Trends in Social Capital in Canada

Martin Turcotte

There are two broad approaches within the study of social capital. The first approach regards social capital as an individual resource mainly benefiting the members of social networks. According to this individualist approach, a high level of social capital is defined by (1) strong, reliable personal networks based on reciprocity, that allow individuals to get emotional support, companionship and financial assistance in an emergency, and which are referred to as ‘strong ties’; and (2) extended and diverse networks of acquaintances that provide access to key resources (privileged information, contacts, job opportunities, etc.), and which are referred to as ‘weak ties.’

According to certain proponents of the individualist approach, individuals ‘invest’ in their social relationship networks and draw future benefits from them, even if it is not their main goal. This process is similar to individuals investing in education to increase their human capital, their employability and their long‑term income. The individual benefits of social capital, which are often considered public policy goals, are many, including positive health effects, integration of immigrants into the labour market, and quality of employment and income levels. By definition, this individualist view of social capital underlies the existence of inequalities, since many people are not members of social networks that provide access to the scarcest and most desired resources.

The second approach argues that social capital is a characteristic of communities, whether it is neighbourhoods, cities, regions or countries (Putnam 2000). Despite this more collective approach to understanding social capital, this perspective still considers social networks as the source of social capital, particularly through involvement and participation in the community. Community involvement and social contacts give rise to the standards, values and behaviours that benefit the whole of society. According to this view, one of the fundamental characteristics of communities with a high level of social capital is the tendency of citizens to trust one another—even if they do not know each other—which is referred to as ‘generalized trust.’ In short, even though social capital or ‘generalized trust’ can be the product of the diverse relationships and social contacts between individuals, the emphasis is on the positive effects for society as a whole.

The purpose of this report is not to discuss the various theoretical debates between social capital experts, but rather to illustrate trends in the various indicators and measures identified in previous studies.