Social policy is challenging work for governments and their agencies. One reason it is so difficult is that there is a great deal we still don’t know about the social structures in our ever-changing communities. Social capital is one key aspect of these structures and reflects the interactions of our social and organizational networks around perceptions of trust, belonging and choice. In the challenging environment of public policy debates about budgets and resource allocation, decisions about what is good for people and communities are made without complete knowledge of how those decisions will affect people. This is in part due to the very complex nature of the social structures that shape the lives of citizens.

Because public policy is undertaken on behalf of all citizens, we must do whatever possible to narrow this knowledge gap. National surveys such as the Spirited Citizenship poll by the Angus Reid Institute have explored one aspect of social policy that can be particularly challenging: religious belief and practice in Canada. The insight gained helps decision-makers understand what Canadians believe, how they behave as a result of those beliefs and what they think of other Canadians who may believe differently. This knowledge is essential, but we must not stop at a national survey. The social lives of Canadians are more complex than a poll can reveal.

One source of insight about the relational patterns of Canadians, which is the very fabric that social policy seeks to attend to, can be found in the study of what is sometimes referred to as “social capital.” Unlike financial capital, social capital is a resource that exists through the relationships that we have with each other, the groups we are part of and the organizations that shape us. The degree to which we trust and are trusted in this web of relations constitutes our relational resources, or social capital. The good news is that research on social capital is abundant.

In 2014 I undertook a systematic review in the Web of Science database of academic papers with social capital themes, among the 57 million sources that it contained at the time. This systematic review, while not exhaustive, returned 9,164 academic papers, books and conference proceedings and is instructive regarding the scope, scale and nature of research on the cluster of phenomena we refer to as “social capital.” A significant amount of academic interest is reflected in that summary. Fast-forward to today, and my latest search reveals that the Web of Science database now contains 100 million records, and a search for “social capital” returns nearly 14,000 sources.

However, a great deal of this insight about social resources in our communities remains locked in these kinds of databases of academic papers instead of being actively circulated in social policy circles. I published a report in 2014 that identified a gap in Canadian social policy. Social capital research and interest in Canada was strong up to 2004 but then lost traction in policy circles.

Although academic researchers have been very actively exploring social capital across a wide range of disciplines, policy-makers have been less active in making use of this work. The time is right to attend to that gap between research and its application in programs and public investment strategies on social capital.

Toward that end, I suggest there are three core questions we must ask whose answers may nudge policy-makers to make better use of academic sources of social capital research.

The first question we must ask is where common-good resources are produced in our communities. Science and knowledge generation require clear and compelling questions. These include consideration of the rich social dynamics of people — as individuals and as the “us” that make up the families, groups, communities and cities we are part of: the relational interactions that contribute to the social infrastructure of our civic life.

The terms in the existing research and in policy related to these common-good activities include connectivity, engagement, belonging, learning, collaboration, meaning, service, care, creativity and innovation. It is vital that social capital is included and drawn on in social policy. This consideration must scale from the individual to the “we” of our various social ties.

The theme of the Angus Reid poll was religious belief and practice. In keeping with that theme, the Cardus Halo Calculator drew on research into the economic impact of local faith communities. The results reflect how work at the community level produces large common-good dividends. There is a great deal more work to do if we are to understand, even descriptively, how this works, but carrying out this work is one way that social capital research can be applied to specific institutional contexts in our communities. Social capital research examines our social resources: how connected we are to other people and institutions and whether we have enough connections, whether those connections benefit us and how, and how they are changing over time. For example, there is growing recognition that social isolation is increasing. Greater social isolation has been linked to premature death and a range of negative health effects. Those effects translate into greater demand on the health budgets in an era when that particular system is under considerable strain.

The second question is how the organizational or institutional settings that produce and sustain these relational common goods actually work. While observation can help us understand where these common goods come from, we must sharpen our understanding of how common-good social resources decline, change and — hopefully — grow.

The Toronto urbanist Jane Jacobs taught us how our biases about the economic health of a community can lead to false assessments. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she writes that North Boston had an intricate and fully functioning social ecology, despite its economic deprivation. She observed those dynamics at a local level, on foot. In contrast, her municipal planner friend, who knew the area only by maps and drive-by glances, concluded it was in a dire state and needed rehabilitation. Jacobs had to convince him to take another look. Social resources can exist in places that aren’t new or polished, and it can be absent in places that appear to be successful in every other way. Social capital research helps us understand that social poverty might not neatly follow economic curves.

The third question is how the groups, organizations and institutions that produce these civil society relational goods can be encouraged to continue to provide common-good resources to their communities. We also need to better understand how new and potentially different forms of collective activity can be established and grown so as to encourage a more fully functioning society. We know from the 2013 Canadian General Social Survey that behaviours like donating time and money to others often arise from collective practices and attitudes: people who are part of religious groups or are active in their communities donate more than those who are not so involved. New research suggests that the collective aspect is key, since atheists who are active are also significantly more committed in giving time and money, albeit not to religious organizations.

It may well be that in order to create effective policy for boosting community development, improving health factors and deepening civic engagement, we need to understand how to reproduce the appropriate organizations and institutions.

While the study of social capital is not, of itself, a golden path through difficult policy puzzles, it is clear that in the acquisition of social capital, something very important takes place among us, something we hold in common that has neither mass nor dimension. Our future well-being requires us to better understand how we can draw on, conserve or invest this social capital as our communication, employment and family patterns change. National surveys can provide an overall picture but we will also need to continue to invest in understanding changes at a much more local level, because this is the scale at which we actually live our lives.

The late Nobel-Prize-winning economist of the commons, Elinor Ostrom, once observed that most governance textbooks are oriented to the national level, while most common-good formation is local. She advised that we find ways to allow more granular, community-level social norms to inform policy. Making high-level national decisions without community engagement, she argued, can result in “imposing sanctions and inducements [that] can crowd out the formation of social norms that can enhance cooperative behaviour in their own way.” Policies that are well intentioned but that displace the intricate labyrinths of human behaviour cannot achieve their desired ends.

This article follows from a November round table in Ottawa titled “Spirited Citizenship: Care, Conflict, and Virtue,” a joint Cardus/Angus Reid Institute initiative to mark Canada’s sesquicentennial.

Photo: Shutterstock, by aelitta.

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Milton Friesen
Milton Friesen, a former municipal councillor, directs the Social Cities Program at the public policy think tank Cardus.

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