For the past two years, the PIFSC Human Dimensions Research Program has been engaged in a project to develop a method to rapidly assess community social capital and measure federal agency social capital within the community. The project has been undertaken through an interagency agreement with the U.S. Forest Service, so the focus has been on forest-associated communities. However, the results are equally applicable to coastal communities and fishing communities. Initial assessment procedures were pilot-tested in seven communities, after which the measures were refined. A final report describing the procedures will be available this summer.

Social capital refers to the connections within and between social networks of people. It is one of the resources available to community residents that can help a community thrive and achieve or maintain resiliency. The other types of capital include human capital (the skills and abilities of individuals in the community), natural capital (which comes from the lands and waters within and around the community), and built capital (a community's infrastructure such as water, sewer, road, electrical, educational, and health care systems). Some frameworks add other types of capital such as cultural, political, or financial capital.

Social capital is unique in that it stems from the number and types of relationships present in the community and from the accepted norms that guide these relationships, such as trust and reciprocity. It’s about the ties between people in the community and how people work together to achieve desired community conditions, sometimes referred to as collective actions.

Federal land and water managing agencies are interested in social capital because social capital in a community can be affected—positively or negatively—by regulatory actions and allocations. In addition, an agency’s own social capital in a community can help to determine its ability to get work done, and to have its actions be socially acceptable to residents.

In Hawaii, researchers are proposing to study the Hawaii-based longline fleet to assess the relationship between the fleet’s social capital and its economic performance. Social capital will be measured by the number and strength of relationships and social networks. Similarly, researchers in New England are studying social capital in newly-formed fisheries sectors to assess whether sectors having greater levels of social capital are more successful in reaching their objectives.

The method developed by PIFSC researchers to assess social capital in a community has several components. The first is to complete a checklist of community characteristics and community conditions. The second is to hold a community workshop, where participants discuss two scenarios that illustrate the level and types of social capital present and complete rating sheets that generalize the scenario findings. Results are then summarized and reported back to the community.

Armed with these new data, management agencies and the community have a starting point for working together on difficult natural resource issues in ways that will build or reinforce social capital. The result should be increased trust among participants, an increased ability to work collectively, and outcomes that will be more acceptable.